Amplifying Obsessions or Informing Thoughts?

Crying Angel BoyInformation technology has morphed into social media and become an essential tool for many of us. Is it amplifying our obsessions or informing our thoughts? Perhaps it’s a matter of perspective – and thus, a bit of both. It can bring informed thinking about matters of health, wellness, and social progress. Or it can fuel a fixation on buccal fat and the business of removing it.

Buccal Fat?

That’s right. In the past week, with the help of Tik Tok, the fat pads in our cheeks have become an obsession. A look at Google Trends tells us that interest in buccal fat extraction, which has been growing for the last five years, has soared in the past week.

This purely cosmetic procedure has gained relevance for “public-facing people” who want to show their cheekbones. It involves removing a small fat pad from a person’s cheek. Plastic surgeon Andrew Jacono explains:

“Buccal fat is one of the deep facial fat compartments that kind of give structure to the cheek area. We’re born with how much we have.”

Social Media Contagion

Contagion of information on social media is a subject of study through more than mere observations. Bjarke Mønsted and colleagues showed us how five years ago with a novel experiment using Twitter bots. With the application of Bayesian statistical models, they demonstrated that the process of information diffusion is complex – requiring multiple exposures to an idea from multiple sources. Simple exposure from one source is inadequate.

Information technology and social media make it possible to consume information about a hot new idea from multiple sources in high volumes. They also made it possible for porn bots in China to drown out concerns about the country’s zero COVID policy.

But caution is essential. Just as you are what you eat, the information we consume shapes the people we become. We can disappear down a rabbit hole of misinformation and conspiracy theories. Or we can start thinking about important opportunities for progress.

Our guess is that this week’s obsession with buccal fat will have a short half-life. Social media will move on to amplifying other obsessions.

Click here for more on the buccal fat obsession and here for the Mønsted study of social media contagion.

Crying Angel Boy, drawing by Albrecht Dürer / WikiArt

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December 20, 2022