From a young age, we are encouraged to surround ourselves with like-minded souls, to create a tribe of people determined to reach similar destinations. This wisdom is rooted in the power of association. The assumption is that our futures are, in large part, determined by the people we choose to surround us.
The wisdom is part associational and part motivational. To an extent the people who surround you influence you; but the people you decide to surround you says a lot about your self-perception. It’s a feedback loop. The people around you reinforce your beliefs and assumptions, which then reinforces your social affiliation and so on.
“When all think alike, then no one is thinking.” – Walter Lippmann
This feedback can unsuspectingly lock you in a way of behaving, seeing the world, or conceiving of your future. Those are a few of the many dangers of so-called echo chambers. Online ecosystems algorithmically and personally made of shared opinions. In the process, we become inured in agreement and intolerant to disagreement.
Rarely do users deliberately challenge their preconceived notions, pressing against the walls of the chamber. For those who do, platforms like Reddit and Tumblr are big. For example, the subreddit, /r/change my view, is expressly designed to help users put cracks in their chamber.
The design is simple. Users are invited to share their beliefs about a topic, and the Reddit community offers a different viewpoint. The format encourages debate, forces users to articulate their views, and cultivates openness and reciprocity in a curated space.
Similarly, the Echo Chamber Club proffers subscribers newsletters with an assortment of viewpoints on trending topics. The founder, Alice Thwaite, is wary of personalized articles automated via an algorithm. Content that is designed to self-affirm may feel good, yet it stimulates little growth and development. The goal is to inform readers so they can develop nuanced and individually compelling opinions.
Some people refer to the chamber as a bubble. Whatever the vernacular, the outcome is the same. A self-contained, semipermeable ecosystem that selects for confirmatory information and filters out disconfirmatory information. The Google Chrome extension, Escape Your Bubble, was created to periodically pop the bubble. The extension injects your Facebook News Feed with news stories that challenge your political views after analyzing your leanings based on your reading habits.
And trust me, we all think we are more open than we actually are. It is easy to moralize, rationalizing that so-and-so deserved our vitriol, or justifying a tongue lashing as healthy public discourse. So be it. Even if you are a paragon of equanimity and openness, you could always be better. Maintenance is crucial.
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein
The echo chamber is a human-made structure. It does not just keep out information. It keeps out people. It shuns lived experiences. It circumscribes right and wrong. It fills with fumes of ignorance that plunge us further into sleepiness, dulling our minds, hindering comprehension.
For all the admonishment hurled at the likes of Facebook, shouldn’t we reserve a tempered dose for our selves? Fake news, post-truth, and alternative facts are social phenomena amplified by the effluence of our unchecked timelines.
In this day and age, misinformation is in part a choice. Surely we cannot verify all that we can consume. There is deference to authority that cannot go unacknowledged. However, when we repost unthinkingly, read passively, or allow our newsfeed to stagnate in mutually reinforcing evidence, we construct a version of the world at odds with reality. We construct falsity.
Our world is not black and white. It is not simple. It’s infinitely complex and intricate. There are no easy explanations. There are easy indictments and displacements of responsibility.
Amidst all the confusion and uncertainty, we sometimes become unmoored. If we can meet someone in the middle, then that, my friends, is progress.