Some Thoughts On Echo Chambers

There’s been more acknowledgement in the last few years of “echo chambers” in media (particularly following the 2016 presidential election). The idea being that we are all living in separate ‘closed systems’ that reinforce and amplify our ideas and beliefs.

Take for example: I think you’ll struggle to find a person working at Tesla who doesn’t believe that the electric car is the way of the future, while there are many people outside the organization that don’t think it’ll ever be adopted by mass markets. Employees that work at Tesla will rarely if ever come into contact with people that discount the work they are doing, and thus, forms an echo chamber.

Echo chambers exist for almost every vertical of the mind you can imagine.

Everything you believe is a result of what you’ve been exposed to, and by extension, what you have not been exposed to that might alter or disrupt your beliefs.

As I am working to become less and less ignorant (reverse: more and more informed), I have been trying to understand the echo chambers to a greater degree. I’ve identified three major forces that seem to contribute to the echo, rather than disrupt it that I’ve become particularly interested in.

Read on if you’d like and let me know what you think…

Social Media

Social media platforms - Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram - are designed to capture as much of your attention as possible. This means, they have to play off of your implicit biases, feeding you information that you want to see. Now, what you think you ‘want’ may be different than what these platforms have determined you want based off the metrics they have in place to measure your activity (time spent on certain pages, search history, likes, comments, etc.).

Human beings are biased to engage with articles, posts, pictures, and photographs that make them angry. (See: the virality of anger.)

If you are a staunch conservative, you may see a lot of articles spinning leftist viewpoints in a manner that makes you audibly go: “MHMMM that’s right.” On the counter, if you are a liberal with leftist viewpoints, you may see more articles and photographs about how people are being treated poorly, about how Trump is ruining the world than your conservative counterparts.

[Please note: according to FiveThirtyEight, a well respected political forecasting blog, 41% of Americans are in support of The President. That’s fairly low, but not as low as some people I know think it is (based on their echo chambers).]

There is no longer a decentralization of knowledge on the internet, which there may have been back in the early-2000s when blogs ruled. Now, everything is fed to you through a stream, based on a company’s understanding of your likes and dislikes. This creates a unique echo chamber, filled with all sorts of things that’ll make you angry.

I’ve heard the social media profitability model called the “algorithmic attention economy.” That’s a brilliant (and terrifying) name for it.

Social Circle Conformism 

A self-identified socialist that lives in the oil fields of North Dakota is having a completely different experience than a self-identified socialist in the mountains of Vermont. They hold the same truths to be self-evident, but the path they had to follow to get there was different. 

Vermont is a blue state that teeters on the extreme ends of modern liberalism. North Dakota is a red state that teeters the opposite way. The man in Vermont is not so far out of line with his peers, while the woman in North Dakota might be. She’s what we might call a ‘contrarian’ or a ‘rebel.’

For most of us, our beliefs converge with the people we spend time with. That’s why Jim Rohn (“you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”) is so often quoted. As I led onto above (see: social media), this extends beyond just the people you talk to, but also bleeds into the books you read, the podcasts you listen to, the people who show up on your newsfeed.

Behavioral economists might tell you that conformism - in addition to the social capital it provides - is also the result of our implicit biases playing out. [Confirmation bias. Recency bias. Familiarity bias. Etc. This would be right, as well.]

To expand our minds, we must expand the spheres we associate in and question our implicit biases. Yet, by definition, we can’t barely see them.

Lack of Vulnerability

Sometimes, we don’t agree with the people around us. They say things that strike us as wrong (or confusing) but don’t know how to question what they’re saying in a polite manner. The problem is that - given the ideological climate today - many people have not found a space to have intellectual debate or ask politically incorrect questions.

I’ll be the first to tell you how ignorant I am. I’ll also be the first to tell you how hard I’m working to expand my worldview and empathize with perspectives other than my own. I’m blessed to have a handful of friends - with different background than mine - that I can ask ignorant and stupid questions. They don’t put me down; they help me learn.

Stepping out of your own echo chambers requires vulnerability. There are certain opinions, questions, and curiosities we each hold that we aren’t too excited to share or have tested in the public eye. But this fear, this lack of vulnerability, limits the amount we can grow and learn. We need to be more curious and comfortable with being wrong. And when given the chance on the flip side, we need to be a bit more understanding of people who are trying to learn.

Kate WardComment