The Law of the Echo Chamber

A photographer reflected in multiple mirrors

Recently — far more recently than you think — I was at the supermarket, wearing a Google shirt. The bagger told me that he knew that site, that he used it once a week. The cashier was unfamiliar with Google, however.

My jaw didn’t quite drop. I use Google multiple times a day, and for a lot more than its search engine. I know that there are plenty of people who don’t use the web to the degree that I do (although, if you’re reading this post, you probably don’t fit into that category) and that much of what I write about is of an interest to only a select little group of people out of the seven billion or so wandering around on this planet.

I had still been working on the assumption that Google is something that just about everyone in the US had at least heard about. That’s the power of the echo chamber. Everyone I normally interact with uses Google (or at least has a very extensive opinion about why he doesn’t use any of the company’s tools), so I assume that knowledge of Google is commonplace. But practically all of my friends are very tech-savvy; my husband even worked for Google.

If all of my friends worked in agriculture, I’d probably be surprised when anyone didn’t know the name of Case IH.

The Opinions of the Community

But shared knowledge isn’t the bedrock of the echo chamber — shared opinion. The opinions of a given community are practically gospel within that community. Take Hacker News: it’s routine, at this point, for users to bash the concept of most content management systems. (This thread is an example; it was originally titled ‘Are content management systems dead?’) There have also been numerous examples of static blog tools published recently, an approach that doesn’t require a content mangement system to publish posts.

It is a given in this community that you have the technical skills to work without a content management system. And, since that’s true, why should they see much value in such a tool?

But the moment that you switch from Hacker News to WordPress.com’s forums, content management systems (particularly WordPress) are the greatest thing since sliced bread. What holds true at a fundamental level changes. It’s not quite to the point where you couldn’t convince someone from the other side to take your point seriously, but doing so would still be no small matter. You would be going against the community and all of its reinforcements for a particular opinion.

The Spread of Inaccurate Information

Unfortunately the nature of the echo chamber makes it very easy to spread inaccurate information. When you’re getting your news and opinions from a community, it just takes a few people posting the wrong information for it to become God’s own truth. And given how information spreads, from person to person, we’re looking at a giant online game of telephone.

Some people have found ways to do this sort of twiddling with the truth of things on purpose. If you can get the same story out on multiple media channels, particularly the ones that you know the community you’re focused on follow closely, you can make something relatively true. And if you happen to control multiple blogs, Twitter feeds or other platforms, getting something out there isn’t that hard. Now, these situations may not be malevolent. The success of Jeff Walker’s Product Launch Formula is an example. This online marketing course has been heralded as the best within online marketing circles and on all the big name blogs in that category. This approach is what provides juice to reviews and testimonials.

Side note: the game of telephone used to be called ‘Chinese whispers.’ The name reflects how confusing and different Westerners found Chinese culture. There are cases of the word ‘Chinese’ being used historically to mean ‘confusing.’ Sure, it’s offensive to use and we should all work towards an appreciation of other cultures, but it’s an important lesson to learn: we get so used to the people and culture we spend most of our time in that anything outside of our experiences will be, by definition, harder to understand. Even the most open of people face such a situation and need to take it into account.

Echo Chambers are Good, Bad, Indifferent

We talk about echo chambers as if they’re bad. But that’s an oversimplification. It’s a part of human nature, and like every other part of human nature, it can be bad, good or entirely indifferent. Few people have the time and ability to think critically about their information sources, at least beyond a basic level, let alone to go after bringing in information from multiple communities on an ongoing basis. It’s just too much when you’ve got work and a life and things to do beside nerd out on communications theory.

Rather, recognizing that there are other opinions on a given topic, like the value of a content management system is more than enough to keep me happy.

For those of us with the resources and desires to dive deeper, reading widely is the first step to combating the impact of the echo chamber. Playing devil’s advocate on occasion is nice, but not absolutely necessary, unless you truly have a dissenting opinion.

If you create anything — if you’re a writer, a filmmaker, a painter, a web developer — try to stretch out your wings just a little further. I’d love to see people make a pledge to only use the impact of the echo chamber for good (or at least only to sell something they truly believe in), but I’m a realist. What I consider good won’t match the good of someone in an entirely different community. I can’t be the arbiter of good across multiple communities and I don’t think anyone else can either. So I’ll settle for seeing the people who do the heavy lifting for their communities by creating new things take a few steps beyond what they normally do.

If You Want to Break Out

I devote a fair amount of my time to just reading information — blog posts, Wikipedia pages, novels and the back of cereal boxes — in order to see as many different opinions as I can. But I don’t think I’m a good role model. I court information overload on purpose. Some day, I’m sure that it’ll drive me nuts. But there are non-insanity inducing options.

Get away from the filter bubble. The echo chamber is compounded by the internet’s desire to be helpful: sites like Google and Facebook use algorithms to show you information (like search results or posts from your friends) that will be the most interesting or relevant to you. The filter bubble reinforces the echo chamber, often without us even realizing it. If you want to make sure that you’re getting a little more diversity, make the effort to go around it. I’ll often conduct my searches in an incognito window. The differences can be astounding.

Take reading (or other content consumption) advice from people who you have nothing in common with. Sometimes this approach can go horribly wrong. It turns out that there are some incredibly poorly written things out there that some people still adore. Keep at it anyhow. If you hate what’s recommended, spend some time figuring out why.

Write, or otherwise create, something research-intensive. This suggestion represents a bit of a shift for me. I’ve earned a fair amount of money writing exactly what different communities want to hear: I can pound out a five-hundred blog post with almost no research that will please any community I’m already familiar with. But while I don’t feel badly about it, it does get to feeling a bit bland. It’s like eating corn flakes every day, when there’s bacon and eggs in the house, if only I would go look for it. Not everything can be an intensively researched piece, just like we can’t make bacon and eggs for every meal. But when you have the time, that bacon can taste so very good. (Vegetarians, please feel free to substitute the meat-free option that gets you excited.)

My personal echo chamber

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about echo chambers lately because I want to understand why we value different information. There are certain opinions that I take as a given, that many of the people I need to sell to don’t. I put a lot of value on writing about certain subjects, that isn’t reflected on the readership rates. I’m okay with that as long as I still keep bringing in money, but I want to understand why!

I’d like to think that I’m fairly savvy about recognizing where my information comes from and how it’s reinforced. I may still believe some things based on the echo chamber, but if I can be aware of that, it’s not such a bad thing.

Image by Flickr user David Goehring

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Tinu December 8, 2012 at 8:19 pm

The solution for me was pretty simple – start making a point to interact with people in other communities, Especially ones that are the polar opposite of the one I like the best. It’s actually on my calendar for Friday appointments.

It doesn’t complete liberate my mind – and I’m not the best example, as I’ve pretty much based my life and career on completely changing my mind on some aspect of how I live about every three years.

But it does make for some eye-opening changes. Great idea about searching in incognito windows or tabs. Context-less, logged out, location-free searches are illuminating, I agree.

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thursday December 9, 2012 at 1:43 pm

Changing your mind dramatically sounds healthy to me — it guarantees that you get a different perspective very regularly. It sure speeds up personal evolution, at the very least!

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