The internet was supposed to be the great democratizer. It was supposed to be a place to find all sides of a story, where every voice is heard. Instead we’ve fallen into ideological bubbles of our own creation, otherwise known as Echo Chambers:
An Echo Chamber is just what it sounds like, only digital. It’s a bubble you’ve created for yourself online where the only things you hear are your own preferences and ideas (or very similar ones) bounced back at you.
I’ll explain how these work.
The internet is impossibly large. Just a quick look at this site will make it abundantly clear how difficult it is to even scratch the surface. This means in order to avoid information overload, many companies like Google and Facebook have adopted a method of sifting out content you want to see via algorithms. Essentially as the algorithm learns your likes and preferences it becomes adept at showing content that you’re more likely to enjoy.
That’s the first step in building your very own Echo Chamber.
The second step is your fault. Everywhere you have a social profile online, they’ve probably pestered you about your hobbies, past work, marital status etc… and you’ve likely given them that information. This data serves two purposes:
1st: So they can give that data to advertisers (Remember: if the service is free, it’s because YOU’RE the product.)
2nd: So that they can make recommendations to you about how to connect with others. “Find more friends.” or “Oh look! We’ve found a page that’s dedicated to puppies licking ice cream cones. You told us you like both puppies AND ice cream! Join the conversation here!”
And this makes sense for companies built on connecting people. We are naturally attracted to like-minded individuals, and at this point it’s almost surprising if you haven’t made genuine friendships online. But it also means you might be locked into an Echo Chamber.
To explain, we’ll use politics:
Let’s say, for a moment, that you’re a republican. Not a “I hug my gun every morning while eating steak and eggs for breakfast – hold the eggs” republican. But a moderate republican. You agree with most of what the party does, but you’re not about to make blind judgments based solely on party-lines.
Now when you put yourself online and begin to connect with others, 3 things are going to happen.
1st: The algorithms will pretty quickly pick up on your preferences, and start tossing content your way that agrees with your ideas.
2nd: There such a flood of information online, that most content (especially the political stuff) comes across as more extreme than your opinions (the ‘outrageous’ and contentious content just gets more hits.) So, the much of the content you see will be more republican-y than you are. As this continues, you stop seeing it as extreme and begin to view it as the norm.
3rd: Because your brain is lazy (read: “efficient”), when it’s presented with new information it doesn’t like to spend a lot of effort trying to make it fit into your worldview. So instead of thinking critically about new information, usually it will process it effortlessly by saying, “We’ve already made a decision on kinda-similar info before. Just toss it in with the rest of that stuff.”
In other words, you’ll begin to slowly shift your idea of “moderate” towards the extreme as you are continually presented with only one side of the story.
The cycle continues as marketers begin to see patterns in the data (Just for example: data shows conservatives love Chic-Fil-A and liberals are all about that California Pizza Kitchen). Advertisers then begin to target their ads specifically to one side or the other. Which leads to more lines being drawn in the sand.
Eventually, all of this leads to what we can clearly see today. Two very rabid political parties that simply cannot see eye-to-eye. Both sitting in their corner of the web yelling crass memes about the other that bounce endlessly back at themselves.
Two countries in one nation.
None of this would matter of course, except this is America and we’re supposed to be a democracy. You know, “We the People…” and all that jazz? How on earth can we expect to get anything done if we’ve become so divided that we cannot bear the thought of conversation with the other side?
Just because you don’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, even big things, doesn’t mean you can’t still work together.
This past week, The LDS Church donated to the Utah Pride Center to help with their homeless outreach program.
Anyone even vaguely familiar with these two organizations can tell you this is a HUGE example of different ideologies coming together for a common purpose.
You guys, this is OUR America. Yours and mine. For better or worse we’re here together, and I think we’d all do well to burst that echo chamber once in awhile to seek some common ground.