I'm going to put forth a hypothesis:
Echo Chambers are not a bad thing… they're actually pretty fantastic.
At first blush, that seems silly. Echo Chambers, by definition, limit our exposure to ideas different from those we already have. They, in theory, limit our personal growth.
Which does make a certain amount of sense! If we only talk to people who already think the same way we do – on any particular set of topics – it seems that we would be far less likely to consider (or, certainly, be exposed to) competing ideas.
One of the biggest, most expansive, attempts to create an un-Echo-Chamber is Twitter. Within Twitter, assuming you use the default settings for the Social Media network, every other Twitter user can see – and respond to – anything you write. The more popular and wide-spread any one of your Twitter posts becomes, the more likely it is that your ideas are being exposed to others… and the more likely it is that people will respond to your post, thus exposing you to their ideas as well.
When it is described that way, it sounds kind of wonderful!
There's just one problem…
This sort of un-Echo-Chamber is, in practice, a horrifying hell-scape of horrible horrors.
Allow me to expand upon that.
The Negativity Bias
Negativity Bias: the notion that, even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one's psychological state and processes than neutral or positive things.
There are two key ways in which Negativity Bias has a profound impact on any un-Echo-Chamber.
The first is something that every public personality has experienced more times than they can count: People are roughly One Bazillion times more likely to complain about something than they are to praise you for that same thing.
A piece of software. A movie. A book. Or even a little tiny Tweet.
If 100 people see / read / use the thing you made, and 90% of the people absolutely love it… you're still likely to hear more negative feedback about it than possitive. Just the way it works. Anyone who's read the comment section of a YouTube video knows exactly what I'm talking about.
It's human nature to be impacted more heavily by negative things than positive. And humans are far more likely to lash out based on negative feelings than to praise someone based on positive feelings.
The second way Negativity Bias hits us is, likewise, rather obvious.
Those negative comments? They have an impact on you when you read them. Especially when those negative comments are directed at you (or someone or something you like)… but even when simply direct at others. All that negativity floating around has a noteworthy impact on anyone who comes into contact with it.
After receiving those negative responses, some will become defensive. Some depressed. Others angry. Lots of emotions, lots of reactions. Many strong. And most, less than positive.
Which means that, if you post a thought to an un-Echo-Chamber-y Social Network (like Twitter) – and that post ends up reaching a large audience (something that anyone with a sizable audience will experience regularly) – the amount of negativity you will receive (not just disagreements… but far more negative responses like name-calling and similar attacks) can become quite significant. And damaging.
Because the experience of reading those negative comments and replies will be such a, well, negative one… the odds of you (and others reading it) responding in an increasingly negative way are significant.
Which simply becomes an endless loop of increasing negativity. When you look at it that way, a Social Network like Twitter becomes an sort of echo chamber of negative emotions… especially when you and others attempt to treat it as not an Echo Chamber.
Sort of like the paranormal slime from Ghostbusters 2. Systems like Twitter end up, because of human nature, amplifying the negative emotions. And when everyone feels strong negative feelings, they are far less likely to consider alternative viewpoints and concepts. Thus not only negating any benefit of having an un-Echo-Chamber… but actually making people far less willing to truly consider new, foreign ideas.
The larger the un-Echo-Chamber (in terms of potential people involved), the worse this effect gets.
You're Wrong, I'm Wrong, Everyone Is Wrong
But… what if that weren't the case? What if, hypothetically, someone could design an un-Echo-Chamber where Negativity Bias never came into play. Where everyone would let their guards down and only publish positive, kind thoughts? Like Twitter… with all the hate removed.
The reality is… you still would be statistically unlikely to learn something new that is actually true.
And there's a very good reason for that…
Almost everyone is wrong. About at least some things.
Note that I'm not saying that everyone is wrong about everything. But almost everyone… about quite a lot of things.
Which means that, if you hear from 100 people on a topic… how do you sort out who is right and who is wrong? Is everyone right? Is nobody right?
Who has credentials that would suggest they have a chance (however small) of having a truthful or accurate statement on a topic? How do you discern those credentials? Do you have the time, energy, and experience necessary to do so? Do you want to spend the time and energy on that?
Even for the most well intentioned among us, the reality is that we are highly unlikely to be able to pick out a statement from among 100 Tweets – ones which all disagree with our existing view or understanding of a topic – which is likely to be accurate (or, at least, more accurate than our previously held viewpoint). Even if we had the time, energy, and desire to do so.
Which we probably don't.
We probably just want to argue with all those 100 Tweets that told us we are wrong. See: Negativity Bias.
Comment Snowball Effect
A snowball starts rolling at the top of a mountain. By the time it reaches the mountain's base, it is large enough to obliterate the lovely little ski resort town. It's a bummer.
The Snowball Effect doesn't just happen with actual snow. It happens with people commenting on topics. All day. Every day.
This can happen on a macro scale – articles being written causing other journalist to write more articles on the same topic, rinse, repeat – as well as a micro scale. One great (subjective) example of this is the comment section of a YouTube video… or the responses to a Tweet.
Let's say you post a Tweet.
One negative comment is then posted. Another person responds negatively to that comment. Then two people respond negatively to that comment. At which point the original commentator arrives to comment negatively on two of replies… and positively to another one (because, hey, even cranky people agree with others sometimes). Right about now a whole army of passive agressive people arrive. Along with someone who wants to change the topic to something unrelated (and vaguely insulting).
And if that original Tweet becomes viral in some way? I tell you. That snowball is gonna be big.
When the potential number of snowflakes (pun not intended, but delightful), which could be added to said snowball, is as large as the user-base of Twitter. Holy heavens.
A giant, negative snowball. Filled with lies.
Well. Not “lies”, per se. More like “things that are not true or verifiable.” But “Snowball filled with lies” sounded better.
This is similar (though not exactly the same as) what we see with mobs. On-Line mobs. In-person mobs. One spark can, in the right condition, ignite something far more intense and all-consuming.
Ask yourself, when was the last time you thought “Gee, I'm going to look to the angry mob of people (or that giant snowball running toward me) for accurate information”?
Note: I thought about adding in a Twinkie metaphor here, for the sole reason of wanting to post a link to the “That's a big twinkie” scene from Ghostbusters. Then I realized I could simply link to it anyway. Unwritten metaphor be damned.
So What? Should We Not Learn?
And now we get to the real heart of the matter.
If un-Echo-Chambers (like big, open Social Media, such as Twitter) are so negative, inaccurate, and mob-like… what's the alternative? How can we learn from each other – across this broad, planet-wide network – if we all stick to our own Echo Chambers?!
The answer is obvious and something we've done since… like… forever.
Smaller, like-minded (or focused) groups. Clubs. Churches. Performance troups. Bands. Teams.
Everyone intrinsicly knows that if you want to accomplish something – if you want to create (rather than to destroy) – you need a team. Wether you're making software, or art, playing a sport. Or scientists researching a topic. Or even simply trying to have a good time; That's an act of creation as well. Hanging out with friends, for example, is nicer when it's done… brace yourself… with friends. Crazy thought, I know.
Class rooms! We don't put kids into giant On-Line Social Media platforms – with millions and millions of other kids from around the world – to help them learn. That'd be insane! We put them in classes. Smaller class sizes performing better (generally speaking) than larger class sizes.
In other words: Echo Chambers.
These things are all examples, of varying styles, of Echo Chambers. And Echo Chambers work incredibly well for, well, just about everything. Including learning, growing as a person, and creating.
And, yes, even being exposed to new ideas.
No two people have exactly the same thoughts, there are always differences… no matter how similar two people are. Build yourself an Echo Chamber with, say, 10 people who all closely allign on a topic (computers, religion, hobbies, etc.). You now have 10 people with something in common, which will then make each other significantly more open to learning from each other about any differences. Again, that's just how humans work.
When someone uses the term Echo Chamber to describe the environment someone else is in… it is usually intended as an insult. But, at closer inspection, it really shouldn't be.
In fact… un-Echo-Chambers tend to be less efficient at spreading ideas (in meaningful ways) and generally not fun at all. Not good for learning, not good for creating. At least not most of the time.
Large Scale Open Social Networks
If Echo Chambers are so great, why not just get rid of things like Twitter?
Extremely large, open social networks do have real value. I think that is obvious to all of us (even those of us who dislike their current usage). Regional and World event reporting, for example, is incredibly handy to have. The ability to have citizens spread up to the minute information during disasters? Oh, heck, that alone makes such networks highly valuable.
But, honestly, using things like Twitter much beyond that has proven to be more harmful than helpful. We could benefit, instead, to focus on more small to medium scale Echo Chambers. Glorious, friendly, constructive Echo Chambers.
Echo Chambers Rule
I like the social networks that are more akin private forums. Sort of like members only clubs (where we all get to wear the cool Members Only jackets) and talk about the things that interest us… all among like-minded folk.
No giant, negative snowballs filled with lies. No twinkie. Just people with something in common. Working. Bonding. Sharing. Learning.
All in something as awesome sounding as an Echo Chamber.
Maybe. Go yell about it on Twitter.
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