Echo chamber. It can conjure many different feelings with varied conclusions. For some – probably kids, mostly – it’s a cave you yell into and hear your own voice on repeat. For others, it’s the notion that political views duplicate, repeat, and grow without any outside input.
The buzz-wordy term has also become enmeshed in other spheres, typically blogs and news media that tend to take a story and repeat it, unrelentingly and without prudence. One step further, we have the social media echo chamber: your like-minded “friends” post an article, you re-share, and it bounces around your friend-group like a superball in a 200-sq.ft New York City studio apartment. As the Buzzfeed and Upworthy ethos gets remixed and re-blended then poured in everyone’s cups primed for the “Kool-Aid,” it’s never been more important to break from of this line of thinking.
New ideas and creative sentiments – whether they’re from artists, thought leaders, activists, or your homeboy that knows his stuff about fly fishing – are often spawned from something outside of your normal purview. Why do you think Andy Warhol got famous for painting soup cans or how did Jeff Bezos go from selling books to, well, everything? They did something totally different. Don’t be afraid of going against the grain.
I first came into contact with the term “echo chamber” thanks to an excellent radio show called On The Media (this is my unbridled, unpaid endorsement), which I have been following for years. On The Media uses and explores the term in what feels like every one of their weekly broadcasts. A quick search on their site turns up 68 individual results (as of 4/3/14) for “echo chamber” dating back as early as 2004; they often use examples of their guests warning against the dangers of the elusive “echo chamber.”
During one of OTM’s programs devoted to the topic, Cass Sunstein, former Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration said, “It’s a well-known fact that if you get a group of people who tend to think something, after they talk to each other, they end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before.”
Take that sentiment and think about it in relation to your social media habits. Really think about it. Scary isn’t it? Rather than posting the next “34 Beautiful Bear Butts” article, why not go on a site you’ve either not been to in a while, or one you’ve never been to and find something interesting to share that actually challenges your friends?
If you’re not looking, you’ll never see anything new.
The sentiment of opening up your echo chamber is, er, echoed pretty perfectly in this popular piece on Medium about how to combat falling out of love with New York by Mary Phillips-Sandy. Basically, “if you’re sick of seeing the same stuff, then do something to change it.” I’m certainly no shining example of the one with the world’s best social media habits, but I’ll offer just a couple of anecdotes that I hope inspire you to break out of your social media echo chamber.
After coming of age in a tiny conservative town in Pennsylvania, I’m inevitably Facebook friends with quite a few folks I went to high school with that I’d otherwise never communicate with again. For the most part, a lot of the people I went to high school with now lead pretty different lives than mine. While I tend not to agree with some of their viewpoints or off-the-cuff spats on Facebook, I still find the insights valuable, if at the very least, to catch sight of a healthy mix of opinions.
My first impulse might be to silence any sort of diatribe – “quick!, where’s the unfollow or unfriend button?” – whether it’s about the merits of the raw baby food movement or the new John Deere someone just got. However, after thinking further, I usually realize I’m gaining some valuable insight into a cross section of folks I’d probably never really communicate with if Facebook didn’t exist.
One more personal anecdotal piece then we’ll try to do something. While in college a close friend of mine was an idealistic Labor Studies student with a liberal-lean and the only news channel he watched was Fox News. I was always impressed to see this in action. He wasn’t making fun of Fox’s right-wing bent, he was genuinely interested in gaining another perspective on the world. Though I’m probably the least politically-minded person you’ll ever meet, this rationale is something I’ve always tried to keep as part of my life.
Where do we go from here? Take Action.
Here are some steps you can take to break out of your social media echo chamber paraphrased and remixed from this excellent article from Wired UK.
1. “[Make] a conscious effort to seek out views that challenge your own…the internet usually disguises that there’s any personalisation going on.”
Not religious? Check out some spiritual websites. Like American football? See what cricket is all about. Are you into all things tech? Find out what the maker movement is all about.
2. “[Take] your news and opinion from a wide array of sources.”
Take a break from Huffington Post and Gawker and check out some local news blogs.
3. “[Follow] people outside your comfort zone, [it] can certainly open your eyes to a wider world view.”
Find some people from high school on Facebook and reconnect. Search Twitter for companies that have nothing to do with yours or what you’re interested in. You never know, you might glean some ideas from them.
I hope the ideas here get you to think about what you’re ingesting online. Did you find any of this helpful? Let us know in the comments.