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Why the Web isn't an Echo Chamber
March 6, 2011 7:54 AM   Subscribe

It's sometimes argued that people use the internet as an "echo chamber" to reinforce their own views. Scientific American magazine blog editor Bora Zivkovic argues that the web breaks echo chambers in a way unlike offline communities and traditional media.
posted by mccarty.tim (33 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
WHOEVER WROTE THIS MUST BE A REPUBLICAN BASTARD!
posted by wheelieman at 8:04 AM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


clearly this guy has never scrolled through a mefi athiest thread
posted by nathancaswell at 8:13 AM on March 6, 2011 [10 favorites]


We all learn from encountering all those other opinions even if we vehemently disagree with them. And we cannot help bumping into them all the time. There are no taboo topics online, no social norms preventing people from saying exactly what they think.

Forming, finding or defending a vacuum-sealed echo-chamber online is extremely difficult, if at all possible.


I haven't found this to be the case at all. People tend to stick to their own enclaves.

If you are, for example, a liberal and tend to read only liberal blogs, you will constantly see links to conservative sites that are being debunked by your favourite bloggers – thus you will be exposed to conservative ideas daily.

Selectively, sure. Fox news even does that. They cherry pick the easy arguments, the lies, the idiotic (which both sides have) and spin them to whatever they want. I see plenty of links on Metafilter to things like the abhorrent protest in Orange County, but less on blogs like the Becker Posner blog(Rather intelligent, rather conservative blog, although sometimes I think they replaced their blood with cold seawater).

The piece is basically saying the web is not an echo chamber because his side is winning. Granted, I would hope so, given his pro-evolution, anti creationism stance. But Creationism is not dead, and their exist plenty of echo chambers that will state that.

I've always said that the best thing about the Internet is that a person who might be gay, or handicapped, or a minority, or any other marginalized group can go online and find positive confirmation that they are not along, that they are alright, and that what they are doing is the right thing. The bad part of this is that pedophiles and anorexics are marginalized groups.
posted by zabuni at 8:23 AM on March 6, 2011 [5 favorites]


I think it depends on how one uses the internet.
posted by fuq at 8:33 AM on March 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


If you are, for example, a liberal and tend to read only liberal blogs, you will constantly see links to conservative sites that are being debunked by your favourite bloggers – thus you will be exposed to conservative ideas daily.

That's a curious form of exposure. "Did you hear what stupid thing dumbass said today?"
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 8:37 AM on March 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


i've been mulling this over since the orange county protest thread. After someone linked to freerepublic there was some musing on how one might try to successfully break up echo chambers without being banned or labeled a troll.

I'm still not convinced it's all that plausible. The echo chamber effect seems to effectively kill the positive effects this guy points out.

I can see how the web might allow someone searching for new or alien viewpoints get outside their community's influence, but I think it's less common for someone to see a foreign viewpoint and adopt. I think they typically run screaming to whatever comforting echo-chamber they can find.

I come to Metafilter because we have an above average level of discourse, which I think fosters an above average level of diversity. Politically, we're still pretty dominantly leftist and atheist, and plenty of our threads go echo chamber.
posted by es_de_bah at 8:39 AM on March 6, 2011


Maybe we're not really in a position yet to judge whether the web breaks echo chambers.

For much of the lifetime of the web, a large majority of people who've been going online for the first time have been adults with fully-formed, or at least nascent, opinions about the world and how it works. There is definitely some mind-blowing and mind-changing going on, but there's also a tendency to stick with people who agree with you.

But a new generation is growing up, people who are going on the web from childhood, people like my little brother. He reads reddit (I know, I know) for hours every day when he comes home from school. Since he was eleven or so, he has been being exposed to a number of viewpoints, opinions and ideas that is so much vastly larger than what he'd experience in the classroom. When you compare the web to a seventh grader's social sphere, it makes a lot more sense that the web would be the force to break the echo chamber.

I think (I hope) that this generation is going to be a much smarter, more open-minded one, much better of accepting and understanding differences of opinion, more capable of contemplating arguments and appreciating nuance. I also think that for a lot of young, developing people who are isolated in echo-chamber communities for whatever reason, the web is the force that gives them the hope and strength to keep learning and growing and exploring.

Yes, someone who started using the web at 30 may only be looking for reinforcement for their ideas, but there are kids who don't have ideas at all yet getting on the web now. They're the future.
posted by crackingdes at 8:48 AM on March 6, 2011 [14 favorites]


I think they've got a point, as it is at least easier to break echo-chambers online than it is in real live. And online you're more likely to realise that other group have echo-chambers, even if you don't visit them, which is a slight widening-of-perspective in itself.
When an individual first goes online, the usual reaction is shock! There are people in the world who believe what!?!?

The usual first response is anger and strenuous attempts at countering all other ideas and pushing one’s own.

But after a while, unbeknown to the person, all those various novel ideas start seeping in. One is not even aware of changing one’s own mind from one year to the next. Many ideas take time to process and digest and may quietly get incorporated into one’s gradually enriching and more sophisticated worldview.
I've seen this happen; people that are new to forums etc tend to get into massive arguments at first, then they tend to chill out slightly as they come to realise that the other people might have a point, or at least come to realise that other people can defend their points.
posted by memebake at 8:49 AM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


a mefi athiest thread

Nobody is athier than me.

Yes, the Internet breaks real-life echo chambers. For instance, a liberal in a small conservative town can now get more involved, find out the real news, etc. And contrariwise, real-life breaks Internet echo chambers. How many times have you found that "everyone" on the Internet thinks $X and then your coworker/spouse/neighbor thinks differently and you have to laboriously bring them up to speed?

We are now all part of two separate, orthogonal community systems.
posted by DU at 9:01 AM on March 6, 2011 [10 favorites]


I don't think I've ever clicked on a link to Fox News, at least on purpose. I see them on my Google News page, but that's about it. I mean, how many times do you need to read about Obama being a foreign-born, Muslim socialist before you get the idea?
posted by tommasz at 9:20 AM on March 6, 2011


Don't miss the comments thread on the linked post - it offers a strong rebuttal and further discussion and links. There's a lot to chew on here.
posted by mek at 9:30 AM on March 6, 2011


It's an overstatement to say it "breaks" echo chambers, what the Web 'breaks' is the Fourth Wall. You're not just talking to the other people 'on the site', you know there's a greater audience so you react accordingly - sometimes with a sly aside, sometimes 'doubling-down' the stridency, sometimes just declaring that you're in the wrong scene in this online Passion Play and you're just waiting for Chekhov's Gun to go off.
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:43 AM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


It very much depends on personal usage. The internet has introduced me to almost every single thing (idea, musician, writer, movie, movement, community, culture, thing...) that has made a lastingly meaningful impact on my life. If the internet didn't introduce me (because maybe I am exaggerating just a little bit) to something, then it provided me with boatloads of information and the ability to find even more resources on a thing, where before the 'net I'd have had to rely on hearsay and whatever scraps of info I could find, and my conceptualizations for about a million different things would be half-formed.

I had a realization last week or so that all the hype and hyperbole surrounding the internet really has come true. My worldview and my knowledge of the world have been tremendously widened (and deepened; there's some truth to the "pancake knowledge" stuff, but the web is great at providing you with access to more traditional, deeper resources if you really want to know about a thing) because of the internet--it really was the consciousness expanding thing it was promised to be.

Except...for many people, "the internet" is just "Facebook." Or any other self-cocooning site of choice. I don't know many people who use the internet the way I have, except for those who were about my age when we all got online at about the same time. I wonder if there was a "sweet spot" there, if it's harder to encounter things outside your experience online now, or if people just naturally gravitate toward the self-reinforcing.

It's nice to see this laid out this way. I can't decide if I completely agree with the article, or if I agree but think maybe the effect is less obvious. It's fun that someone was writing about something I was thinking about at more or less the same time and that I wouldn't have known that without the internet, though.
posted by byanyothername at 10:32 AM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I actually thought Zivkovic's essay was pretty excellent.

Forming, finding or defending a vacuum-sealed echo-chamber online is extremely difficult, if at all possible.

> I haven't found this to be the case at all. People tend to stick to their own enclaves.

There are a lot of people on MetaFilter who want to make it exclusively a site for their kind of people. This can cause a lot of grief for people with minority points of view or backgrounds, and sometimes they actually leave, but it's not actually very successful.

> clearly this guy has never scrolled through a mefi athiest thread

Like DU said, "the Internet breaks real-life echo chambers." I think, as far as atheists were concerned, he meant that it could expose people who are minorities in their own real-life communities to other people who think like them.

There are atheist echo chambers. However if atheists step outside of the realm of atheists' and skeptics' blogs into the general internet, into open-admissions blogs like MetaFilter, sites that weren't set up for or managed for just people like them, they will have to deal with non-atheists. This applies to other groups as well.

While I'm on the subject of atheist threads, I'll note one other thing I noticed about these kinds of threads. Atheists from mostly Christian backgrounds end up being confronted by Buddhists and Unitarian-Universalists, religious people who aren't theist, and anthropologists who are atheists but who have a different perspective and understand religion very differently from the way they do. This can make them very angry, but they ultimately end up having to acknowledge that such people exist.
posted by nangar at 10:33 AM on March 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


My role on the panel was as a ‘discussant’

That's another good thing about the web: it prevents us from strangling someone to death on the spot as soon as they utter a monstrous "word" like "discussant". Just writing the thing down has made the smaller capillaries in my eyeballs rupture. Wait... did I say it was a good thing about the web? Strike that.
posted by Decani at 11:03 AM on March 6, 2011


clearly this guy has never scrolled through a mefi athiest thread
posted by nathancaswell at 4:13 PM on March 6


Clearly you haven't either - or at least not paying much attention while doing so. Insofar as we even have many "atheist threads" here I can't recall a single occasion where they weren't leavened with plenty of whining from the religious apologist brigade.
posted by Decani at 11:05 AM on March 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Oh, and also - "athiest"? I don't normally call people out on misspellings but that one is just so unforgivable. Etymology, for Christ's sake.
posted by Decani at 11:07 AM on March 6, 2011


Net communities are like real life communities, with added trolls.

It takes guts to speak up if you're apparently in the minority, and most people don't.

Online there is a small exception to that, which is people who rant and troll from the safety of their keyboard when they'd never dare to do that in a face to face group.

I doubt the net exposes people to new views unless those people were already receptive to seeking out and hearing new views. The net's not an echo chamber if you're willing to question your own thinking, but that's a minority of people on a minority of topics.
posted by philipy at 11:27 AM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, and also - "athiest"?

I'm the athiest!
posted by fuq at 11:46 AM on March 6, 2011


Metafilter: Athier Than Thou
posted by madred at 12:29 PM on March 6, 2011 [5 favorites]


I doubt the net exposes people to new views unless those people were already receptive to seeking out and hearing new views.

I think there's a third group of people (which I hope is a large group) who, though they don't seek out new views, do get exposed to them, and are open-minded enough to process them rather than filter them without a moment's thought.
posted by davel at 1:16 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Clearly you haven't either - or at least not paying much attention while doing so. Insofar as we even have many "atheist threads" here I can't recall a single occasion where they weren't leavened with plenty of whining from the religious apologist brigade.

Funny, as a non-atheist, I was going to say that from my experience people on MetaFilter who are knee-jerk abusive to religious people and unwilling to have a civil conversation about the subject are in the minority.
posted by straight at 1:21 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


This confirms what I've thought all along.
posted by WPW at 2:24 PM on March 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Clearly you haven't either - or at least not paying much attention while doing so. Insofar as we even have many "atheist threads" here I can't recall a single occasion where they weren't leavened with plenty of whining from the religious apologist brigade.

Oh, and also - "athiest"? I don't normally call people out on misspellings but that one is just so unforgivable. Etymology, for Christ's sake.


I stand corrected, you've gone a long way toward convincing me that having such a discussion would be a big tolerant bowl of pleasantries, peaches and cream.
posted by nathancaswell at 2:40 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


One can write moderate to center-left comments on free republic without being banned if the framing is just so. I felt a tiny thrill of victory when I got one person to admit that homosexuals aren't exactly the same as pedophiles, but that was the only victory I achieved posting on free republic, and I basically gave up from exhaustion. Essentially what I was doing was a polite form of trolling on many levels.

I'd think it would be even harder to advocate for cat de-clawing on Metafilter though, because the audience here is more tolerant of political and moral diversity, but much less tolerant of the slightest error in articulation. On the few threads my opinion differs from the consensus I feel like I'm going to be arguing a thesis in front of a panel of professional editors.

In any case, offline or online, there are tremendous pressures to bring your opinion in line with the community you are in or to go away.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:57 PM on March 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


BrotherCaine: I felt a tiny thrill of victory when I got one person to admit that homosexuals aren't exactly the same as pedophiles, but that was the only victory I achieved posting on free republic, and I basically gave up from exhaustion. Essentially what I was doing was a polite form of trolling on many levels.

It's rare that people change much more than this (above) at one moment in time. What the web might speed up those nudgings and adjustments, as minute as they may be. Of course those small moves can go either way; there will be slippage. However I am optimistic that the simple reality of easily available divergent views will generally move people to the centre. It works that way with genetic mixing. Why not with social mixing? I hope I hope I hope. Atheist or not, please give me something to believe in!
posted by kneecapped at 3:47 PM on March 6, 2011


"What the web might do is speed ..."
posted by kneecapped at 4:18 PM on March 6, 2011


because the audience here is more tolerant of political and moral diversity

As far as I can tell it's not more tolerant, just tolerant and intolerant of a different set of things. Though that's the same with most any subculture.
posted by philipy at 6:50 PM on March 6, 2011


Isn't every community, no matter how disparate an echo chamber of some sort? And academic/scientific communities are perhaps more so than others -cf Kuhn - maybe becauise they have more (status, access, etc) to lose
posted by Iktik at 2:16 AM on March 7, 2011


I stand corrected, you've gone a long way toward convincing me that having such a discussion would be a big tolerant bowl of pleasantries, peaches and cream.
posted by nathancaswell at 10:40 PM on March 6


I didn't suggest it would, did I? What I said was that when we have atheism-related threads here we get plenty of whining from the religious apologist brigade. That's not the same thing, is it now?
posted by Decani at 12:44 PM on March 7, 2011


More tolerant in the sense of shouting down dissent rather than banning accounts outright, assuming the dissenter can be respectful in the face of angry opposition.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:06 PM on March 7, 2011


I think the whole point is that dissent is shouted down but it still occurs. In a genuine echo chamber, dissent is suppressed to the extent that it becomes invisible.
posted by mek at 1:56 PM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


clearly this guy has never scrolled through a mefi athiest thread

try again.

pleasantries, peaches and cream

No peaches and cream here. Next site down. (personally, I prefer Peaches & Herb.)

Isn't every community, no matter how disparate an echo chamber of some sort?

It depends on the inclusiveness of the group and the working rules/power structure. Fraternities or any group (like say, U.S. presidential cabinets) that explicitly excludes certain people is going to be much more of an echo chamber than say, the Unitarian Universalists.

Even at MetaFilter, where there is a now a very high barrier to entry, we have a fairly diverse set of opinions in most threads, because a) everyone is on generally equal footing; b) dissenting opinion (on its own) is not silenced, nor dissenters punished. Even then, however, the $5 barrier to entry likely cuts off a large source of diverse contributors.
posted by mrgrimm at 3:53 PM on March 7, 2011


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