"The cognitive dissonance was wildly uncomfortable."
February 9, 2016 1:09 AM   Subscribe

How 26 tweets broke my filter bubble -- B. J. May was just an ordinary Javascript developer from Middle America until a series of tweets by Marco Rogers helped him discover a wider world outside his whitebread bubble.
posted by MartinWisse (33 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
He was just an ordinary fish who noticed the water.
posted by hat_eater at 2:01 AM on February 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


I would wager actual money that the "transgender indie game developer" was Christine Love.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 2:02 AM on February 9, 2016


Or possibly Porpentine or Anna Anthropy?

And when fish notice water, it helps them understand their world and help other fish notice water too. As true as it is that it is unjust that Joe White Dude On The Internet listens only to the white male cis voices, it is true that Joe White Dude On The Internet listens only to the white male cis voices - so maybe one of those voices can tell JWDOTI how to not just listen to them more effectively?
posted by Fraxas at 2:12 AM on February 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


I was by no means holding his fishness against him, merely noting that he did something extraordinary.
posted by hat_eater at 2:37 AM on February 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


I just wrote a short Medium post about my unhappiness with the impending algorithmic timelines on Twitter, and one of my biggest concerns is how it will make it more difficult to use it to hear voices different from your own. The algorithm will (almost certainly) give you more of what it thinks you like, and reinforce your bubble.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 4:46 AM on February 9, 2016 [12 favorites]


I wish this sentence had been expanded: "Being exposed to these diverse voices had been uncomfortable, and I was eager to get back to that world where I didn’t have to hear from them quite so much." I wanted to hear more about it.

He starts by talking about how upsetting things were before his experiment; he ends by mentioning the exposure to the voices in the experiment was uncomfortable; between the two, though, what was he feeling? Was he angry? Dismayed? Frightened? Disgusted?

The way to disentangle oneself from the backpatting allyship he so clearly wanted to avoid, is to actively engage and work with that discomfort, and by making it explicit, I think he would have made the piece much more personal, and offered better emotional guideposts for anyone else who wanted to take these same steps.
posted by mittens at 5:21 AM on February 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


I just wrote a short Medium post about my unhappiness with the impending algorithmic timelines on Twitter, and one of my biggest concerns is how it will make it more difficult to use it to hear voices different from your own. The algorithm will (almost certainly) give you more of what it thinks you like, and reinforce your bubble.

Yes, well, welcome to Web 2.0.
posted by entropicamericana at 6:06 AM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


Good read and good advice.

I wonder about the role of personality here. Some people are novelty seekers: when they hear about something new or unfamiliar, they want to know all about it, to understand what it is and what it means. Others are novelty-avoidant: they never want to try new foods, hear "weird" music, watch arty/foreign movies that deviate from their established cinematic expectations, etc. The former finds the new and unfamiliar stimulating—the latter finds it, I dunno, tiring or threatening or difficult. (Obviously, I'm generalizing.)

I bring this up because the whitebread, churchgoing, Middle American culture this guy comes from is (again, speaking generally) built by and for the novelty-avoidant. If you never stop to think that falafel is a thing you could try and might even like, or to admire the beauty of a mosque or some Arabic calligraphy, then you're a little less likely to see a Middle Eastern person as someone like you. If you never pick up the local gay newspaper to see what it's all about, then you're more likely to think that one-dimensional media narratives are all there is to gayness. I'm sure there are people in whitebread culture who defy this generalization, but: it's right there in the name. "Whitebread" is only partly an allusion to race; it's also about the comfortable blandness and predictability of white bread.

How much of this difference—novelty-seeking vs. novelty-avoidance—is cultural, and how much is inborn? I don't know. But I like to think that openness to new experience is something that can be cultivated.

Just spitballin'.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 6:13 AM on February 9, 2016 [19 favorites]


I mentally filled in that space with what I do, which is step away for a bit and process/digest. It's often necessary to take a little time to appreciate what was written versus what I thought I read: for example to see the difference between 'our culture often idealizes behaviors/attitudes which are destructive' vs. 'your gender is inherently toxic.' A lot of times, the stuff I'm ruminating on ends up being reasonable once I've had a chance to walk around it and kick the tires. Occasionally there's something I ultimately disagree with despite mentally revisiting it a few times - usually a specific incident a person might have used as an example, not broad conceptual stuff.

I don't think worldviews can be recalibrated instantaneously. My head's like a fishbowl, water changes are good but a cup at a time works better than just spraying the hose in.
posted by Lou Stuells at 6:17 AM on February 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


Horace Rumpole: I generally social-media-ize with two discrete goals: when I want to engage and discuss, and when I want to read and absorb other perspectives. Usually the latter precedes the former. The latter also usually happens, sadly and for reasons you mentioned, while logged out and using incognito mode. (And proxied-up if that fails.)

Good post BTW.
posted by iffthen at 6:37 AM on February 9, 2016


Or spend $5 for a Metafilter account. There isn't a week that goes by that I don't read something on MeFi that challenges my worldview in a positive way even if I at first resist. Sometimes it's daily. I'm not ashamed to say that things I've read on the blue have helped shaped my view on gender issues and opened my eyes to the more subtle forms of sexual harassment.
posted by photoslob at 6:48 AM on February 9, 2016 [27 favorites]


You see, the US criminal justice system necessarily puts the burden of proof on the accuser, and there is a cultural tendency to mimic this at the interpersonal level. Here’s the trick (and it was a revelation to me at the time): I am not the US criminal justice system. I have no obligation to demand proof in order to be sympathetic.

Every single Twitter user should have this tattooed behind their eyelids.
posted by Itaxpica at 7:18 AM on February 9, 2016 [14 favorites]


I remember a convo from the early 90s with a friend about the wonders of the Internet and what the World Wide Web will do for us. He eagerly predicted a future in which we'd be able to customize our news so that we will finally be able to read only what's important to us. That didn't sound right to me then but it took a lot of time and change before I could understand why.
posted by ardgedee at 7:19 AM on February 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


I've gone through the same process as photoslob. Metafilter has greatly challenged and influenced my views on race, gender, and inequality. Sometimes what I read here is like a slap across the face at first. But the more I read, the more I understand what it's like to be someone who is not a white middle class male.
posted by neon meat dream of an octofish at 7:21 AM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


Or spend $5 for a Metafilter account.

Well, yes and no. It took me a long time to internalize the lessons learned by lurking in social justice threads on MetaFilter, and I could have expedited the process by following the advice posted in the article linked above. And plenty of people here would do well to take its author's 30 day crash course in empathy.
posted by hat_eater at 7:23 AM on February 9, 2016 [4 favorites]


Your filter bubble only persists as long as you exert the effort to maintain it. I've found that serendipity online leads me in all sorts of weird directions. Some good, and some not.
posted by theorique at 7:47 AM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


Don't get me wrong, anything that helps push people out of their comfort zones and challenges their perceptions on social justice is awesome. The 26 tweets is great advice for those who will actually heed it. I hang out in a cycling forum that is predominantly white males and nearly every OT thread concerning sexism or other forms of social justice is locked within hours. It's disheartening. Thankfully, the younger members seem to have a pretty good grasp on the issues. The older white guys, not so much.
posted by photoslob at 7:51 AM on February 9, 2016


I feel that transformations as described in the article are easier to undertake in some ways because there are so many fine examples available of What Not To Do (#notallwhatevering, #alllivesmattering, tone policing, JAQing off etc.) If you're not a person who has had to contend with those things in a way that teaches you why they're frustrating, spectating exchanges where you haven't got a personal emotional investment one way or another can be really instructive, if you're open to it.
posted by Lou Stuells at 7:57 AM on February 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


The 26 tweets is great advice for those who will actually heed it.

I've already bookmarked it to send to people in lieu of explaining why they're 101ing or mansplaining or sealioning or whatever. And if they respond with anything but "Interesting. I'll take that to heart and bow out now", then I know they're not really interested in engaging and can safely be ignored.
posted by Etrigan at 8:03 AM on February 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


Your filter bubble only persists as long as you exert the effort to maintain it.

I have to disagree. It's just easier to hang out with, talk to, and otherwise relate to people who are similar to me. It's worth it to expand my horizons and be an ally, and listen, and support people. It's easier to just pay attention to my interests and remain ignorant of problems that don't relate to my world.

The bubble doesn't exist because of an effort to shut out the world. It exists because of a lack of effort to see or visit the world beyond the one you live in.
posted by explosion at 9:13 AM on February 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


anyone know... will tweetchats still work with the algorithmic timelines?
posted by typecloud at 9:32 AM on February 9, 2016


explosion - you make a good point. I think it applies more strongly in the offline world, where people are a bit more reserved and don't necessarily announce their political or social opinions.

I find that online, whether he wants to be or not, a person are exposed on a regular basis to news, information, viewpoints, and opinions that challenge him. (At least, this is true for me - am I uncommonly curious and/or willing to read things that I don't necessarily agree with? I don't think so, but possibly.)

Even if it's only facebook, you probably have some friends or acquaintances with very different political opinions. Reading your local paper (physically or online), you'll probably read an editorial or letter to the editor that goes against some of your views. If you spend a lot of time online, you have to try pretty hard to keep yourself away from something that disagrees with you.
posted by theorique at 10:14 AM on February 9, 2016


Your filter bubble only persists as long as you exert the effort to maintain it.

I have to disagree. It's just easier to hang out with, talk to, and otherwise relate to people who are similar to me.


I kind of think you're both right. Filter bubbles, like any viewpoint or paradigm, require investment and continuous maintenance. However, it is institutionally and structurally valuable for power and privilege to reinforce itself, to continuously redraw the boundaries which comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted. So I do think the bubble requires as much effort to persist as piercing it does, but I also think remaining insulated by that bubble is less personally taxing, because the social machine around you is doing a lot of the heavy lifting to keep you there. It is valuable to the institution to reward you for rejecting alternate viewpoints and to punish you with simple removal of its support when you stray outside the lines, so that you become exhausted by the amount of work that the system was doing for you so long as you complied. When so-called allies get huffy and say that they're going to stop being allies if they continue to be treated as less than the demigods they believe themselves to be, what they're also really saying is that they're tired of carrying their own weight, that they're ready to go back to the convenient livery which is waiting for them to return all prodigal to the privilege fold.
posted by Errant at 11:35 AM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


I think two things that determine whether your filter bubble is hard to maintain is (a) are you consuming stuff already within a fairly curated stream and (2) are you actively seeking variety or just more of the same?

You'll learn about some new songs when you listen to that top-100 pop radio channel, but they're going to be pre-curated into being kinda similar to what you're already hearing. When stuff does fall outside that trend, do you tend to be excited by that variety or do you raise a critical eyebrow at it.
posted by phearlez at 1:08 PM on February 9, 2016


Hello all. B.J. May here (author of the post in question, and newly minted MetaFilter user). First, thanks for the conversation here. If this thread is representative of most discussions on the site, then this is perhaps the most gracious and measured user base I've encountered. I assume that the modest registration fee goes a long way towards keeping it that way.

theorique and explosion have touched on an important facet of the issue that was somewhat out of scope for my write-up, that being the way that the filter bubble had persisted to that point. The few causal items I listed were of the meatspace variety (where I live, where I work, etc), but there are certainly other things that contributed to the echo chamber.

I suppose that perhaps it's useful to offer up the following conjecture: Both a person’s physical and digital worlds can contribute to their filter bubble, but compensating for the physical world is disproportionately laborious. It's far easier for me to follow diverse voices on Twitter than it is for me to relocate to a more diverse neighborhood.

Personally, avoiding contrary opinions and worldviews had been easy enough that I didn't consciously know I was doing it. My Facebook network is largely comprised of people I know personally, and suppressing a dissonant voice is as easy as a few clicks to unfollow or unfriend. Until shortly before this experiment started, I didn't use Twitter much, in large part because the signal to noise ratio was appalling. I hadn't been willing to sift through thousands of unintelligible sentence fragments to get to the valuable content, so I just retired myself to getting information on a delay. Before I ramped up my Twitter usage, my digital life was largely an electronic mirror of my physical one, so the filter bubble was remarkably easy to maintain. To me, it was effectively effortless.

Again, thanks for the interesting conversation here. I'll probably be more of a lurker than a contributor, but perhaps it would be incongruous if I weren't.
posted by bjmay at 2:21 PM on February 9, 2016 [18 favorites]


Welcome, bjmay. I think you'll fit right in here. Your piece has given me a good reason to actually get a Twitter account.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 3:10 PM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


If this thread is representative of most discussions on the site, then this is perhaps the most gracious and measured user base I've encountered.

MetaFilter is a rarity for sure. That's not to say that we don't have the occasional drunken brawl, but the signup fee and the excellent moderation work wonders. Welcome!
posted by escape from the potato planet at 3:37 PM on February 9, 2016


That's not to say that we don't have the occasional drunken brawl

Do NOT venture into any thread about post-number-two-bottom-wiping. Just sayin'.
posted by hanov3r at 4:39 PM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


On filter bubbles: there is definitely some fairly low-level cognitive neuroscience that governs whether a person is novelty-seeking or novelty-averse (I believe it has to do with the MAOA gene, if memory serves), and then a number of developmental, and cultural layers over top of that.

Self-chosen and self-created habits are also a huge part of it. A person can create habits to seek out challenging "content" (news, opinions, etc) or create habits to seek only the same old sources of information that confirm what they already "know" to be true.
posted by theorique at 5:50 AM on February 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


theorique, I'd be very interested to check out that research if you can dig up a link. My Google-fu seems to be failing me on this one.
posted by bjmay at 6:59 AM on February 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


I misremembered it a little bit - the MAOA gene was apparently linked to risky and thrill-seeking behavior rather than just "novelty". Here's a blog post with a couple of research citations included.
posted by theorique at 8:43 AM on February 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


Exposure to novelty stimuli (i.e., things that challenge you and provoke an emotional response) also releases dopamine in the brain, but not all brains process that dopamine release in the same way:
Studies of identical twins suggest that heritability accounts for about 60 percent of individual variance in sensation-seeking behavior, Zuckerman says, and scientists have identified genetic variations that may explain some of these differences. For example, some studies have found that people with higher levels of a specific type of receptor (the D4 receptor) for dopamine, the primary neurotransmitter involved in reward processing, have greater sensation-seeking tendencies.



Other types of dopamine receptors that normally regulate dopamine release appear to have an opposite effect: the fewer there are, the greater the novelty-seeking behavior.iv These may act as brakes on dopamine release, so having fewer of them means that more dopamine is released in response to novelty. This may in turn drive reward-seeking behavior.
The variance in these dopamine receptors does appear to be heritable, as the article linked above cites studies of identical twins.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 8:48 AM on February 10, 2016


Realizing that people's fear response is partially biological when confronted with information that triggers that cognitive dissonance, and that it can make them feel vastly more or less fearful/uncomfortable than your own response to that information, is key if you're genuinely trying to change people's minds.

It's long been true that compassion and empathy are better tools in converting someone's beliefs than outrage, mockery or derision. But when you look at fMRI scans of people's brains reacting differently to the same data, it really hammers home that confronting someone who isn't naturally open to seeking out the worldviews, experiences and opinions of people who are living radically different lives isn't likely to be eye-opening, but terrifying.

I used to hope that the Internet would shrink the world and thereby expand people's minds and make them more open to intelligent discussion about our differences. Then again, I graduated college in 1994... that naivete is long gone now. Misinformation travels faster than even demonstrably proven scientific facts do, and people will cling to comfortable, lazy stereotypes when it suits them.

BJ, your piece is really thoughtful and well-written. I will be sharing it far and wide!
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 8:59 AM on February 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


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