Facebook Echo Chambers. It’s Time To Ask Why
I de-friended someone on Facebook yesterday morning — and I liked it. This set me on a path to thinking more about Facebook echo chambers.
There’s nothing much of interest I can say about the meme this individual chose to smear over my social feed like cat barf on kitchen linoleum. But it felt good to wipe it away. It was a satisfying moment of protest by omission to hit the friendship self-destruct button — to know that I never had to read this person’s opinion again.
But now I’m not sure I made the right decision.
Me, myself and I
In 2017, two-thirds of Americans get their news from social media, according to Pew Research Center. Almost half rely almost solely on Facebook to learn about what’s going on in the world.
I’m not one of those people, and my guess is you’re not either. We’re meeting ‘neath LoudNews’ illustrious banner of subversive intellectual inquiry after all.
But as I look at my social feeds this morning with a freshly caffeinated eye, I have to admit something. I’ve systematically culled people I disagree with out of my social media experience.
Ruling out my immediate family (sorry mom) 95 percent of my online friends are people who share my worldview. Oh, we like different things in different ways, sure. One guy is into building Minecraft stuff out of lego. This confuses me.
But if I’m deadly honest with myself, I’ve carefully curated my social media experience to be made up of things I broadly support, understand, and … well … like.
Echo chambers, and why they suck
An echo chamber is a metaphorical space where a person “encounters only opinions and beliefs similar to their own, and does not have to consider alternatives.” (OLD) Picture hanging out in a big echoey room with a bunch of like-minded people. The room is completely soundproofed to outside ambient noise.
Everything you or your companions say simply echoes back at you in a heterogenous cacophony of agreeable thought muzak.
That delightful little picture of banality is an echo chamber.
Without new voices joining the mix, everything you and your cadre say feels like the only reasonable opinion. More than that though, with external voices actively excluded, echoes tend to magnify.
You know the deal: Person A hears a rumor that someone’s kid gets a measles vaccination and might have come down with *gasp* The Autisms. Person B hears that and magnifies it to a more vibrant shade of stupid. They inform Person C that she better keep her kids clear of those evil witch doctors with their evil needle juju. Before you know it, the world is flat, vaccines are part of a devilish conspiracy to keep people sick, and the deep state is plotting to … let’s just not.
On and on it goes.
Echo chambers aren’t a Facebook thing or an algorithm thing. If you went to a high school or grew up religious, chances are you’ll know this at a visceral level. Cults, cliques, rival teams in a ping pong tournament — any kind of human tribe, really — can and will build echo chambers that reinforce one worldview to the exclusion of others.
Facebook echo chambers, and their role in this mess
I wish I could blame Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk for my tendency to roar into the comfortingly reverberating void of a Facebook echo chamber. But the truth is, social media didn’t plant the seed in my brain that I should only listen to people I like and agree with.
As much as I’d love to blame my personal failings on a giant corporate megalith, I made that happen.
Facebook didn’t invent echo chambers.
But Facebook monetized them … and really well, at that.
It’s easier to get eyes on ads when those ads are served around content folks agree with. If you go to a swanky clothes store to buy a cool pair of trousers, you’re more likely to lay down your hard-earned coin for a flashy pair of duds if the person selling said duds is attractive to you, and says things that you like to hear.
That’s Facebook. Only replace blinged up leg ensheathment with … well … everything.
And that joy of hearing our own voice on repeat has fueled a vast, twisted economy where our undivided and conquered attention can be sold to the highest bidder. Trump, cat laxatives, Brexit, chemtrails, high-waisted pants, low-waisted pants, Qanon — it doesn’t matter what it is, so long as it captivates us.
Countless belief chambers are labeled, curated, militarized, and monetized by Facebook and similar social media algorithms.
And the result?
Well, lots of things.
But somewhere on that list has to be isolation.
More people hate other people now. Fewer real conversations happen.
Those far-off discordant voices have gone eerily silent beyond the safe reverb, rehash, and regurge.
So, Facebook echo chambers are bad. What now then?
I’m not going to generalize my experience to anyone reading this. Perhaps you folks out there have been way smarter than I’ve been at maintaining diverse friendships online.
My plan, for what it’s worth, is to be more inclusive.
I’ll try to make time to listen to people whose prejudices and conservatism might have led me to brush them aside. Maybe creating space for new voices is a transformative act in 2020? It’s easy to couch protest as listening less. But listening more? That’s tough. Especially when you grew up on anarchism and that voice you need to let in is steeped in conservatism.
But Facebook and other social media attention-harvesting algorithms can’t be given a get out of jail free card here. Building a stunningly successful profit model out of conformation bias has made the world a shittier place.
“If you don’t buy the product, you are the product.”
Beyond politics, beyond activism, even beyond the many real threats to the future of this planet — right now what I’m most pissed about is basic and selfish.
I’ve been duped.
My attention has been commodified. Faceless algorithm-mongers have been playing FarmVille with my brain. Worse, I was complicit. I was pulled out of the cheap seats and let myself be hypnotized by a cheesy stage magician with bleached teeth, plucked eyebrows, and crappy t-shirts at the door.
And I clucked along like a chicken – opening my brain and my wallet for the privilege.
Leaving social media altogether feels like running off to join the Amish. It hasn’t come to that yet.
But I’ll listen less when a social feed tells me what I want. I’ll look deeper than the Likes and the Shares. I’ll resist the urge to shun diversity out of my existence.
I’ll ask why more.