In Defence of the Echo Chamber

It’s (probably) my last blog post of 2016. A lot of bloggers would take the opportunity to reflect back on the year just gone, but frankly, I’d rather not. Instead I’m going to talk about something that’s attracted a lot of attention recenly, at any rate in my web circles: the ‘echo chamber.’

The echo chamber, in case you’re not familiar with the concept, is the effect whereby opaque algorithms on various websites – Facebook is usually cited as the main culprit – filter our feeds so that we’re only presented with the stuff we’re more likely to like. Which, in the case of political content, can lead to us only seeing posts we already agree with, and hence to the false impression that everyone sees things the same way. I’ve seen this effect blamed for complacency and increased polarisation, and in some extreme cases for the fracturing of society as different groups fail to build bridges between each other.

Well, for what it’s worth, I’m here to defend the echo chamber.

another-2016-story

Medieval Reactions twitter, on point as usual

Why? And how? Ok, so the starting point, as so often when people whinge about the impact of new technology, is to point out that there’s nothing actually new about living in a relative bubble. Most people tend to predominantly hang out with other people who broadly share their outlook on life – whether deliberately, or just from the fact that people with similar backgrounds often have similar world views. And most British newspapers offer a decidedly partisan viewpoint. If anything, the internet has made it a great deal easier these days to find a wide range of opinions on any given issue at the touch of a button. Whether you touch that button, or not, is of course up to you.

Keeping yourself well-informed is ultimately the responsibility of the individual, and there are plenty of tools available both on- and off-line, whether a news aggregator app or your local corner shop. So your Facebook feed gives you a distorted view of the world – go look elsewhere for your balanced news and views, and encourage your friends to do likewise.

The other point in defence of the echo chamber is that, unless you want to go crazy, you need to apply some kind of filtering to your online life. Building bridges and fostering debate is all very well if you’re at the level of polite disagreement between reasonable adults, but let’s be honest, that isn’t always the case. Sadly, there are an awful lot of people out there with strongly-held opinions that are misinformed, bigoted, irrational, or just plain wrong. Seeing their views is infuriating at best, offensive at worst, and trying to debate with them is like playing chess with the proverbial pigeon.

My final point in defence of the echo chamber is that, for much of 2016, political discourse on my side of the fence has felt a lot like mourning. Hearing strident opposing views in that atmosphere would have felt like someone at a loved one’s funeral yelling out ‘I’m glad he’s dead I never liked him anyway!’. You might know some people feel that way, but you don’t want to let them into the wake.

Best wishes of the midwinter to you all, and may the returning sun light our way to happier times.

Going offline

OK folks, brace yourselves. This will be my last blog post until the middle of July, and you won’t be seeing me tweet either. Yep, I’m going offline. Well, sort of – I’ve decided to stay off social media for a month. Why? A few reasons. Part of it is that I find myself getting fed up with it: at times it seems that Facebook is nothing but baby pictures* and vegan propaganda, and my Twitter feed is an unholy mixture of cute kittens, wry observations, and horrific human rights abuses. And as for Tumblr – there are only so many gifs a girl can take.

But here’s the thing. However fed up I get, I still keep coming back for more, checking it all every day. First thing in the morning. Last thing at night. Innumerable times in between. Scrambling for my phone whenever I hear the ‘bing!’ telling me I’ve got a message, a retweet, a new follower, whatever… I think there’s a word for this sort of behaviour. It’s called addiction. And I don’t want too many addictions – the prescription drugs and afternoon tea are quite enough.

 

And another thing – social media takes up a lot of time. Time I could be spending doing something else. Writing. Baking cakes. Watching Eddie Izzard. Reading classic novels. In Search of Lost Time ain’t gonna read itself, and the title seems especially apt in this instance, as I try to reclaim those precious minutes of my life that have been spiralling down the social media drain.

 

It’s not that I think social media is inherently A Bad Thing. When I was laid low with back pain, it was a lifeline, a way to feel connected with the world outside my bedroom. But, like codeine, crack and Candy Crush, it sure is habit-forming. Now that I’m well enough to venture out a bit more, I need to kick that habit if I’m to create the time I need for the more important things in life. So I figure it’s the moment to go cold turkey, reset my brain, and see what I can achieve when I’m not scrolling through tweets all day. I’ll be back on here in a month and I’ll let y’all know how it’s gone. Meanwhile, it’s a blackout for me: no Facebook, no Twitter, no WordPress, no Tumblr, no YouTube. If you need to contact me, you’ll have to do so by good old-fashioned means, like text message, email, WhatsApp, or Skype.

 

*and sorry new parents, but they do all look the same