Living in a digital world, part 3 — the Internet echo chamber

Image cc license from Flickr user Librarian by Day:

After reading SES’s post “Thinking Big Thoughts: Blogs to Follow”, I added GOOD to my feed reader and I am happy I did — while I might not go so far as to read all the posts, there have been a fair number that interested me enough to click-through to the full article. One such post was Cord Jefferson’s Community Engagement: How the Internet Ruined My Perception of What’s Popular” and the concept of the Internet echo chamber, which led me to a new understanding about the ramifications of my dependence on RSS feeds for news and trends.

As someone who helped coordinate an effort to gather signatures on a petition to keep My So-Called Life on the air, I can appreciate Jefferson’s confusion at finding out that the television show Community was being put on indefinite hiatus. Everyone I knew liked My So-Called Life; students, teachers and parents signed the petition before we sent it off to the show’s producers. While there are any number of reasons or combination of reasons that lead television producers to cancel shows, we could not understand how a show that was so popular could be cancelled.

According to Jefferson, the answer is simple: the popularity of the show was exaggerated. Specifically, due to what Jefferson calls the “reblog effect on perception”, tweeting and retweeting, posting and reposting, one gets the impression that something is more popular than it really is because of the sheer volume of discussion generated.  In other words, because I like a show and many of my friends like the same show and we follow news sources and feeds relating to that show, based on what we read ands hare online, we assume that the show is universally popular.  This theory explains why  I was surprised when shows I liked were cancelled and shows I didn’t like remained on the air: those I followed and the sources I consulted thought as I did and felt as I felt, and I mistook this for a more universal adherence to my beliefs.  Perhaps I had been living and working in an Internet echo chamber?

From what I can glean online, an Internet echo chamber is:

  • “Like-minded people, talking only with one another, usually end up believing a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk.” — From The Comedian, attributed to Clay Shirky
  • “[T]hose Internet spaces where like-minded people listen only to those people who already agree with them.” — David Weinberger in a 2004 post at Salon

Although new to me, the concept of an Internet echo chamber is not a new to everyone — a quick Google search returns results from 2004 through the present, covering blogs, tweets, news articles, and opinion pieces on everything from failures of political campaigns to the discovery of previously-unknown Ansel Adams images.  Apparently, no one in the Internet echo chambers I frequent had discussed this topic, as the concept has been discussed more frequently than my personal experience had led me to believe.

Jefferson concludes: “[O]n the internet, we’ve convinced ourselves we’re seeing the world, while actually seeing tiny subcultures we’ve created around the same biases and preferences we have offline.” The feed reader has not put the whole web at my fingertips but only a small hand-selected group of resources, consciously and unconsciously screened; I gravitate to those online spaces that are most interesting to me, that share my opinions, that feature discussions that are of importance and interest to me.

In concluding, it seems appropriate to share the following quotation relating to the dangers of the Internet echo chamber, from an opinion piece by Jacqui Cheng at Ars Technica:

The Internet echo chamber is most apparent in RSS—mildly amusing items multiply across friends’ Tumblrs like rabbits on crack, and controversial items seem to invite commentary from every single person (and possibly some cats) who has access to a keyboard. This is, of course, one of the great benefits to the Internet—everyone has a voice—but it is not a great benefit to your productivity or sanity.

I have the freedom to avoid or ignore those opinions that I find morally offensive or the humour that I do not appreciate; but I should not forget that these voices are there. It is important to remember that the feeds I view are those I’ve chosen, not an unbiased cross-section of all Internet sources.
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