The Great Echochamber, or Why the Internet is Bad

The other day, I was looking on a forum for HTC Eris users about whether we were going to get an official Froyo (Android 2.2) install.  The top post on that topic was a link to an announcement, somewhere, and the user’s inference from that that Froyo would be rolled out to us.  The following four or five comments were mostly hopeful, with one person arguing disbelief, but also hope.

The next comment after htat was from the original poster, again linking externally to an article which supported his original claim. A respected blog had confirmed that there were rumors of HTC Eris getting Froyo.   This was excellent news! The very next post was someone else saying that the source for that article was the very forum topic we were all reading right now.

That was somewhat disheartening, and the final post in that topic was the original poster wryly lamenting the fact.  Since there were no other sources, perhaps it was even less likely. [ref]And it looks completely unlikely now.[/ref]

Sources matter, and being clear about what they are matters, but not everyone — even those who feel passionately about a topic check their sources.  Particularly when they are telling them exactly what they hope — or fear– to hear.

I’ve been on the Internet since 1988 or so. That was back before there was any Google, Mozilla or any kind or real web. You had your FTP and your gopher, archie and veronica to search them, and IRC and USENET to talk to other people.[ref]And of course email, always email. Email lists are just a more private version of what USENET represents[/ref] If anything the latter two were more the purpose of the Internet back then, which is to say user-generated content has always been King of the Internet.

The thing about IRC and USENET is that they are both fragmented into special interests. IRC has channels, USENET has interest groups. This is so you can find like minded people to discuss a particular topic. I sued to hang out in #bisex[ref]IRC channels are denoted by starting with a # sign.[/ref] and #charlotte on IRC in order to meet people of the same disposition. Occasionally people from other channels would come in and attempt to disrupt, but in general we didn’t see folks from #christian or #linux.  On USENET, I hung out in and[ref]Back before it got taken over by spam. It’s now soc.subculture.bondage-bdsm[/ref].  It was unlikely to see someone on both channels, and even if you did, off-topic conversations were to be taken offline, or to email at any rate.

IRC and USENET were designed to be focused and fragmented.  The implication is that you’d follow all the groups that interested you, and invest time where you most wanted. Communities formed around those groups and channels, and formed their own mores.  Some were more accepting of new people than others, and most had a FAQ that established the basic beliefs and arguments of the group.  Those mores dealt with how new people were added, and sometimes what other groups and channels were friends or enemies of the group.

In other words, just like human tribes, cliques, and any other social construct humans create.

Of course, in the new information society, which is partly a result of the web, there’s information about everything out there.  We hear more voices about more things than we ever could before. And this is really a great thing, normally.  We can communicate with more people, or find people who are more like us than the people physically close to us.

For marginalized people, this is pretty awesome, and finding kinky, bisexual,  polyamorous, nerdy people online was the biggest thing that happened to me after attending college and being around people that respected learning for the first time in my life.  To learn that there were words for people like me was pretty important.  These tiny communities, these tribes, are important.  They provide a safe haven to be different — and most everyone is different in some way.

Unfortunately those same communities are isolating.  Who, having found a safe space to be who they are wants to go into a dangerous space where they are at risk? That’s not the way people work, and it’s certainly not what happens.

The greatest power and biggest problem with the internet is that all it does is makes us more intensely what we are.  And we are human, and we bring all the greatest and worst of that to the Internet.  It binds us and separates us not physicality but by belief systems and interests.

Of course, I’m wrong to completely blame the Internet.  Any time that the number of information channels are too wide for a single person, then we get specialization and diversification.  That’s generally okay, but it has its problems,too.

Take, for example, this interview between Rachel Maddow and John Stewart.  I’ve been a fan of John Stewart for a long time, and I love seeing him  like this, away from his show, candid. Wisecracking a bit, but it’s more personal and less of an act.  He’s been beating the same drum for some time, about the way the media formulates the debate between conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats.

I’ve been enjoying Rachel Maddow for several months now, watching her web show. I think she and I have similar, if not identical, politics, and I like that she’s willing to criticize her side.  But I never doubted that she had a side.  In the interview with John Stewart she takes offense that he thinks she’s on a side, but then the next night she’s doing more political wrangling.

I watch her, of course, because her point of view is close to — and confirms mine.  I used to think that since she would criticize the president that made her (and by extension, MSNBC) fundamentally different than FOX.  But I gave it some more thought, and realized that MSNBC is the house that liberals built, as surely as FOX is one built by conservatives.

Take a look at this TED talk about the differences between the two groups, and you’ll see that liberal minded folks are going to criticize their leaders, and conservatives aren’t.  It’s the way their moral values settle out.  One is not superior to the other — this is Stewart’s point — they are different and both are necessary for balance.

As a liberal, FOX disgusts me, and I’m much more likely to agree with the points I hear on MSNBC. Like the guy with the Eris phone earlier, I want to hear the things that reinforce my world view.  It’s human nature.  I try to look at it critically, and often I skip whole sections of the Rachel Maddow Show, because she’s politicking in a way that’s very obvious (and annoying to me).  That’s the benefit of reading it on the web, of course, I can skip the stuff that I don’t agree with.

Of course, that’s also the problem, isn’t it?  I can just skip right over the stuff I don’t agree with. The stuff I don’t want to hear or don’t want to know.  I don’t need to be challenged, because there’s so much information out there that’s more comforting.

Maddow seems lost sometimes, when she covers some of the stories that come out of FOX news. People who question Obama’s birth certificate, or the ground zero mosque, or — more recently — the discussion of how much Obama’s trip to India is going to cost. She doesn’t understand how people come to believe this, and how the narrative works.

It’s the Internet, of course.  We have chose to listen to and talk to the people that we want to listen and talk to.  People that agree with us. Someone says something, and someone else repeats it.  A big name somebody maybe says something on the radio and the first person feels it’s confirmed.  Even if they were the source of the information. It echoes around that closed bit of people who have chose to listen to each other, and it takes on the vestige of truth.

There’s a great temptation to think these people are stupid, but I think that would be a mistake. Uncritical, perhaps, but they are listening to their echochamber, and they are hearing what they hear.  Certainly the left isn’t any better — in the 2004 election the echochamber that I was connected to was convinced that George W. Bush was financed by the vestiges of the Nazi Party.[ref]I was connected into MoveOn at the time, and this was what got me to abandon them entirely.[/ref]  And what about how he went AWOL from the Reserves.  People kept clamoring for proof he wasn’t a deserter.  These aren’t so very far from similar complaints from the right about Obama, and as baseless

And as staunchly believed by the people who said them.  It doesn’t make it true, but it’s a problem.

And it’s one that is exacerbated by the Internet.

If the fragmentation was bad 22 years ago, it’s even worse today. Social networks mean we see the people closest to us. At least when we joined a group we might see someone with a different point of view — even if only with respect to shared interests.  I know that’s a bit of an exaggeration,but if you see people doing things that you can’t fathom, it’s because of that divide, that separation between your echochamber and theirs.

It doesn’t make them right, but people are people first, and no one sets out to do evil (even if they accomplish it).  I’m not arguing tolerance for extreme bad behavior, just saying that if you see it, and can’t understand it at all, you have a little research to do, then it’s a warning sign that you need to educate yourself a bit.  I’ve had those moments, in 2004 I didn’t understand why anyone would vote for Bush, didn’t they know? Couldn’t they see? And yet one of my partners and close friends did so, and I didn’t understand why.  I never educated myself on that point, because emotions got in the way, but I think it’s a good idea, today, six years later.

You may still come down on the opposing side, but at least you have some empathy for the other side.  And maybe more leverage with talking to them to give them some empathy for you. Maybe I’m hopeful, but what I see about the Internet dividing us scares me a bit.

Google is prioritizing searches based on my social circle — while that means I’ll have better context searches, and find what I want faster, it means I won’t as easily find dissenting views.  Twitter makes the echochamber more echo-y, since it lacks any real ability for context.  Facebook is similar somewhat creating little nodes of people, very few of whom cross over.

It’s human nature, we huddle together around fires with those most like us, and the Internet lets us pull from a larger group so that even as we’re more connected to every human out there, we find people more like ourselves than ever before.  It connects and disconnects us.  And we need to be aware of it.

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