Perils of the Echo Chamber

Lately, there’s been a lot of discussions about “echo chambers” in online media. The idea behind the phenomenon is we have so much content to navigate that we often end up consuming points that confirm what we believe and skipping content that might contradict our point of view. There is an irony in this abundance; the more content you have at your disposal, the less you’re exposed to a diversity of opinion.

The echo chamber is a product of our culture’s attempt to cope with content overload. We can now create content at such an overwhelming rate, we have the need for experiences that filter out the “noise” – search engines that displayed results only relevant to our needs or smart social platforms that distills the content we care about. After all, why would anyone want content they don’t care about?

The insidious thing about all this content filtering is that as we become more digitally connected, the act of filtering out this “noise” can make us more ideologically divided. On an individual level, we risk losing perspective and empathy for differing opinions. On a mass level, we begin to see a polarization of cultures who spend more time arguing/maneuvering around viewpoints rather than just generally pushing things forward, (see the current political climate.)

The recent KONY 2012 campaign seemed to be a really instructive moment around the echo chamber. Most people learned about Joseph Kony through an emotionally charged, extremely savvy video created by Invisible Children. The video was so popular, it saw tens of millions of views within a weeks of its release. The overwhelming attention of this video created a fever-pitch conversation that exposed other points of view. In this moment, we were all brought together to make sense of such a macabre and sensational story. As people began to reason through these different inputs, the echo chamber collapsed. There was a conversation of complicated, differing opinions and through it people formed their own opinions.

This is an moment we should be thankful for. This is a moment where we’re emotionally lead in one direction, only to realize that the story had been packaged for easy digestion and the reality isn’t so simple. In these moments illustrate how certain conveniences (filtering) can create new blind spots (echo chambers).

(part one of two posts…next up, designing against the echo chamber.)

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