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Sunday, August 8 2010

Escaping the Internet’s Echo Chamber

HonestReporting's social media editor, Alex Margolin, contributes occasional posts on social media issues. He oversees HonestReporting on Facebook.

Personalization The rise of social media has made it easier to share information and to promote important ideas. Even a short amount of time spent on Twitter or even Facebook will reveal a massive number of posts containing links to online content people want to share with their friends and online acquaintances.

Increasingly, people are getting their news from these sources instead of traditional media outlets. In many cases, people no longer feel they need to follow traditional sources of information at all. If something is worthy of their attention, they reason, it will ultimately find its way into “the conversation” online.

This sort of democratization of media – where everyone can post a link to an article or blog post, or even write their own article or blog post – is often cited as one of the biggest benefits of the social web. Indeed, thanks to Google’s PagerRank algorithm, every link is viewed as a “vote” for content on Google’s search engine, the most important aggregator of content on the Internet.

But the increase in available content has also generated a parallel need to filter information. With so much content coming from every direction, people have found it essential to limit their consumption of media to sources they trust and value.

One popular form of filtering is known as “personalization.” This is one of the fundamental principles of sites like  Facebook, where our “news stream” shows us what our friends are doing, but nothing else. Personalization is appealing because it keeps us connected with the people we trust most.

At the same time, personalization contributes to a different phenomenon increasing across the Internet – the atomization of audiences into narrow affinity groups, many of which never interact with one another online.

The result is a form of echo chamber, where we hear our own opinions echoed back to us by like-minded people. The effect strengthens our convictions on many issues, but closes us off to alternative viewpoints.

It even happens on sites with no agenda other than to sell us things we like, such as Amazon.com. The site personalizes its services by storing information about their visitors and creating individualized recommendations. As such, people see more of what they have purchased before, and less of everything else.

In the book, The Wisdom of Crowds, published in 2004, a few years before sites like Facebook and Twitter had even been created, James Surowiecki warned about the need for diversity in groups.

Homogenized groups become cohesive more easily than diverse groups, and as they become more cohesive they also become more dependent on the group, more insulated from outside opinions, and therefore more convinced that the group’s judgment on important issues must be right. These kinds of groups share an illusion of invulnerability, a willingness to rationalize possible counterarguments to the group’s position, and a conviction that dissent is not useful.

The current trends on the Internet, however, make diversity within groups more difficult. On the other hand, the Internet also provides a smorgasbord of opinions from the widest possible spectrum. All that’s needed is a willingness to look for it.

Previously in Alex's series: Google Earth and the Rise of "Neogeography"

 

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Comments

Thanks Alex. What happens, though, when the traditional media outlets are either openly biased (think the Guardian) or have so far departed from honest reporting that they offer little clarification?

Most people lead too busy lives to buy and read a selection of newspapers from across the political spectrum, and many also lack the capability to synthesise what they read in order to come to realistic conclusions about what might really be going on.

As for the internet as a source, you also describe stimulus overload, which causes the same problems.

This means that, unless we are very careful indeed, we are open to any off-the-wall message, from any religious or political group, continuously repeated in a way which chimes with our thinking.

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