Social media amplifies human behavior. A few years ago, I thought Pandora (music) was the greatest thing. It used an algorithm to predict that I would like a song based on other songs I would like. I initially thought this would lead to discovery (my goal) as I would self-select an input, and trust in the software to open up new worlds for me. But it didn’t open up new worlds. It never strays too far from the center. Pandora knew this and adjusted their program enabling you to choose between crowd favorites, discovery, and new material. None of the social media accounts enables us to be intentional about our newsfeed. They let us select content we may not want to see anymore, but don’t understand the consequences of that choice. The Attention economy demands your eyeballs and ears. New and challenging ideas can lead to disengagement. Social media algorithms are tuned to keeping you paying attention. It gamifies our ability to find things that keep us coming back. Like an endless buffet. Endless buffets don’t cause obesity just as bars don’t cause alcoholism. But people who are prone to be obese or alcoholic find it much more difficult to control themselves when in a buffet or a bar. Humans, similarly, in an environment attuned perfectly to our dopamine hits, will act predictably, and that behavior turns into what you may call an echo chamber. The lack of control over our newsfeed, the opaque nature of the algorithms that dictate what we see, the focus on quantitative (how much time we spend on platform, how many likes did we click) instead of qualitative (do I feel closer to my friends after engaging) has lead to outcomes that manifest itself similarly to an echo chamber. You have to choose to actively want to engage with the other side, but even when you do, you’re fighting a machine you can not control, that changes at the whim, and whose motivations are not aligned with yours. Finally, let’s also recognize what Social Media is, a highlight reel of someone’s curated life and views. There’s no depth, little nuance – only soundbite equivalents of people’s complex emotions and thoughts. The way to combat is to cultivate conversations with people with differing viewpoints, and learn to listen and engage. But this is difficult, and poorly supported in today’s social media environment.
I think social media actually only accelerates or expands things that exist in humanity. Good and bad. More people have free speech and the means to reach the world (good). People’s biases or the perpetuation of lies get reflected and impact more (bad). The challenge in the world today is learning to live with the consequences of social media, in order to reap the benefits. So, does social media create or operate in echo chambers? Sort of… it more so takes the echo chambers that people naturally create around themselves, and expands them from a few or dozens, into hundreds or thousands.
We follow our friends, peers, or people who share interests. Understandably. There is nothing intrinsically wrong in our doing that nor is social media bad for enabling that; that’s a wonderful thing.
But in doing that, we see more of what we like – what we favor. Social media’s algorithms and targeting don’t do that, not to begin with, it happens naturally because we’ve all chosen the others that can reach and influence us; so that’s what we tend to see.
Social media doesn’t naturally create echo chambers, we do because of how we use it.
SOME more sophisticated social media sites (like Facebook) do lean in on that more. They sort from what all those friends like, to show us what is *most* liked… and since what is MORE liked among similar people is likely similar, the echo chamber we created becomes even more focused – driving our perception bias, confirmation bias, and validation of our opinions.
While something like a Facebook is amplifying it, it’s still people and our tendencies causing it.
Want to break it? Follow a ton of people with opposing views. Social media isn’t going to orient itself to do that for you, it doesn’t exist to force you to consume things with which you disagree; it exists to better connect you with who you like – it’s on us to break the natural outcome of that.