The Echo Chamber

I mentioned the echo chamber effect in passing in a previous post, and I think it deserves a little more time, because it has a key effect on our society.

Modern Usage

The new definition comes from social media. In this metaphor, we post our ideas to our social media feeds, which are populated by people who think like we do. The responses we get agree with us because, remember, our audience is preselected to think like we do. So all we hear are positive responses, no matter how cockamamie our ideas are. And all of us in our little circle talk the same opinion around and around and back and forth until we get the impression that “everybody thinks so.”

Which is complete BS, because we haven’t really been discussing the problem at all, just patting each other on the back about it. Discussion requires opposing points of view, and we are ignoring anyone that disagrees with us. All we are doing is strengthening a bias, moving is further and further down our narrow little tunnel.

In the Broader Field

You might think that this phenomenon is new to social media, but nothing could be further from the truth. No concept takes hold that quickly or performs that strongly unless it is supported by an aspect of human nature.

And if you look back to humanity’s tribal history, you will find the same thing. The tribe or the small, isolated village that has been the standard human social unit for thirty thousand years or so worked the same way as Facebook.

A small group of people with common problems and common background spend their lives together and meet regularly to express their opinions. They rarely get information or ideas from outside the group.

The Effect?

So they begin to form an us-against-them feeling. We all feel this way, and anyone who opposes our ideas becomes “them” and must be denied. This brings us back to Dunbar’s Number, which states that the human brain is hardwired to be able to comfortably maintain only 150 stable relationships. This group becomes “us.” Anyone further becomes “them.”

When you combine Dunbar’s ideas with the echo chamber, you begin to see the possibility for trouble. In today’s huge and complex society, people find their comfortable range of possible “us” stretched past the limit. The solution is to choose one leader, whether that leader is appropriate or not, and bring that person into our “us,” leaving us with 149 other friends. We simply listen to whatever that leader says and assume that anyone who disagrees is “them,” to be reviled, feared, and definitely not trusted.

And don’t think, because I’m talking about small villages and tribalism, that this phenomenon is restricted to hicks and rubes in the countryside. Businessmen who only talk to other businessmen are prone to the same urges. Teachers who only talk to other teachers the same.

So, when it comes to an election, it is very difficult to make a decision based on any realistic analysis of the issues. So many people will vote for one party or the other simply because their echo chamber or their small village of Facebook friends keeps saying over and over that this group is “us” and if we don’t get “our” party elected, some unknown and fearful apocalypse will ensue. The reason it is unknown is because we have been completely ignoring the ideas and people of other persuasions, so we don’t know anything about them. Which makes us even more fearful and throws us back on our small “us” group.

Not that this is all in our imaginations. Due to their warped brand of quasi-democracy, the Americans have fallen into a pretty deep pit. If the Liberals win next week’s election in B. C. it won’t be quite that bad. Just another four years of Mr. Christie’s favourite Biscuit mugging in her hard had and nothing being done unless it benefits her business friends.

Who knows, maybe this cloud will have a silver lining. Maybe the Liberals will finally do so much environmental damage that the Green Party will win enough seats to create an NDP minority government. That would be a change for B. C. It might even be democratic.



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