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How to Escape the Echo Chamber

Ever felt a sense of nostalgia for the quiet country villages of yesteryear? Well you need not feel too deprived, argues Alastair Roberts in a Mere Orthodoxy blogpost: modern life, awash as it is with social media interactions, is quite similar to a Jane Austen’s Meryton—at least, similar in its pernicious effects.

The ‘density’ of [our social] environments and the closeness of the bonding within them produce a cosiness that is welcome for many, but which is generally quite resistant to contradiction, conflict, criticism, and genuine difference. Such characteristics and behaviours as likeability, empathetic connection, mutual vulnerability and mutual affirmation, personal resonance, relatability, and inoffensiveness are essential to the operation of such environments, but these characteristics and behaviours largely preclude openness to criticism and challenge of the group and its conforming members. Those who make firm criticisms will readily be classed as ‘haters’ or enemies of the group and driven out with hostility, while the group reaffirms itself and its members of their rightness and the vicious character of all opponents, reinforcing all of their prejudices and steadily inuring all members to criticism.(4) Such communities will also often engage in rigorous ‘policing’ of deviant viewpoints and, like the stereotypical mediaeval villagers, will frequently enact swift and merciless mob justice upon those who do not conform as they ought.

… Austen insightfully recognized the manner in which our delight in tight-knit, pleasant, and agreeable communities—and in conversations marked by ‘mutual satisfaction’—renders us susceptible to deep distortions of communal discourse, knowledge, and judgment. When we are all so relationally cosy with each other, we will shrink back from criticizing people in the way that we ought, voluntarily muting disagreement … . In such contexts, a cloying closeness stifles the expression of difference and conversations take on a character akin to the ‘positive feedback loop’ that existed in Wickham and Elizabeth’s conversation, where affirmation and assent merely reinforced existing prejudices. In such contexts, communities become insular (a tendency that can be exacerbated by algorithms), echo chambers of accepted opinion, closed to opposing voices.

We can see these tendencies on social media today—in the quick spread of viral hashtag campaigns, in the way people congregate around (or against) major celebrities or politicians, and bully all who do not join them. How do we combat these tendencies?

In order to escape “social saturation,” Roberts calls for opposing voices (in the case of Elizabeth and Meryton, a Mr. Darcy who will speak the truth with ruthless persistence) and for a separation from the toxic influences of the village (Elizabeth’s journey to Charlotte Lucas becomes a crucial turning point in the novel, as she confronts her biases and prejudices for the first time). The first may be discoverable, even online. Much depends on the social media community that we curate. The second, however, is difficult to accomplish: “Our communities can follow us almost everywhere we go and, unless we are determined to escape them and to resist their encroachments, the privacy and solitude that we require for self-presence and introspection will no longer so naturally afford themselves to us.”

These words reminded me of a book review I read yesterday, one that addressed both a need for opposing voices, and for places of introspection and mental quiet. In his review of The Meaning of the Library, Brian Bethune specifically considers one librarian’s explanation for our continued (if not growing) need for the space:

[Libraries] had better survive, argues James Billington, who considers them crucial in the defence of global democracy, for the librarian-less Internet is no substitute. Billington, head of the world’s largest “foraging ground for the pursuit of truth,” the 158-million-item Library of Congress, writes that guidance through a knowledge jungle is invaluable. Even more important, online life resembles an echo chamber, while in a library, contradictory arguments sit side by side on a shelf. That makes the latter, Billington proclaims, the world’s best “antidotes to fanaticism.”

Both Billington and Roberts see online life as an echo chamber, a place of escalating conflict or social homogeneity, a place where it seems increasingly impossible to find or formulate objective, thoughtful, nuanced opinions. But Billington has at least a partial solution to Roberts’s problem: he sees the library, with its physicality, its volumes of Darcy-like truth-telling, and its quiet sense of presence, as an antidote to our problem.

The problem is, of course, that few people frequent libraries with any sort of regularity. But it seems that bookstores could in fact create a similar environment, and provide a similar antidote. The key elements to Billington’s solution seem to be the physicality of books, and their straightforward presentation of arguments or opinions that may be completely novel—and/or irksome—to the reader. This, coupled with an environment that encourages quiet reflection, may help prompt the visitor to overcome their social biases. They can spur the visitor to read and reflect.

This is something that television cannot do—saturated as it is with advertisements and entertainment. Even when we see opinion presented in the form of a documentary, it rarely comes in a form that is suited to thoughtful consideration. To keep the watcher engrossed, the filmmaker must use elements of sensationalism: emotive music, frightening or emotional images, hyperbolic statements, dazzling camera shots. All of these things impress the viewer, often beyond the actual subject matter of the argument itself. Moreover, television’s otherness encourages a sort of mental and physical separation on the part of the watcher. It fosters passivity and acceptance, perhaps even more so than the Internet.

This is also something that radio cannot do, though it encourages a greater degree of interaction than television. But radio also falls prey to the scare tactics and emotive sensationalism of television—along with some of the communal shaming tactics of the Internet. One need only listen to talk radio for a short amount of time to see these elements in action.

It seems that books—with their combination of physicality and otherness, quietness and intellectual confrontation—present the best way for us to combat the toxic echo chambers of social media. They pull us out, give us a place of escape, confront our intellectual and spiritual weaknesses, then send us back into the online community better than when we stepped out of it.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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