On the morning of 24th June many people in the UK were shocked on waking up to find the UK had voted to leave the European Union. In reality it was not such a surprising decision, all the polls showed the result would be very close. Those most shocked knew few people who voted to leave either in person or online. They were in an echo chamber, where they mainly heard views that aligned with their own.
The internet is the most powerful source of news and opinion there is. However, the internet and social networks may actually be reducing rather than enhancing our understanding of the world because of echo chambers. The danger of social networks is that we may only ‘friend’ people we agree with, in fact we may actively unfriend those we disagree with. This online community will then ‘echo’ our own views.
This is equally true of our professional networks. We link in with similar professionals that were often trained by the same professional body, we respect the same influencers in our industry and we read the same industry publications. We share similar views and orthodoxies.
The Danger of Echo Chambers
The danger of echo chambers is that information, ideas or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition. This is what causes posts to go viral on social media. A social or professional network can repeatedly share articles the community agrees with, thereby reinforcing the strength of the echo chamber. Some people may share or like articles simply to reinforce and assert that they are part of the tribe or community.
The echo chamber is not limited to social networks. Our choice of newspapers and TV channels can similarly narrow our view of the world. We may read the Guardian or the New York Times or watch Fox news to echo our own views. Writer Clay Shirky recently tweeted that people who don’t think Donald Trump can win the US presidential election are trapped in “the majority illusion, where you confuse your neighborhood with the world.” The same was arguably true of the UK discussion on the European Referendum. As Shirky goes on to say “Elections are a harsh corrective to thinking everyone agrees with you.”
Escaping the Echo Chamber
To escape the echo chamber it is essential that you have diversity in your network and news sources. In a study of financial traders MIT found that ‘social explorers’ with a diverse network performed better than those with a larger network. According to Sandy Pentland of MIT, these people spent “enormous amounts of time searching for new people and ideas—but not necessarily the best people or ideas. Instead, they seek to form connections with many different kinds of people and to gain exposure to a broad variety of thinking.”
Whilst there is value in seeing articles being shared by your friends or a group of professionals that you respect on Twitter, there is also a very real danger of ending up in an echo chamber. The same is true of just reading ‘quality’ newspapers or professional magazines.
The Value of Blogs and Diversity
Giles Wilkes of the Financial Times makes a strong case for reading diverse blogs in his article ‘How I learnt to love the economic blogosphere‘.
“I have found nothing as reliably good as the blogosphere. ..No one learns merely by reading conclusions. It is in the space between rival positions that insight sprouts up, from the synthesis of clashing thoughts…when the blogosphere is really on form, its interactions throw up insights of a depth and quality that the mainstream media simply cannot accommodate.”
Giles goes further:
“Some of most questionable [economic] analysis has come from so-called quality journalists and academics protected from debate.”
This is because echo chambers applaud rather than critically challenge ideas and viewpoints. They create a collective orthodoxy which leads to groupthink.
The Wall Street Journal Red Feed Blue Feed is a good experiment in presenting contrasting viewpoints. On a range of topics, they show well shared Facebook posts from extremely conservative and liberal sources side by side.
We created a similar experiment by taking the 5 most liberal and 5 most conservative influencers in US media on Twitter, and putting into a single briefing the content they are sharing on gun control. We just added their twitter handles into Anders Pink and filtered by the word gun control. Here is the briefing on gun control which is updated every few hours.
These may be extreme examples but are your sources wide enough to give you a balanced view of your industry or social trends? What are the dissenting or alternative views to the established orthodoxy in your communities?
Ensuring you have diversity with a balanced briefing
In my work at Anders Pink I have been reflecting on these discussions and on how to create a daily briefing that has diversity built in.
In my view the best briefings include content not just from selected ‘quality’ sites or RSS feeds or groups of influencers but from across the blogosphere and smaller niche sites. It does mean you get more content but it allows you to see many different viewpoints and perspectives.
I can think of nothing more dangerous and likely to create an echo chamber than just using say a selection of RSS feeds or only seeing what my network is sharing. If you only track your main competitors and they do the same, what will happen? You’ll end up all offering variations on the same products and services. Then a new competitor will come along with an original idea and turn your industry upside down. Don’t believe it? Just look at what Uber or AirBnB have done in their industries.
This is why an Anders Pink briefing will source articles from all websites and blogs not just major publications or RSS feeds. We don’t restrict any sources, though you can remove and block domains as is appropriate to your needs. This wide sourcing creates the diversity and serendipity will all need to have a wider perspective on our industries, trends and developments.
There may be some articles of poor quality that you want to skim past but the briefings will provide you with everything, not just the articles aligned with the views of your community. Go further, actively pull content into your briefings from people you disagree with, just add their Twitter handles. Even if you don’t read the posts, just skimming the headlines may widen your perspective.
Here are some example briefings that pull in content from all sources on the web:
Have a go at creating your own briefing on any topic you want. You can filter and block any domains or only see content from domains or feeds you like. However, why not start with seeing articles from across the whole of the web and have a look outside the echo chamber.