Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Echo Chamber Effect

One of the reasons I have concern for the future of our world is a little something known as the echo chamber effect. Briefly, this is the tendency of people to gravitate towards sources of information that will reinforce their own beliefs regarding events or topics of interest to them.

The echo chamber effect is hardly a recent phenomenon. In what perhaps may be an apocryphal quote, Pauline Kael is supposed to have said regarding the landslide victory of Richard Nixon over George McGovern in 1972, "I can't believe Nixon won. I don't know anybody who voted for him".

New media gets accused of fomenting echo chambers, but old media has them as well. Fox News is a comfortable echo chamber for people with Neocon leanings. MSNBC is a comfortable echo chamber for those who feel that King George the Dim is the cause of all the world's problems, as well as for those who think that Big Dick Cheney is the cause of said problems.

But new media - particularly blather radio and blogs - are especially susceptible to the echo chamber effect.

I started to ruminate on this subject late last week because of my recent experiences over at Caput Penitus Culus. Talk about your echo chamber!

There are basically three types of people at that site, besides the loathsome reptile who hosts it: female authoritarians who want to force their worldview on others; bigots; and the willfully stupid (yes Stamp, that would be you). Each of these archetypes enters the blog with a worldview they desperately want to reinforce. Each comes away with exactly what they wished for - EXCEPT when some "troll" like me comes along questioning certain aspects of their beliefs.

Troll. It's an interesting concept. The textbook definition of a troll is someone who shows up uninvited at your site to argue for the sake of arguing, a disruptor, an agitator. What a troll is in practice is someone who shows up at an echo chamber with a different viewpoint than that of the denizens of the site. You can tell a lot about a site and its proprietor by the tolerance shown to alternative viewpoints; at Caput Penitus Culus, FLDS Texas, and other like sites, you're likely to have your comments deleted and your access to enter comments blocked.

Partly because of my libertarian political leanings, but also because I've seen it demonstrated masterfully at Vox Popoli during the 7+ years I've been reading that blog, I think I've managed to a large extent to avoid hosting yet another echo chamber. But (and this is an important concept to grok) I can't be the judge of that; only those who read this blog and other blogs with differing viewpoints can accurately say whether I've been successful on that count or not.

Okay, what's the point, Vulture? The point is this: our nation used to have a tradition of tolerance for opposing viewpoints. Now, with the echo chamber effect, we're not inclined to hear, let alone respect, differing viewpoints. This is unhealthy intellectually, and it's unhealthy for the continuing health of a Constitutional republic.

But what do I know? According to the Caput a Palos, I'm not too bright. Then again, considering the source, I might just be an effin genius...