About Echo Chambers

Recently, I happened on the end of a discussion about Echo Chambers in technology.  I don’t presume to know the entire content and context but I’ve heard that discussion many times before.  “Hang around Twitter and develop a PLN and you end up just talking to the same people about the same things with a shark feeding frenzy.”  

Even at conferences or places where supposedly like minds meet, there is a danger of this sort of thing.  My friend Ron calls it the “A-List” and, in education, you know who are on this list.  They stick to their group, never expanding, and then send out Twitter messages “Please drop by and say hi” and then proceed to ignore those who make the attempt . 

There’s a real risk (or opportunity, I suppose) to get caught up in that mindset.

But, it doesn’t have to be that way.  Even with Twitter, there are millions of people and entities, and a well rounded user, searching all sides to any discussion, should reach out and follow all voices.  I will concede that Twitter does represent a certain subset of society.  A – they need to have minimal computer skills and be connected to the Internet and B – they need to be curious enough to try it out and get involved in conversations.  Fair enough. 

If you limit your discussions to that platform, you need to consider alternatives.  I had to smile at a recent post by Stephen Hurley, titled “Moving to the Edge” where he talks about the perspective that one gets when they gather the courage and move to a different vantage point.  In his case, Stephen talked about a recent stroll that he had at a Nova Scotia town and how a walk out on the rocks gave him a different view.  What made me smile was that I had the same conversation with my wife on a recent mini-adventure that we had.  I won’t presume to compare Colchester Harbour with Stephen’s Nova Scotia but a walk to the end of the pier and then out to the rocks on the breakwall, reveals an entirely different look of the beautiful community.  But it only happens when you take the walk.

The same thing needs to apply with online discussions and followup actions.  Limit yourself to a small subset on a single service and you’ll find yourself plopped into the proverbial Echo Chamber.  The smart person expands her circles to include voices of all opinion.  The conversation shouldn’t be limited to one service.  Try to continue it via Facebook or Google+.  There are a world of people who have opinion and ideas for innovation.  

Is there a danger of limiting yourself to just people using technology?  Perhaps – if you need to talk to luddites, there are places to have that discussion but I would suggest that you’re probably not going to make any progress.  

You need to make those connections, expand your sphere of contacts, get involved, and learn all that there is to learn.  It helps to define and refine the target.  Isn’t that the ultimate goal?



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9 responses to “About Echo Chambers”

  1. Stephen Hurley (@Stephen_Hurley) Avatar

    Great post, Doug. The personal mention aside, the idea of engaging multiple perspectives is important…not always comfortable, but important. I remember the day that I decided to wander onto the Society for Quality Education (http://societyforqualityeducation.org) website. It wasn’t long before I was surrounded by voices that wondered who I was and what I was doing there. I was caught in an echo chamber to be sure, but not much resonated.

    It was actually that experience, and the subsequent frustration in trying to have my own point of view heard/respected that inspired the creation of voicEd.ca

    I think that the process of getting comfortable with different perspectives (and they don’t always have to be diametrically opposed) is a slow one for some but, you know, I think that it could very well be one of the keys to the change that we want to see. Polarization exists within every topic of conversation (well, maybe not when you talk about the Leafs). The only advantage, as I see it, is that polarization clearly defines the edges.

    I’ve rambled a bit, but I appreciate having the opportunity to respond!


  2. Conrad Kuiper Avatar

    You are absolutely right. We have a natural tendency to fall into the trap of confirmation bias. Too often, this leads to groupthink. It takes work to consider opinion which challenges ones favoured conceptions. I think skilled leaders are ones who avoid surrounding themselves with “yes men”.


  3. dougpete Avatar

    I tend to agree with you, Conrad. The more thoughtful opinions you can gather help you make the best informed decision.


  4. dougpete Avatar

    Stephen, that’s an interesting observation about polarization defining the edges. If we extend that logic, it also helps to define the centre as well. Perhaps the definition of compromise fits here?


  5. John T. Spencer Avatar
    John T. Spencer

    I’ve always felt on the fringe of the Ed Tech community (more of a blogger who focusses on reform, reflection, etc.) And yet, when I was at ISTE, I realized that the “in crowd” is far more inclusive than people seem. Any community takes time to break into. However, I haven’t found the “A list” concept to be true of my own experiences.


  6. Jane Mitchinson Avatar

    I’m not sure that all it takes is having minimal computer skills and a desire for conversation. It’s been my experience that the forming of a PLN using Twitter happens in various stages (the same could be said for any type of social media). Most of us come into the public sphere and immediately look for people we already know. These are people we trust to bring us in and put up with our lack of knowledge in how Twitter works technologically and socially. As we start to understand the general workings of the space, we may branch out a bit more and reach out to others and broaden our base. We may start to converse with people we don’t know or we may choose to stay with a select group of people for various reasons-the later of which is where the fear of the echo chamber lurks. You bring up the navigation of cliques when you mention the A-listers keeping to themselves. Could it not be said then, that a special skillset is required to navigate the social waters in Twitter? That’s a much taller order than having basic computer skills and a desire to talk. It’s also a factor in what communities we form and how we interact within them.

    Something else strikes me about online communities. We can’t assume that everyone is going to form communities for the same purposes, or even use the same technologies in the same way. I’ve been following a discussion lately about whether Facebook or Twitter is a better social medium. The answer is that neither is better-they both have different purposes depending on the user. That’s why your comment Doug, about the importance of expanding to different platforms really resonated with me. I have a confession-I don’t really like Twitter all that much for PLN conversation. I don’t have the skillset to navigate the social waters effectively in 140 characters and I’m okay with that. So I use Twitter mostly to keep on top of new developments and research, to point me in the direction of interesting content and blogs (like this one). For me, Twitter is a bouncing board to other PLN places. Just personal choice.

    Some quotes I dug up from Henry Jenkins about online communities:
    “Interactivity is a property of the technology, while participation is a property
    of culture.”
    ““Knowledge forms around mutual intellectual interests; their members work
    together to forge new knowledge often in realms where no professional
    expertise exists; the pursuit of and assessment of knowledge is at once
    communal and adversarial.”


  7. Michael Doyle Avatar

    Is there a danger of limiting yourself to just people using technology? Perhaps – if you need to talk to luddites, there are places to have that discussion but I would suggest that you’re probably not going to make any progress.

    “Progress” is a funny word, and often used as a saber.

    You’re risk cutting out not just a few voices but some deep communities that do, despite our dominant dopamine-driven culture, have something to offer.

    Wendell Berry has some worthwhile things to share, We may be begging the Amish for how to grow food well when oil gets scarce (and they will gladly share this news today).


  8. […] About Echo Chambers | doug – off the record […]


  9. Jane Mitchinson Avatar

    I have to agree with Michael. In the original Twitter discussion, I lamented that educators who are not technologically savvy are missing in the (educational) conversation. Since many topics move beyond discussing just the technology (thank god), we are missing a group of voices. I feel there’s a growing disrespect for these teachers on the Internet and it makes me sick. You can’t dismiss years and years of teaching experience just because someone is not technologically literate. Again, have we forgotten that Twitter is just a tool for conmmunication?


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