On -isms: Disabling the Echo Chamber

By | Thursday, February 05, 2015 3 comments
X-Race Spex by Matt Bors
Like most people, I have several different social circles that I travel within. There's my family, my wife's family, my co-workers, friends I know through comics, friends I know back from high school... There's some overlap among them, but not a lot. And I think most of the people I know recognize that I have these other social circles, even if they've never met anyone in them.

The constant in all of those relationships, of course, is me. But how I interact with each of the people in those different groups is going to be a bit different. I don't talk to my parents the way I talk to my wife. I don't talk to comics people the same way I talk to someone at the office. The term "code-switching" has come en vogue lately to refer to this phenomenon, although it's often used specifically in reference to how people act differently in different racial groupings.

In the past few years, though, those lines have blurred more than a little with the rise of social media. Now, not only can your friends and coworkers see who's in your other social circles, but they can see how you speak/act with them. You can still curate which version of yourself shows up on which platform, but they're still comparitively public and there's a lot more bleed-over than there used to be.

Here in 2015, this isn't news. My LinkedIn profile has been getting automatic links to my blog posts about comics for years. Everyone who's connected with me via Facebook, regardless of where I know them from, can see what pages I've Liked going back to when I first signed up. There's been an ongoing discussion I've heard from people who are parents and have to tell their kids not to post online all the dumb crap that kids do because a future boss might see it.

But in the past, say, six or eight months, I've seen a number of people throw their hands up, and basically say, "I can't take it any more!" They're seeing too much information about people they know that they find upsetting, and they're no longer able to emotionally deal with that. In some cases, they've curtailed--but not cut off entirely--their online voice and in some cases, they've stopped entirely. I've even had a couple friends who expressly told me they were quitting Facebook for a while because it was becoming too upsetting.

What I find interesting--and this is speaking only anecdotally, of course--is that the people I know like that? They've all been white. And several of them I got into heated arguements with around things like what bigotry is and how many of the police actions that made national headlines last year had strong racial components. These are people who I've known, in some cases, for decades and we have a long history of not getting into disagreements much more serious than whether Kirk or Picard was a better starship captain. Now they're seeing me point out things that I view as social injustices, and they don't feel they are.

Now how I interpret this is that, in seeing a version of me they typically wouldn't -- the guy who responds very strongly to powerful editorial cartoons and has a mind enough to expand on some of the themes presented in them -- their comfortable bubble is threatened. It's more comfortable and comforting, after all, to surround yourself with completely like-minded messages. You create essentially an echo chamber where your own thoughts and ideas are constantly reflected back at you. But the barriers that we mentally and emotionally put up when we're within a specific social circle are more fluid as we have more interactions (even if it's indirect) with multiple social circles simultaneously. The mindset of everyone I went to high school with is different than the mindset of my wife's family, and seeing some of those discrepencies can be uncomfortable if you're not open to them.

And I don't know that that's a bad thing. I'm not out here trying to be a Social Justice Warrior, but I will point out editorial cartoons and news articles that are addressing issues I suspect many people in some of my social circles would prefer to not think about. But if they don't think about them, they're not going to get addressed, so at the risk of ruining friendships, I'll keep putting these messages in front of them. (And, hey, if the friendship does get ruined because they can't stand me saying that maybe racism is a bad thing, maybe they weren't really friends in the first place.)

I'm sure there's a good chunk of people in my social circles who have, by now, written me off as some punk-ass liberal who clearly doesn't have any understanding of what's going on in the world. Fine. Much as I'd like to change their minds, I won't. And the circles of folks that are more of my own choosing? They're more like me in their thought process already, so there's no real sense of disagreement in the first place. But some of those people in the middle? They're the ones I might be able to impact. By deliberately letting those lines blur -- by letting comics' from my friends show up in front of people who might not see them, or might be deliberately avoiding the types of messages they convey, maybe I can help knock down those echo chamber walls and open a few people's eyes, uncomfortable as it may be for them.

My point is that I can deliberately work to dismantle the bubble they're tried hard to create. If they can't handle a does of reality from outside their bubble, maybe that's all the more reason that bubble needs to be popped.
Lucky Ducky by Ruben Bolling The K Chronicles by Keith Knight On Police and Deomgraphics by Blue Delliquanti
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Matt K said...

I feel I should point out that there is at least one other side to this: presumably there are people who not only believe that you are ignorant and wrong, but that you're the one living in the bubble and that you and the world would be helped by bursting it.

Having seen a longtime friend turn into that, it's difficult for me to be completely unsympathetic to people who want to escape it. I did.

The devil may well be in the details. How much "pushing" is okay, e.g., and where is the line between "I'm posting this to my page that you can see if you want" vs "I'm invading your space with it." As social media tend intentionally to blur that line, defining where reasonable begins and ends is probably grown all the more murky.

I suppose that this is just something that nags at me. I certainly feel that epistemic closure is a large and growing problem in our culture… but I also feel that it's tricky to define, because one party can be perpetually ready to argue without truly engaging in an intellectually honest fashion. Which gets tedious enough that another party might be easily excused for just turning that channel off. Except that, assuming he or she cares, it's very difficult to find an objective test for "which one of us has put up a wall to valid debate?"

I think that so far I have identified and passed circumstantial tests that satisfy me… but then, I might be biased mightn't I?

Valid points, Matt.

My general thinking is that I'm okay with people pushing, provided that's not all they're doing. If they keep "reminding" me about their personal cause, that's fine with me as long as I don't feel that's all they're using that platform for. I don't want to feel like it's a bot just spitting back links from some alogorithm.

And this is just me, of course, but I talk about comics in general, and runnning marathons, and pirates, and my dog, and... I'm presenting -- or at least trying to present -- a full person with a variety of interests, but who sometimes brings up issues of social injustice sometimes. If someone does nothing but repeat the same issue over and over, and it's one that I disagree with, I'll get tired of that really quickly. So I think it's important to also include all the stupid crap like music I'm listening to, participating in memes, sharing silly cat videos, and all that stuff that makes me a real person that can be empathized with.

Matt K said...

Good thoughts. I don't know if it addresses all of my hand wringing… heaven forbid ;-) …but that is a great standard to have in mind just on its own.