One unusual by product of the social media explosion has been the speed with which the language we speak and write absorbs new phrases. In a pre-internet age it could take years for a turn of phrase to pass from a sub culture – from go-getting businessmen to rappers from the ATL- into mainstream discourse. Now an idiom can be passed (some would say be stolen) from the schoolyard and crowbarred into a sassy Guardian article quicker than you can say “on fleek” (see; Queen Bey, fierce meaning good, calling your mates your squad etc etc). On the same tip (see what I did there?) there has been the rapid dissemination of business speak; meaningless phrases like “it is what it is” or “don’t throw them under the bus” have crept into our everyday interactions. In this rapid flow of culture, a concept umbrella’d under a catchy phrase can embed itself in public consciousness without ever really being challenged. I would argue that that is exactly what has happened with the idea of ‘the echo chamber’.
As a concept, the echo chamber has been knocking around since the mid noughties. Originally used to describe the media’s reluctance to break a story unless it was already broken by another source (as described in this short article on Rev Sun Myong Moon), the phrase really captured the public imagination when used to describe social media interactions in the wake of Labour’s defeat at the 2015 elections. The surprise that the left wing felt at the defeat of Labour was attributed to the echo chamber by commenters on both the left and the right. I’d contend now that this is a misleading picture. While confirmation bias may have pushed people into thinking Labour might win, it was nowhere near as influential as repeatedly inaccurate opinion polls. One of the main reasons Labour lost so spectacularly was a collapse of their vote in Scotland. That no one outside of Scotland saw this coming has less to do with any echo chamber, and more to do with Labour arrogance, and a total refutation of Gordon Brown’s interference in the Scottish Independence Referendum. The shock could have happened just as easily in 1983 as it did in 2015. But the echo chamber notion stuck.
In the run up to the EU referendum I’ve seen the idea of the echo chamber referred to constantly across social media. It tends to be used in one of two ways, either apologetically; as in “I know I’m just speaking to the echo chamber”, or dismissively; “all your ideas are reinforced by the echo chamber you exist in- if you broke out you’d see the real truth.” There appears to be an accepted notion that our online lives have become a high walled, self-sustaining eco-system of people endless confirming facts to one another, utterly aware of a similar camp of people with opposing views who are doing the exact same thing a couple of clicks away. Both uses of the term shut down attempts to enter discourse and are, I think, extremely unhelpful.
The fact is, from my anecdotal experience, and my experience of this EU referendum in particular, I’ve had more encounters with people with opposing views to my own via social media than I would ever, ever have had in real life. The idea that pre-facebook, Britain was a country full of well-informed citizens holding complex, spirited debate in charming village halls ‘pon a Friday evening can only have be dreamt up by someone who’s never been to a pub in Kent. Rather than the chaotic flood of information and ever growing networks social media presents, my youth offline was completely defined by echo chamber environments. I don’t know about your county, but Kent is packed with pig-ignorant bigots; people who’ve moved to the Garden of England so they could espouse their bollocks fantasies of a long lost Britain down the local boozer, safe in the knowledge that no one will contradict them. Why do you think Farage tries to get elected in Ramsgate? As for me, as a teenager I responded in kind, surrounding myself by people and places that would emphatically mean I didn’t have to deal with some spluttering old mug ranting about darkies. We carefully built our separate worlds and tried to have a minimum of contact. This was something of a survival mechanism – disagree with someone on twitter and you get blocked. Disagree with someone in Herne Bay and you can look forward to picking up your fillings with broken fingers.
Social media is different, and I think it’s worth remembering the access it gives us to people who we’d never normally speak to. Imagine if the way social media worked, worked in the real world. Imagine you were in our imaginary Kentish pub (not actually imaginary, I can think of several genuine locations, but never mind), and you said something about the death of Jo Cox, and then some guy you once met at a party in Totness appeared from out of nowhere to tell you that Jo Cox was actually murdered by a German secret service formed in the wake of World War II who had developed the spies holy grail of ‘weaponised cancer’ (in short, someone like this lunatic). Then, your cousin who still lives with his mum pops up to call the new comer a spastic or something equally offkey, and then one of his mates, essentially a total stranger, starts bashing out VOTE LEAVE all over your timeline, followed by one of your in-real-life actual friends popping up to take the piss of the whole sorry state by calling for calm with a cute floral meme. Before you know it you’ve got the pub packed with people further and further degrees from your life. Your ex-boss. His mistress. Her personal trainer (turns out you’ve got 3 friends in common). A joke account called Millenial Falcon. The pub is heaving under the weight of a real life mega thread, the walls rattling as people bellow opinions in one others faces. At least 5 people say cockwomble. Remarkably no one gets to punch anyone.
No British physical social space has ever, or will ever be like this. But the internet often is. If it is an echo chamber, it’s an unusually breach-able one. It contains a chance to reach out to a huge assortment of opinions and personalities – and often, sometimes wearyingly so, it allows them to reach out to us.
Yes, there are people, places, forums where information is shared back and forth until it becomes solidified in the minds of participants. Back in the olden days this was called ‘reading the newspaper’. The thing about a newspaper is that no one is going to pop up and question the veracity of the opinion column half way through. Should I wish to nip over to the Britain First facebook group and interrupt an Enoch Powell appreciation thread with the news that Powell was a practicing Muslim who once shat his pants whilst waltzing with a gypsy man atop the cenotaph, who’s to stop me? I’m right up in your echo chamber! It feels so good!
Seriously though. Whilst it’s understandable that people curate their surroundings to closely recognise their thoughts (because no one decorates their house with pictures they hate), these surroundings are nowhere near as impenetrable as their real world equivalents. I’m as unlikely to walk into a skinhead pub as a Tory from Tunbridge is to walk into a squat rave, but virtually we can do either, so online these disparate worlds can and do collide. If we could manage these collisions without the inevitable animosity and friction, if we could use these collisions to try and shift mindsets or form consensuses, then there might be some small chance of making the country a slightly better place. Or, at the very least, I can tell a meathead to get fucked without being murdered. As far as I can see, we’ve been in the echo chamber our whole life. Maybe for the first time, blinking and confused, we’re starting to venture out.
The main image in this piece is by Christophe Vorlet, stolen from a David Byrne article that says pretty much the opposite of this article. I'm going to post a link to it here http://davidbyrne.com/the-echo-chamber thus proving it wrong - Ha! take that Byrne!