The theatre of the absurd today:
Echo chambers and context collapse are nothing new. Neither is the paradoxical erosion of human communication at the expense of communication technology.
“The more we elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate.” (J.B. Priestly)
To the attentive ear, it has long become apparent that technological advances in communication do not always result in “better” communication. The Yorkshire playwright was first to describe the phenomenon, cultural heir apparent to Beckett, Havel and Ionesco.
The “Theatre of the absurd” post WW2 focused on the disappearance of existential meaning, and breakdown in communication. More words, more radio, more telephone, and less exchange actually happening. Less intent and emotion behind each word. Syllogisms, repetition and conviction, divorcing words from historical or cultural context. Repeating enough times, enough quasi-logical sophisms, or unverifiable claims and fallacies.
Part through world war trauma and poetic licence, part simple observation, they chronicled this worrying trend 70 to 50 years ago. Strangely the alarm bells they rang about blind faith in the communication technology of the time (radio, phone, TV) does not seem to have been updated today.
Natural networks vs. social media networks
The same principles are true of social media which has the potential to make us lazy with language. Make us complacent about information with the constant smog of info tidbits we are peppered with. From “connections” and “friends” who we do not really know. Notifications and search impressions gradually eroding the natural intimacy of communication.
Archaic as they may compare meeting friends or receiving a hand-written letter from a loved one will always bring higher meaning and emotion. Face to face conversation always provides richer, modular communication. And is contextual to the tone and audience. Not something possible online, in a electronic, ubiquitous, broadcasting communication.
This dystopian introduction done on the future of communication, we must admit that we spend enormous amounts of time on social media. And remember that “one does not stop progress”. It is no fatalism to point out that technological “progress” has a life of its own, and will proceed. If not you directly, someone else will “progress” our modes of communication. Whether we like it or not, whether it does result in better communication or not.
Social Media challenges
Social media as part of inbound marketing is a revolution on how we communicate. Interacting on social media using the right tools and strategy is more effective than carpet-bombing TV ads, direct mail and radio jingles.
Done right it has the potential to reconnect humanity online.To allay the gradual erosion of traditional interaction tools and venues: The all-including congregation. The traditional work place, eroding with freelancers and teleworking. Where everyone has to put up with odd quirks and opinions, still grab a pint Friday after work with everyone. The bigger, tighter-knit families where everyone had to put up with uncle Dave and his drunken rants.
These loosening social structures, and diminishing spaces of human interaction provided something essential we did not see fade away: Places where issues could be voiced and addressed, or dealt with.
Social media is often accused of being “all noise and no substance click-bait trash”. Whilst there is some truth in these clichés, they pale in comparison to context collapse and echo chambers.
Just like you and me busying ourselves savaging Trump for his latest buffoonery, we are missing the forest for the tree. Click-bait online should be the least of your worries. Unfollow and disconnect.
An echo chamber phenomenon, as used within the confines of social media, relates to information, ideas, or beliefs amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a defined system.
It is not specific to social media even though the latter social media incarnation is now much more prominent than any other. One of the first famous cases of media-related echo chambers was through the medium of TV.
The 1990 McMartin Preschool trial saw a worrying conflation of “echo” between media outlets. Simply put, TV stations started feeding off of each other creating a deafening media noise that gravely affected the trial, as well as the defendants. In that case the echo came from the journalistic ecosystem, TV journalism particularly.
As part of modern digital parlance, it was first defined around the early 2010’s. An early NY Times article by Nicholas DiFonzi springs to mind, in 2011.
Some recent political examples of echo chambers:
- The surprise accession of Jeremy Corbyn at the head of the Labour primaries.
The “Momentum” group that supported his nomination was extremely active and effective on social media. From unthinkable outsider who barely managed to clinch the right to enter the race, he took the nomination.
- The Brexit vote was another classic example.
Brexiters managed to fly largely under the radar until the results were in. It was (probably) not something of their own making. They just have their own social media groups where they congregate and exchange. Their own social networks, more affable to their views. This being a decisive topic that drew much ire, “Remainers” failed to engage with them. Instead they wallowed in their own self-righteousness and missed the chance to address some outlandish claims.
- Another clichéd example: The 2016 US Presidential election
Few saw Trump coming because of echo chambers, among many other hidden societal catastrophes in the making.
More than ever before, the 2016 US Presidential elections saw constituents consuming more information that aligned with their pre-existing beliefs. Gun control, immigration, security, all vote-grabbing issues.
It gets worse.
Every passing day seems to confirm FB Ads’ catastrophic non-management of Russian shills propagating misleading ads. There is much to bet that the phenomenon is further expounded by the ease of access to cheap, laser-targeted inside the echo chamber, of biddable media.
Further Reading: Wired, 18 Nov. 2016: “Your filter bubble is destroying democracy“
We associate with people who tend to align with our general political views. And our social systems still have a long way to go to re-set a sense of discovery in our digital lives. To restore a sense of healthy openness.
So pre-filter our access to information through our online social choices. That social impact in political discourse is related also context collapse:
The more we elaborate the means of social media communication the less we communicate
As social media professionals we believe in good faith that authenticity is a more and pragmatic best practice in social media and content marketing. And that social media can be a force of good, and of more, better business, more au fait with who you really are. Quite a revolution in management terms if you bear to think about it.
But we would be remiss not to flag the potential abuses in terms of societal discourse availed by that gigantic medium. For social media poses a uniquely fertile environment to echo chambers.
Since the advent of content shock digital marketers (as well as PR agencies and digital organisations at large) have upped their game in content production. And in optimising content mileage.
A single piece of content such as a video, can now very easily be turned into a podcast (taking audio only). Then turned into a blog (script only). Each of these will be reposted dozens of times under different headlines and picture combination, over multiple times and multiple social media platforms.
Add to that the never-ending rise of influencer marketing, and you can start seeing how impoverishing social media can be to variety of opinions.
Add to that, that social media algorithms will serve you connection and content suggestions that they anticipate will fit with your pre-existing preferences.
Social media algorithms seem to favour echo chambers formation
Social media algorithms do a lot of great things, such as fighting off click-bait posts, and excessive content reposting. They also aim at providing you the most relevant connections for the most enjoyable experience.
Facebook will also suggest content that aligns with your pre-conceived, pre-expressed notions. Repetition at the expense of variety of opinions, in so many words.
Variety of opinions however has always been understood as a major pillar for any modern democracy. Beyond polling stations it is also obviously a meta-value across culture. It fosters robust journalism. Facilitates societal conservation and debate. The end result tends to be that societies following similar codes come to better decision making and public policing. More cultural cohesion rather than less.
And who knows had they seen the threat coming they may have run a better campaign / DNC may not have assassinated Bernie’s campaign / may have had a better chance to engage growing Trump support.
Dialectics and rhetorics in the age of social media
The ancient Greek democratic system relied centrally on intelligent debate. The citizenry was expected to teach themselves about current affairs. A large part of that education was acquired by witnessing debaters fleshing out opposite claims.
The idea (a sound one imho) was that openly debating claims, counter-claims, revised claims, ended up naturally finding the best choice to make. One of the first structured debates as a democratic tool was one opposing two military generals arguing for different approaches.
That debate as a process, naturally engenders truth. Or best course of action.
The Greeks loved to hear the pluses and minuses of a good argument. The contexts of application of a claim as well as its limiting factors. The relative value of a claim compared to another one equally valid. It was practiced in law courts and public administration.
The practice was so popular and so valued that it gave rise to some local superstars such as Protagoras and later Demosthenes who could charge handsomely for their coaching. Along the way obviously they also laid out the near-scientific ideational foundations to western civilisation. The Romans based enormous parts of their research, legal, military and political exercise on classical Greek debate.
How ancient Greeks handled debate and eradicated their own “fake news”
Dialectics soon gave way to more extreme and dishonest mutations such as sophists, or those practicing eristics. Think of it as the “fake news” of its day. Eristics for example, openly did not care with any quest for truth, or optimal choice making. Its only concern was winning the argument. At any cost, and using logical fallacies if need be. Greek intelligentsia soon started structuring debate so that no obvious fallacy could be use however. The most common ones were the ad hominem (personal attack), the slipper slope, the red herring, etc.
And however much Socrates raged against the dishonest debators, sophists and eristics he begrudgingly admitted that dialectics contribute to debate not just the dialectic dialogue approach he favoured. Protagoras, a brilliant rhetor of the time, had forced him to re examine many of his own assumptions.
And here’s the thing.
There were rules. In many ways Greek citizenry appears light-years ahead of the lamentable catalog of outlandish claims in our social media. That have been allowed to fester into effectively, the communication media that we use most these days.
Information repetition. Ad Nauseam
The Facebook Algorithm that marketers know so well is one of the puppet masters behind this. In an Orwellian twist of fate the very tools that were meant to open us to the world now works to keep us caged in digital islands.
The unfortunate backlash of these echo chambers is the rise in the arrogant belief that you simply are right and correct. Seeing your belief system mirror in the group mindset and social validation. We are after all ultimately social animals.
What this leads to however is greater friction and frustration, something that Facebook and Google have largely failed to properly address and have perhaps made worse. This anger and resentment only leads to further division and makes breaking out of the echo chamber for any genuine intellectual discussion increasingly hard.
It could be argued that this was a factor that pushed a determinant proportion of the US electorate into electing Trump. Undetected they became unchallenged. That electorate also flew under the radar of mainstream media but turned up en masse on voting day. Unimpressed by the celebs endorsements of Hillary, social media reinforced their self-righteousness and outlandish beliefs. They probably imbibed an unhealthy dose of Russian political click-bait along the way, without any of it coming to the fore until it was too late to address.
Further reading: The Guardian UK, 4 February 2017 – “Twitter accounts really echo chambers”
Be the voice not the echo
In our next blog we’ll explore the natural pendant to echo chambers: “Context collapse”
In a nutshell: Online networks count so many connections these days, that we self censor regularly. We are afraid of irritating one aisle (political, cultural) of our network, vs. the other one. Difference in size between “natural” social networks and online ones carry enormous differences. Notably differences in “communication richness” between the two. The possibility to read context, modulate to the audience, in real life, whilst largely impossible online. What the (usual) unfounded fear of a post “going viral” does to our actual communication.