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November 11, 2013 / Jim Fenton

The Twitter Echo Chamber

Before Twitter was in the mainstream, people used to ask me to describe it. I would answer that it is sort of like a cocktail party conversation: people talking with the intent that others will hear them, and little expectation of privacy. At this “party”, you can position yourself to hear the people you want to hear, and others can do the same. But unlike a cocktail party, positioning yourself to hear someone else (following them) doesn’t necessarily make your voice heard by them, although it sometimes works out that way (they follow you back).bluebirds

I’m an avid user of Twitter. It’s where I hear of breaking stories, both from the news media and in my friends’ lives. I can’t think of a major news story recently that I didn’t first hear of through Twitter. Like everything else on the Internet, you need to evaluate the source of what you hear (and perhaps more, as in the case of the @AP breach). I curate the list of accounts I follow to get the content I want, and I’m constantly struggling with keeping the number of Tweets I have to peruse to a reasonable level.

The trouble is that many of the accounts I follow on Twitter repeat the same things. If they retweet each other, Twitter is clever enough to only display it to me once. But if they retweet with a comment or make a similar comment on the same issue: here come the duplicates. I have the same problem with several people citing the same article: it’s hard to detect, particularly when they use URL shorteners to refer to the article.

There is a more insidious problem with this: the way that I typically discover new accounts to follow (mentions/retweets, Twitter suggestions, etc.) tends to get me more accounts to follow with the same point of view. I often don’t have the benefit of thoughtful comment on the opposite side of issues. I greatly prefer to hear well thought-out opinions on both sides of an issue than to hear the same opinion over and over. Hearing the same opinion all the time leads to confirmation bias and contributes to the polarization of our society, and I worry that Twitter and other social media are, by virtue of their extreme personalization, short-circuiting the sort of public discourse that makes our society great.

I have a few friends on Twitter that I disagree with politically, but I enjoy reading their comments because they are well thought out and force me to think about some issues more completely. I wish I had more people like that to follow, and will try to seek some out and perhaps replace a few of the repetitive voice I currently follow with some of them.

Do yourself a favor and see if you can replace some of the “echoes” on your Twitter feed with others that bring different but well thought-out points of view. If it takes longer to go through your tweets because you have more to think about, it’s worth the time.

Photo credits: Eastern Bluebird–male by Flickr user Patrick Coin and western bluebird male by Flickr user Devra used under Creative Commons license.

One Comment

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  1. That is an excellent point. Of course, in real (traditional?) life people are often similarly insulated. Twitter *could* be used to diversify what we hear, but it tends not to be.

    Perhaps I should also make more effort. Unfortunately, “well-thought-out points of view” are harder to find than “points of view I agree with”.

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