Practical Steps – Avoiding the Internet Echo Chamber

How on earth do I break out of my online echo chamber ? So widely discussed that this concept even has its own wiki entry and yet I can’t find any adequate answers on how to find the chamber door. I get it. We gravitate to like-minded people both offline and online.  Articles on ditching toxic friends encourages us to construct perfect social communities. Read something vile or toxic online, the unfollow button is a click away.  Then a close friend unfriended me from Facebook. I don’t normally notice such things except I really value his conservative perspective and was seeking out his opinion.  Not only trapped, the walls are now closing in on my echo chamber.

So can you keep you sanity and friendships but not live in an online echo chamber ?  Well here is my template;

  1. Decide your topics
  2. Find the topics sourced. The people, brands, events which produce the content on your topic
  3. Create a place to collect good secondary sources on your topic
  4. Experiment with your favourite ‘Live’ source for the topic
  5. Create specific times for consuming your topic and for the sake of sanity keep media out of reach till then

The following explains how I apply this template to my current media landscape, (Twitter, Broadcasters and a tiny bit of Facebook)….

Why focus on Topic ?

I have worked with enough recommendations algorithms to know it is based on rules and topic taxonomy. Facebook are monitoring your reaction to a politics post relative to share of a baby photo. Facebook then serve you up more of the same letting advertisers know at the same time. Not only that, various apps such as Tinder use your preferences to provide you with human contact.

My suggestion is that we actively choose our topics. My usual topics are technology and tennis which align to work and play. For this analysis we shall add UK politics (now known as Brexit) as this is what brought my friendship into question.

Go To The Source

Now we have out topics we need to shed the noise. What is the point of reading an article that simply tells me about a tweet? Why not read the tweet itself ? The same goes for a press release or live statement rather than reading an opinion heavy version of the same thing from a journalist. Where possible I have actively stopped consuming anything that is second-hand trying to read the original material without the extra spin.

On twitter I follow tennis players and competition organisers. I follow people I support as well as all the tennis players that annoy me. This is true of MP’s in UK politics. I often find the source statement from a politician sounds balanced compared to the way it is reported. As nothing is official unless it is said in parliament really the best source would be to watch live parliamentary debates.  In technology this is easier as I get to go to conferences and directly talk with the people who make the news.

Follow any and all source regardless of their sentiments.

Long Form Sources

At this point you are probably saying “but I need the expert view of what is happening”. Well at least this is what Owen said when I explained my approach. I agree. Lets face it I am not going to be able to piece together why a tennis player has picked a certain training regime or why a senior politician is disliked for something they said before I was born. So super long narrative content such as books, documentaries or podcasts all come in play.

For this I have organised a screen on my iPhone where I have grouped my media apps. Things like Tivo, Channel4, BBC iPlayers and NPR.  I use it when I set aside time to consume. I use the Tivo app to store TV recommendation and Amazon for anything else including books. Others use Pintrest and Trello in the same way.

Yes, I am advocating books over newspapers and documentaries over news. I admit I can’t resist news articles that pop up on my twitter feed. In addition I let myself read article friends or co-workers recommend directly for me, as I hope they act as a good filter and we can have a real conversation. For these I open a tab on browser and read it when I block time for the activity. Owen uses an app and Steve has reverted to a print newspaper. Steve told me that he did not need all the news immediately and he can allocate a Sunday to finishing the paper. Lets face it I won’t finish reading the Internet anytime soon.

Language

We know that different languages and local culture gives genuinely different perspective. I noticed a long time back that a Hindi language tennis source actually talk about South Asian players often never mentioned in English newspapers.  I follow international newspapers such as Bilt, TV5,  NDTV and for an alternative to Silicon Valley stories MyStory.  Using pictures as my guide I use the translation service to check what is going on in the headlines which gives me enough of a clue to make the effort to translate.  In addition a lot of countries provide English language version of their content.

Live and Crisis Reporting

Diversity of sources is great while you have the time. It is another matter when you need to consume something live. In terms of tennis I turn to the broadcaster who holds the exclusive rights. If I have a choice of commentators then absolutely I gravitate to my preferred source which for Tennis is the BBC or Greg on ESPN. I also turn to the BBC for live news reports. I understand that people feel it’s biased but as a licence payer I work on the basis that they work for me. In a terror crisis they are slow only broadcasting verified facts or images but I know that and can compensate. Asides from a few places they are also available easily globally. I know people who watch NDTV, CNN or are hooked to NPR. Which is all great – in a crisis you need to know who you trust and that for me, is NOT Fox News.

I also know I reach for social media to check friends in a location are ok. It is human nature but for my closest friends I now email or text or even discuss in person. Post Brexit I ended up speaking in person to everyone that voted differently to me. I did this after I realised I had been unfriended. My unfriended friend came over and after watching a bit of Wimbledon we talked into the early hours about our post Brexit world. He left me with many articles to read that simply don’t feature in my social media feeds.

Safe spaces

So now we need to create safe times and places so that these topics don’t seep into our work and play. I do this in a few ways.

Firstly I have turned off all notifications on all devices. No breaking news. No Facebook updates.  The only notifications I get are from my diary. In my diary  block out specific times to tackle these topics (or watch tennis or go to a tech conference).

It is important to protect myself from certain topics at certain time. As I wake up or go to sleep or during a busy work day I must not consume news but tennis news is fine (well it was till Maria Sharapova failed her drugs test). On twitter I have set up a separate list for UK politics and I dip into these. An alternative might be hitting a content aggregated page.  Back on twitter I have unintentionally created myself a tennis account. So I flip to this Twitter account before bed knowing that I am unlikely to see anything but tennis news which is ideal for a snooze.

On Facebook I use dedicated browser on my desktop. It this stop Facebook tracking everything else I other websites. I always logout to stop myself sitting on the platform. While doing this I realise not of my topics are covered in Facebook. Instead Facebook is a marketing or gloating tool. For sharing things like visiting  Wimbledon. I do this by getting someone else to post for me in good humble brag tradition. I will then have to login and allow it on my timeline (as my settings are restrictive). While there I will allow myself to check notifications but if I can, I avoid scrolling the news feed. I have grouped all my Facebook friends into friends, family and acquaintances and people from my sports club. I unfollow anyone I can’t remember but I don’t unfriend them. So Facebook is an echo chamber of friends. I haven’t told Facebook where I live so it serves me friends content based on which location I have logged in from.  I don’t worry being liberal with my likes. It is changing the feed algorithm but as I try not read the news timeline and instead read specific friends or event pages I hope I might be preserved a little from the echo chamber.

Finally I am fine tuning newsletters I get. I am a member of the BCS, Fabians and British LTA so I read these but unless I am paying good money I try to unsubscribe from newsletters.

The Troll

So we know our topics, the primary sources, the great secondary sources and time boxed it into sections of our lives dedicated to consuming knowledge. Yet somehow terrible injustices of news seep through and people negatively engage with us. Now that we have reset everything we no longer need to hit the block button.  Specifically in UK politics following Brexit I have created a list called Health Warning where I place people who tweet with a frequency that fills my feeds about things that frankly disgust me. Half truths, accusations and dead body images. For the purpose of the echo chamber I read what is being said occasionally but it also shifts the search function on twitter to include their tweets on a topic I am searching.

If I see anyone who crosses the line of the Twitter’s policy I report them. I don’t block but do mute people.

The Template and New Platforms

Many years ago I wrote about how transient social media platforms were. While the magic user number has gone from 3million to 1Billion I don’t think that the transient nature of social media platforms has changed and another platform will emerge. Fingers crossed the following template will work regardless

  1. Determine your topics
  2. Find the source content producers (people, brands, events) on your topic (create a troll sub list if required)
  3. Create a place to collect good secondary sources on your topic (make it multilingual)
  4. Experiment with your favourite ‘Live’ source for the topic
  5. Create specific times for consuming your topic and for the sake of sanity keep media out of reach till then

And finally reiterate. A month after Brexit and inside my world of Technology I find I only care about certain sub topics (namely PR and Robots)  although in Tennis there is never enough new material. So now I shall follow the template again and reorganise my social media and hopefully stop living in an online echo chamber.

kavitakapoor

Kavita is CEO at What'sMySize. She writes about technology and business. She is mostly based in London. You can contact her directly or via twitter (kavitakapoor)

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