I found an article from Slate Magazine this week that really caught my attention. The title is rather much an attention grabber – it’s called The End of the Echo Chamber. Well, it caught my attention, anyway.
For a long time, it seems, people have been complaining about the online echo chamber effect. Wikipedia has talked about this phenomenon. So has the New York Times. A lot of bloggers I know have also lamented the echo chamber effect, especially when it comes to a major (read popular) blogger saying something that then gets massively shared across the internet, whether the information is good or not.
The theory behind the echo chamber is pretty logical. When you have strong ties to a person online, a person who tends to visit the same sites, read the same stuff, etc., you tend to share a lot of what they write. They also tend to share a lot of what you write. As you meet more people like you, you all tend to start echoing each other, and as time goes by, you start to get a bit like a clique. People who disagree with you are viewed with suspicion or may be categorized as “the haters.” In short, a lot of negativity can result from the echo chamber effect online.
That is, if the echo chamber actually exists.
This article that I read, written by Farhad Manjoo, summarizes a study conducted by Eytan Bakshy soley on Facebook. Bakshy studied how information is shared on Facebook, maneuvering EdgeRank results with Facebook’s permission. After analyzing the behavior of some 250 million people, Bakshy came up with a surprising result. People are actually highly influenced by those with whom they share weak ties, not strong ties. People you have weak ties to are more likely to share information that you might not have found otherwise. Therefore, Facebook proves that there is no echo chamber.
To put it another way, if you see a link in your Facebook feed from a weak tie, you are just as likely to share it as a link from someone you’ve known for 30 years. Therefore, your world really isn’t shrinking online, it’s growing because of an exposure to new people and new information.
Or, as the study suggests:
We found that information shared by a person’s weak ties is unlikely to be shared at a later point in time independently of those friends. Therefore, seeing content from a weak tie leads to a nearly tenfold increase in the likelihood that a person will share a link. In contrast, seeing information shared by a strong tie in News Feed makes people just six times as likely to share. In short, weak ties have the greatest potential to expose their friends to information that they would not have otherwise discovered.
I’ve got problems with this concept
So, first things first. The author of the Slate article notes that because Facebook is promoting the study, and because Facebook gave Bakshy permission to do the study, the online network is probably pretty pumped that they come out smelling like roses. “We are opening your world. It’s the open graph, only, like, it’s your life!” Biased studies should always raise the eyebrows, vulcan style.
However, I have another problem with this concept, too. As I engage in Triberr and as I subscribe to more and more blogs, the same concepts and the same ideas are appearing again and again. Whether or not these people influence each other, something is influencing people in the online world to write about the same stuff. Maybe it’s a desire for traffic – how many articles about SOPA and PIPA did you see this week? Maybe it’s to show up well in Google searches – the number of posts about Pinterest over the last few weeks is pretty stunning. Or maybe it is just to try to get on the radar of a popular blogger. With Chris Brogan and Guy Kawasaki highly promoting Google Plus, is it really a surprise that a lot of people are out there writing about the same thing?
Furthermore, and I haven’t read the entire study so I don’t know if it is addressed in there, but at least in the article, there doesn’t seem to be a differentiation between some important things like how you got to “friend” those weak ties on Facebook or the types of information people were sharing in their news feeds. For example, let’s say I share a lot of stuff from a person who would be a “weak tie.” The stuff they post is a lot of funny pictures and videos that amuse me. Is that really widening my world and preventing the echo chamber? I might share stuff from a person I have strong ties to that is about our friendship and not about similar views. I might comment on items that I *have* seen all over the place.
To put it succinctly, it seems to me like there are too many variables to actually be able to state that 1 + 1 = 2. What is this “information” we are speaking of?
What do you think of this study? Do you think it’s just out there to prove Facebook is really awesome, or do you think there really is no echo chamber in the online world?
I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/digitaljourney/5573215501 via Creative Commons