3.8 Escape the Echo Chamber

One of the great worries about the Internet is the echo chamber effect: the notion that democratized media have given us a way to pay attention only to the people we know we’ll agree with, paying no attention to contrary views or, often, reality.

This is no idle worry. But the same digital media that make it possible to retreat into our own beliefs give us easier ways to emerge, and engage.

A key principle introduced in the first chapter was the idea of going outside your comfort zone. This has several, related facets:

  • Learn from people who live in places and cultures entirely different from your own.
  • Listen to the arguments of people you know you’ll disagree with.
  • Challenge your own assumptions.

You need to be somewhat systematic about the first and second of those points, but also opportunistic. While I make it a point to read political blogs written by people who make my blood boil, and read journalism from other parts of the world, I also make the best possible use of that elemental unit of the Web: the hyperlink.

Even the most partisan bloggers typically point to the work they are pounding into the sand. If a left-wing blogger writes, “So and so, the blithering idiot, is claiming such and such,” he links to the such and such he’s challenging—and you can click that link to see what so and so actually said. Contrast this with what happens when you watch, say, Fox News or MSNBC on televison. The TV set, at least today’s version, doesn’t come with links; and clearly the commentators don’t want you to consider world views other than their own.

The link culture of the Web is part of the antidote to the echo chamber. But you have to click. Do it, often.

If you do, there’s a good chance you’ll discover, from time to time, that you either didn’t have a sufficiently deep understanding of something, or what you thought was simply wrong. There’s nothing bad about changing your mind; only shallow people never do so.

I engage in a semi-annual exercise that started more than a decade ago, when I was writing for the San Jose Mercury News, Silicon Valley’s daily newspaper. I kept a list in the back of a desk drawer, entitled “Things I Believe”—a 10-point list of topics about which I’d come to previous conclusions. They weren’t moral or ethical in nature. Rather, they were issue-oriented, and about my job as a business and technology columnist. Every six months or so, I’d go down the list and systematically attack every proposition, looking for flaws in what I’d previously taken for granted.

For example, one longstanding item on my list was this: “Microsoft is an abusive monopoly that threatens innovation, and government antitrust scrutiny is essential.” From 1994 until I left the Mercury News in 2005, I continued to believe this was true, though a shade less so by the end of that period than at the beginning and during the software company’s most brutal, predatory era. Since then, though, conditions have changed. Given the rise of Google and other Web-based enterprises, not to mention Apple’s growing power and the controlling and anticompetitive behavior of the huge telecommunications companies, I’ve modified my views about what the chief tech-world worries should be. Microsoft is still powerful and sometimes abusive, but it’s not nearly the threat it once was. (No, I don’t make my list public, though I talk about many of its points in my Mediactive blog from time to time, which is almost the same thing.) The next time I update the list, I’ll probably move Apple above Microsoft on my list of companies worth watching closely in this way.

Consider creating your own list of “givens” that you will challenge on a regular basis. This is especially vital when it comes to political beliefs. My basic political grounding combines elements of liberal, conservative and libertarian doctrine, and I vote according to a collection of issues, not remotely by party. But I’m constantly reassessing.

The late Carl Sagan, in a wonderful essay called “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” put it this way:

Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.

2 thoughts on “3.8 Escape the Echo Chamber”

  1. I teach a course in environmental and public health journalism at the University of Michigan. A few weeks ago, at the beginning of the new semester, I asked my students to write ten “I believe” statements about the news and its role in their lives. Since there is no journalism program at my university, most of my students have an interest in communicating with the public but most have no prior experience thinking of themselves as journalists.
    I thought their lists were fascinating. As you suggest, Dan, they reveal interesting assumptions about the news and about my students themselves as news producers. I plan to ask them to “attack” their “I believe” statements at the end of the semester. A sampling, from several students:
    I believe… that everyone has a story to tell.
    I believe… the most challenging thing about being a journalist is not allowing your personal opinion on an issue to affect your writing about that subject.
    I believe…. the role professional news organizations play in my life will determine my viewpoint on important national and global issues.
    I believe….that journalism is an important type of education that affects every asset of life.
    I believe…that my greatest challenge as a journalist is feeling confident in the background and topic making it difficult to ask the proper questions and write a coherent article
    I believe…that news will eventually only be digital and any printed documents will becomes obsolete.
    I believe….that the best journalism presents a conflict of ideas.
    I believe…that my greatest challenge as journalist is my reluctance for facing confrontation.
    I believe….that journalism can initiate change
    I believe….that anyone can be a journalist if they are passionate about the topic
    I believe….the best journalism exposes new ideas about an already recognized subject.
    I believe… journalists should move away from being pundits and actually report.
    I believe…. news corporations all have different biases and agendas
    I believe….news has a greater influence on the way the world works than is visible at surface level.
    I believe… the eReader is the new newspaper.
    I believe… that more “average” people are going to be delivering the news than ever before.
    I believe…the most interesting stories come from some of the most overlooked people.
    I believe…my generation doesn’t care enough about hard news and too much about entertainment.
    I believe … that digital media will eventually wipe out all forms of printed news.
    I believe…Facebook and Twitter are the biggest news sites that my generation looks at.
    I believe…that journalism and who a journalists is will be redefined in the near future because of blogs/social media/Internet.
    I believe…there’s too much money driving journalism and objectivity/ethical standards are being lost.
    I believe the biggest problem with journalism today is how easy it is to post false news on the internet.

  2. This is a great idea to write down a list of 10 things you believe. It can be used in so many different areas of our lives. Thank you I will be able to use this everyday.

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