Here is the text of a short talk I gave at PDF yesterday. I did not use slides, and I actually read from pieces of paper because I wanted to make sure that I stayed on time (it took about 8 minutes, I think) and did not stray too far from what I wanted to say. So, yes, I read a freaking paper at PDF. And yes, I am ashamed. On the other hand, I’m humbled and amazed to have been in the line-up of speakers that morning.
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is reputed to have said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, not to his own facts.” We like this saying in large part because it brings us the comfort of believing that facts provide a way of bringing us together. But perhaps the single incontestable conclusion to be drawn after any even quick involvement with the Internet is that we don’t agree about anything. Everything is contested on the Net, even things that really should not be. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that the facts are not going to bring us together. The old Enlightenment ideal of two people with deeply different ideas sitting together over a cup of coffee and working themselves down to their fundamental differences, until the issue is resolved, the Internet has shown that that ideal just isn’t going to happen. We don’t agree, and now we can’t deny it.
I am not saying that we should give up on facts, or on fact-based argument. To the contrary. It remains our obligation to try to base our policies on facts, because facts are the parts of reality against which we bark our shins. Reality counts.
But I do want to argue against one version of despair that comes from looking at the seeming powerlessness of facts on the Internet: The echo chamber argument.
Cass Sunstein’s idea of echo chambers, and Eli Pariser’s excellent Filter Bubble variation, are well known to you. It’s the idea that when people are given lots of choices of voices to listen to, they — we — tend to listen to people with whom we already agree, and that this results in a confirming of what we believe, and can move us to move extreme versions of it, resulting in even greater polarization. If the Net is having this effect, the Net is not the great hope for a more open society, but a tragedy. Echo chambers are a real problem. We need to be vigilant, and educate ourselves and our children how to avoid their pernicious effects.
Please keep that in mind as I head toward what is actually my point today: Echo chambers are dangerous, but they are also a condition of thought and understanding.
So, I want to look at an example of an echo chamber. But not the usual ones. Instead, Reddit.com. Reddit has all the earmarks of an echo chamber. The Reddit community, although it is far from uniform, nevertheless generally shares some values. It is pro science, atheist, pro legalization of marijuana, pro cute cat, generally progressive. It has shared heroes like Neil DeGrasse Tyson. It has a set of in-jokes — memes that often you have to understand a hidden context to get; you have to know that a photo of a particular woman flags the text as an example of a “first world problem.” Then it’s hilarious. Reddit has its own vocabulary: FTFY is fixed that for you, and AMA is ask me anything. And it has its own norms and ethos. Reddit is an echo chamber.
Yet, it’s also one of the best examples of how a community can successfully engage outside of its own bubble. IAMA at Reddit stands for I am a …someone putting her or himself forward as interesting, willing to answer questions. I am a Mariachi. I am Louis CK. I am Daryl Issa. I am a janitor at WalMart. I am a Rick Santorum supporter. I am a Muslim religious student — remember Reddit is strongly atheistic and even anti-religion.AMA. Ask me anything. At its best, which is frequent, what follows is a group interview in which answers are treated with respect so long as they are frank and honest. The community feels empowered to ask the questions that people really want answered, without a foolish regard for political correctness. (Of course not all political correctness is foolish.) IAMA’s are a new form of journalism, and can result in the best interviews I’ve read – the recent IAMA with Paul Krugman for example. More important at the moment, they are a way in which an echo chamber throws a window open.
The key point is that it’s because Reddit is an echo chamber that it can engage in something close to the Enlightenment ideal of open, honest, frank discussion among people with deep deep differences. This is totally not accidental, and points to the baby that we should be careful not to throw out with the echo chamber bathwater. The Reddit community can engage in IAMAs so frankly and well because it has a strong sense of who it is as a community. Communities are echo chambers – a set of people that share basic values and beliefs that are assumed and reinforced. This is not an accident or something we can avoid. It is baked into the very nature of the conversations that create community: To have a conversation of any sort, you have to have 99% agreement. (I made that number up.) You have to be speaking the same language, have the same basic norms of conversation — who gets to speak for how long, how interruptive you can be, and so forth — and you have to be interested in the same topic. Then you can find some small differences to talk about — you both like Johnny Depp but differ about if he’s sold out, or you both want the poor to have access to health care but differ over how — and then you iterate on that 1% of difference. This need for a vast similarity is not a failing of conversation, but is its condition. And that’s because human understanding itself works this way. We understand the new by assimilating it to our existing context- our densely interrelated web of concepts, ideas and feeelings. That’s why when some piece of news comes along, it makes sense to go to a site where people with whom you basically agree — your echo chamber — is discussing it. What did the Wisconsin recall results mean for Pres. Obama’s reelection? I’m going to go first to, say, DailyKos, because they’re going to help me understand it within my personal political context. I might then visit a Republican site to help me see how they’re taking it, but that’s at least in part a type of anthropological research. Communities are echo chambers. Conversation is an echo chamber. Understanding is an echo chamber. The political solidarity that leads to action requires an echo chamber.
And as Reddit shows, our way out of an echo chamber is through an echo chamber.
The problem is that Reddit is an all too rare example of an echo chamber that willingly throws open its windows. It takes rare delight in doing so. What distinguishes Reddit? It is an echo chamber with a commitment to the value of curiosity, and strong norms of empathy, acceptance and love. It can engage with other points of view without giving up its own values or its snarky silliness. And from this, as the SOPA protest showed, can come political action.
We cannot escape all our echo chambers. Our challenge is to bring to each of the echo chambers we inhabit the values that will turn them into arenas of engaged understanding rather than into dark chambers of willful stupidity.