A recurring concern in recent debates about the fate of democracy in the age of the internet and social media is the “echo chamber effect.” As a Wikipedia entry explains, “An echo chamber effect is a metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a defined system.”
Although the tendency to associate with the like-minded is not new, the segmentation of online outlets adds a structural element to this tendency. Nowadays, as opposed to the time of broadcasting, it is easier to avoid opinions and views that do not fit with one’s own, and opt to see only what one wants to see—so the argument goes. Moreover, online technologies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter employ personalization algorithms that analyze the user’s behavior and preferences and tailor their services accordingly. Hence the echo chamber effect: the production and reinforcement of sameness. The danger posed to democracy is a fragmented public sphere and the abatement of a reasoned and informed public debate.
While the salience of the echo chamber effect might be contested, there seems to be a consensus about the insidious nature of echoing itself. Yet is echoing necessarily bad? Could echo be redeemed?
In my research for The Enhancing Life Project, I explore echo as a medium—as an agent of creative and productive possibilities across nature and culture. By definition, echo is the repetition, often partial, of a reflected sound. The mythological Echo turned the curse of repeating the words of others into a source of inventive maneuverings. To echo is to respond and to repeat, but to do so while remaining distinct—echoing from a certain distance, and with a certain delay. By focusing on echo I set out to investigate the counter-intuitive hypothesis that communicational constraints are not necessarily detrimental to communication—they may in fact enable it.
Along these lines, I would like to propose a contrarian evaluation of the echo chamber effect based on the virtues of echoing.
Echo signifies response and affirmation. To echo is to serve as a sounding board, a reactive reception. There can be echoing only where there is an opening for enlargement and amplification. To echo one another is to be sympathetic to one another--in echoing there is acknowledgment and recognition. These features of echo may have democratic merits: those who find themselves fighting to have their voice heard, those who are struggling to gain recognition, and those who fear their views are among a negligible minority—all have much to gain from echoing. Through echo, one can discover she is not alone in her opinions, that there are others who share her concerns, who affirm her worries and respond to her hopes.
Sometimes communication happens for communication’s own sake, rather than for the sake of giving and receiving new information. Especially for the marginalized, new media and social media can provide platforms to resound that which previously was doomed to silence. Echoing is, without a doubt, only an initial gesture, but it is one with a political potential. While wall-to-wall and top-down echoing may well eclipse democracy, small-scale, bottom-up echoing may actually be democratically conducive. Echoing is not always good, but it is not always bad, either.
Even in light of its responsive and affirmative nature, echoing does not necessarily entail sameness. In fact, there is difference in repetition—in order for repetition to be perceived, there must be some deferral or variation in the act of repeating itself. If there weren’t, it would be impossible to notice that repetition had taken place; it would be perceived as one continuous thing. This holds true even more with respect to echo (which, as above, is often partial repetition). With every repetition comes the potential of distortion and subversion.
Sigmund Freud famously hypothesized on the narcissism of small differences, theorizing basically that preoccupation with differentiation becomes more acute as similarity grows. Small differences appear greater against a backdrop of resemblance, and sometimes facing the reflection of minor differences can be more distressing than confronting total strangeness. It is fitting that Narcissus, as the embodiment of mirroring, is a figure for obsessive repetition; yet Echo, in her desperate pursuit of him, demonstrates just how cunning partial repetition can be.
The difference that emerges from repetition is clearly unlike the difference that emerges from diversity. It is a difference in degree, not in kind. In this sense, there is something a bit misleading in casting these social media-centric so-called "echo chambers" as places of total homogeneity. There is certainly much like-mindedness among their participants, but this does not cancel out the existence of difference, minute as it might be. Democracy rightly puts a premium on diversity of perspectives and voices—that is, on difference in kind. But differences of degree, such as those produced by echoing, might also be redeeming. For instance, in echoing, one has the benefit of hearing oneself from the outside—of having one’s words repeated back, as one’s own but still different. Such reflection elicits a range of reactions, from uncanniness to estrangement. Was it really me? Did I say that? Is that really what I meant? When you echo my sentiment, what is it that you're really echoing? What do you embrace, and what do you leave out?Echoing is not axiomatically confirmatory; it might provoke self-reflection.
Echo, if nothing else, paradoxically demonstrates that difference abides even where likeness prevails. Difference is thus revealed as a fundamental phenomenon—which in itself is an important democratic realization. Granted, there is no guarantee that difference will be registered; echoing may very well only strengthen the opinions of the already convinced. But this does not disqualify echoing altogether, for it may have its own, if nuanced, virtues.
In proposing a contrarian evaluation of echoing, I intend neither to unconditionally endorse echo nor to downplay the dangers of the echo chamber effect. Rather, what I suggest is a modicum of complexity, an invitation to rediscover echo with all its perils and possibilities. We live in a world of hyper-communication, one where newness of information sets the tone. In echoing, we can find a form of communication that favors affirmation over innovation. I would certainly not want to live in a society dominated by echo chambers, but I would just as certainly be wary of rejecting echoing completely.