Social media algorithms serve us up with what we like to see because the more we scroll, the more data they can harvest, and selling that data is their business model. Lately, it’s been popular to refer to the increasingly narrow worldview that we receive this way as an “echo chamber.” Commentators have been warning that both ignorance and polarization are the result, and that we need to take deliberate steps to avoid being boxed in and judgmental. Agreed.
One suggested remedy I saw recently is to keep people with “completely opposite political views” on your newsfeed, in part because this will remind you that people who believe those things are human too. That’s fine as far it goes, but let’s go further. I propose that the key word is not “opposite” but “outside.”
Breaking down issues into sets of opposite views is itself a product of the colonial/Western worldview, and that’s a larger “echo chamber” that we inhabit. Its intellectual tradition, which proudly roots itself in ancient Greece, is hobbled by duality, which is neither inherent to the world nor helpful for modeling political topics.
Rather than picturing ourselves along a spectrum—defined by only two dimensions—we can envision ourselves in bubbles, which extend into all directions. Our knowledge and experience is demarcated by how big our bubble is.
This admits to being in a bubble, which is honest.
First, because here in the “developed” West, we are insulated from many aspects of reality that are commonplace elsewhere, such as bombed cities, mass starvation, and child slavery. That all of these terrible crimes are connected to our material wealth here is even less known. These things are outside our collective bubble.
Second, our individual bubble is a product of our upbringing, experience and constitution, most of which is not in our control. That is, each of us was handed something to work with that we didn’t choose. We can decide what we’ll do with it, though, as circumstances allow. We can push the walls of the bubble out to include more. We widen our perspective.
This process might include keeping people in your social media newsfeed who have “completely opposite political views” but that would only be one element. If we are talking about the very limited world of social media, I would suggest adding people to your feed who offer points of view that are defined less than how they relate to yours in a polar way and more by how “outside” they are of your bubble. Because batting the same ball back and forth between two sides is really only fun if it’s with a racket or a paddle or whatever. When it comes to your knowledge and understanding of life, that approach won’t get you far. It’s reductive and flattens the bubble.
Life is not two-dimensional. Living it that way will not lead to satisfaction or growth. Look back over the centuries of tragedy that led us to this moment: so much brutality and bloodshed, all the way back to Mesopotamia, when this “good vs. evil” slop started getting dished out. Have any of our civilizations worked during that period? As in, accumulated wealth without imposing suffering on humans and nature? Some, like the pre-Patriarchal Crete that Riane Eisler speaks of, were certainly better than others. But we here in the US are among the worst.
We owe it to this planet to widen our field of vision. Rather than viewing life as a series of us vs. them battles, we must step back and look around.
Personally, I don’t see the point of ensuring that my social media feed has at least one virulently homophobic jerk on it who can remind me on a daily basis that people who “hate f@gs” are human too. Or who will spew the racist shit I heard regularly during my red state childhood. Or who is going to denigrate all my sisters because it’s the only way they know to feel like a man. Conversely, as a white US American, I find it totally valuable for my feed to include Native Americans, Blacks and other people of color, as well as a generous amount people who live in other countries. Additionally, non-political interest groups, such as plant, bird and insect identification forums, offer a much needed reminder that it’s not all about humans. (And of course, cat videos are essential, and cut across all sociopolitical lines.)
The internet and social media gives us an opportunity to expose ourselves to all sort of different cultures and ideas; the fact that most US Americans don’t seem to use it that way reminds me of how I have often found myself to be the only white person in an Asian, Middle Eastern or Latinx grocery store. I mean, if the US has been good for anything, it’s been as a place where you can choose from a dizzying array of foods from around the world, probably unprecedented in history. Yet many people just stick with the same set of narrow, habituated choices.
Which might be getting more to the heart of things; in general, US Americans have never been interested in other cultures, and are not only satisfied with living in an echo chamber in real life, but seek to keep it that way. In that sense, social media algorithms are merely reflective of how we have always behaved anyway. A few people are curious, but most aren’t.
Personally, I greatly appreciate people who are smarter, wiser or clearer-seeing than I am in whatever way—whether the topic is politics, food propagation or car repair—and I am happy that this is a pool of people so large that I can draw from it for the rest of my life. As I am exposed to the words and ideas of people like that, my understanding of life expands. Instead of merely seeing that people are human in spite of their shortcomings, I can enjoy that people are inspiring in spite of their suffering. I’d rather seek hands to hold in the darkness, than fists to fend off.