Dismantling the Echo Chamber
I had never heard of the term “echo chamber” till I read Ned Potter’s post as part of Bobbi Newman’s thoughts on the phenomena. Well, I had heard such a thing referred to in a more unflattering term, but never applied to an online community. It makes perfect sense in retrospect since the online world is vast and niched enough to produce communities for any interest. It is not a stretch of the imagination to fall into a space where you have surrounded yourself with like minded people with identical or closely similar ideologies. In contemplating this on my own, I have come up with a few conclusions I’d like to share.
First, I think the real issue with the responses to Mr. Godin’s post is not that there is an echo chamber, but that there is no equal platform to respond on behalf of the library community. He doesn’t allow comments so there is no way to place any of our rebuttals next to his original post. (He does have trackbacks which could put a reply next to the original entry, but the single trackback is from another business blog.) So, we are left to our own platforms to disagree in front of an audience that is (unsurprisingly) mainly our professional peers. I don’t think it is shocking that there was such a unified response disputing the assertions and ideas that Mr. Godin had posted since they are an egregious misrepresentation of what libraries are doing and where they are going. (As I wrote so in my post regarding his entry.) But, without a similar platform or venue, we were left to equivalent of talking amongst ourselves. I do take heart in the number of replies in agreement with my sentiments, for this is an instance where it is good to know that the online librarian community is in relative agreement.
(On a tangent, I know that comments in blogs has been a topic for a long as people have written blogs. One of my favorite political blogs, Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish, does not allow comments. Over time, Mr. Sullivan has asked his readers as to whether or not to open up posts to comments and it has been steadfastly voted down each time. The difference between Mr. Godin’s and Mr. Sullivan’s blogs is that latter offers an email address for reader feedback, comments, and dissents (some of which are posted). There is no other resource for Mr. Godin’s blog, save to post and hope that he reads his trackbacks or links to see what people are writing.)
Second, I really don’t think the replies represent a true echo chamber. I think that that they are replies from likeminded people who find Mr. Godin’s post to be an incorrect assessment. I really don’t find it shocking in the least since finding people who are similar in temperament and beliefs to ourselves is something we do on a daily basis. In a paper from 2008, a study revealed that followers of political blogs are more likely to read only blogs that are in agreement with their own beliefs. Infrequently, there will be crossover where someone reads blogs that are radically different than their own ideologies. I would not think that it would take a giant logical leap to infer that librarians who are online tend to read blogs written by people who agree with their philosophy and approach to the practice of librarianship. (Specifically, that Library 2.0/101 people tend to read other who support it, school librarians read other school librarians, public librarians read other public librarians, and so forth.) In order to establish the presence of an echo chamber, I feel I would need to see replies on librarian blogs and the ones they reference on a longer timescale. For now, I remain unconvinced.
I can only speak for myself, but I try to avoid homogeny in my Google Reader feeds by trying to find a diversity of voices on library and librarian issues. In building my own virtual “Team of Rivals”, I subscribe to several blog feeds written by librarians and MLS graduate students to which I rarely agree with their viewpoints. But I feel it is important to do so and I do it for a number of reasons.
First, it makes me work harder to justify my own positions. I feel it makes my positions stronger when I am forced to defend them in the face of adversarial contention. It leads to robust, more concise rationales that can be easily explained and defended. Second, it is opposition intelligence gathering. If I learn of the viewpoints and justifications of those I disagree with, I can create stronger arguments to overcome them. Perhaps a holdover from my brief stint in law school, but there is strength in knowing your argument and that of your opponent when you engage in earnest debate. Third, it has caused me to moderate or change my position in light of different approaches and knowledge. By getting a broader vantage point on an issue, I learn other perspectives and ideas that I had failed to consider or simply did not know. It is part of a greater open-mindedness that I try to embrace when approaching all things in life.
I would like to imagine that, as librarians, we are inherently "echochamber proof". How could we possibly espouse on the merits of a well rounded collection that portrays all views on a topic when we limit our professional personal learning to only those who hold similar beliefs? For while each is within their own right to exhibit their biases within their personal readings and activities, a diverse range of professional reading sources is (in my opinion) the best way to grasp the occupation as a whole. While we are united in our belief in common principles (intellectual freedom, unfettered inquiry, uninhibited curiosity, to name a few), we bring to the table our own approach and philosophy to these guiding principles. To dismiss others out of hand for their differing viewpoints or (worse) on their professional standing, publication affiliation, anonymous nature, or other irrelevant conditional, I find it to be distressing.
It strikes me as the pinnacle of irony that there are those in this profession would defend the right of another to obtain radically divergent and odious materials and resources in the name of the greater good of intellectual freedom, yet would dismiss a professional peer commentator not on their merits but over irrelevant secondary circumstances. (Hence a visit to this blog from The Irony Fairy, pictured to the right.) That baffles me at times and has the inklings of a "do as I say, not do as I do" mindset when it comes to one of the underlying philosophic principles of this profession. Perhaps my idealism is getting the better of me as I close this blog post, but I find it more to my liking than the dark grip of cynicism that is far too common when it comes to different thought presented on the internet.
In closing, I am reminded of a quote from Edward R. Murrow:
If we confuse dissent with disloyalty — if we deny the right of the individual to be wrong, unpopular, eccentric or unorthodox […]. Every act that denies or limits the freedom of the individual in this country costs us the ... confidence of men and women who aspire to that freedom and independence of which we speak and for which our ancestors fought.