Social Media & Self-Education: Beware the Echo Chamber

Echo ChamberNote: This is the second post in a six-part series on Christians and Social Media Engagement. You can read the introduction here and the final four parts herehere, here, and here.

“Faithful are the wounds of a friend…”
Proverbs 27:6

There was a time in my life when I thought it was my destiny to become a famous singer-songwriter. It was my sophomore year of college. I had been writing songs for a few years at that point and, like most nineteen-year-olds, I was full of deep, thoughtful commentary on life and love and loss. The songs came around the time that I was living in close community with a few legitimately talented musicians and we began playing shows at bars and coffee shops around Saint Louis.

I came home once during winter break and met with an old friend for coffee one night at Steak ‘n’ Shake. I was excited to tell him about all the places where we had played and the cool bands we had opened for all over town. He was a few years older than me and had been my youth minister during high school. As our coffee arrived, he looked at me and I suddenly realized he had more than just a casual catch-up conversation in mind. He set his coffee down, interlaced his fingers, and said something to the effect of “Kale, I know you really want this music career to work out but I have to tell you, you don’t sing well enough to make it as a professional musician.” He picked up his mug and took a long drink, leaving me to process the bursting of my dream bubble as I stammered for words to respond.

Now, that may sound harsh to you but I can tell you (ten years later) that it was a profoundly liberating moment for me. In a sea of friends telling me I was great and coming to our shows, he was the first person who had the guts to say something that created dissonance in my mind, that didn’t just confirm everything I believed about myself and seemed to be hearing from every other corner of my life. As a musician, there are few things better for you than people willing to tell you the truth about your skills and challenge you to see yourself in the light of day, not simply the light of a daydream.

What was true for me as a musician has also been true for me in every other realm of my life: I need to be surrounded by people who will, at times, disagree with me and share perspectives that don’t line up with my own.   However, I also must admit that there are few things more comforting in life than being surrounded by people who only agree with and encourage me. In small doses, this kind of encouragement is life-giving and necessary; we all need support and even emotional safety at times – the ability to speak without having to give context or explain ourselves among people who simply know us and get it. But, as a lifestyle, this sort of community can become an echo chamber that only serves to inflate our egos and distort our self-awareness with devastating results.

There are few places that exude this reality like social media. In no previous generation has there ever been a social platform that can give such vast and immediate feedback to our every thought and opinion. In under 30 seconds, I can open an app on my phone, share a thought or image from my life, and receive gratification in the form of likes, retweets, shares, and especially pushback, which is normally used as validation of my stance (“Of course they don’t like it! They’re a raging liberal/conservative/stay-at-home-mom/work-outside-the-home-mom/whatever is the opposite of me”) as opposed to legitimate critique requiring intellectual re-evaluation of my thoughts on the matter.

My own outputs aside, the other dangerous side of the social media coin is that I have vast control over what inputs I decide to receive, in the form of whom I decide to follow and whom I decide to block or hide. If someone disagrees with me, I can simply hide their posts. If a news site or opinion page agrees with me, I “like” it, triggering Facebook’s algorithms to show me similar pages, leading me down a staggering confirmation bias rabbit hole at the bottom of which I can be shown hundreds of inputs everyday that never challenge even my vainest prejudices about the world and people around me. What could be more comforting than that?

But, let’s say that like me, you value critical community and don’t desire to live your life in a circle of nodding heads validating your every opinion. How can you use social media as a tool for self-education and not simply vindication?

Follow People Who Are Different Than You

I think this is especially true if you, like me, are a straight, white, Christian male from a middle-class family. Though we have every advantage imaginable in essentially every field imaginable, the one glaring intellectual disadvantage we have (in this one very specific sense) is that our perspective on life is constantly viewed as normative. We must be vigilant against our own ignorance because we are perpetually surrounded by images and ideas that assert the superiority of our worldview.

White folks aside, Social Media can be a huge asset for anyone in the war against our own ignorance. Are you normally a socially progressive person? Follow a few thoughtful conservative journalists on Twitter. Do you find yourself in perpetual disagreement with the #blacklivesmatter movement or the Anti-Abortion agenda? Like one related page on Facebook and simply permit yourself to be exposed to a small degree of intellectual dissonance, even if only for a few minutes a day.

Engage Respectfully With People Who Disagree With You

If you’re like me, you probably have at least a handful of friends who post things you disagree with on Facebook or Twitter. Instead of writing them off as intellectually or morally inferior to you, which we are prone to do, engage respectfully with them. What does respectful engagement look like? Ask questions, particularly about their journey toward that viewpoint or their understanding of its practical impact on the world.

I have some friends on Facebook who are against tightening restrictions on firearms, a position that I personally hold. However, they are incredibly generous in conversation and open to me asking personal questions or positing imaginary scenarios in which I would find it hard to hold their view. They take the time to respond thoughtfully and our conversations always end amicably. In fact, I would argue that my own rhetoric against guns has become more thoughtful because of our conversations, partially because I actually know some kind, intelligent people who are passionately in favor of guns and I consider them friends. This is the power of empathy, of imagining ourselves in the shoes of someone else; it tears down the façade we have that those who disagree with us do so because they are morally or intellectually inferior.

Let Social Media Lead You into (not out of) Deeper Relationships

In the wake of the past few years of political and social turbulence, some of my friends have vocalized their decision to unfollow certain people in their circles on social media in order to maintain friendships with them in real life. Though I understand (and at times have shared) this sentiment, I also see it as a sad commentary on friendship in our exceedingly subcultural world. As I mentioned earlier, one of the unfortunate side effects of highly user-controlled platforms like Facebook and Twitter is that it is very possible to narrow down your viewing to only posts that bolster your own perspective. The more that we subject ourselves to this, it seems, the more trouble we have maintaining relationships with people offline who have dissenting viewpoints. When social media caters to my every whim and I spend lots of time on it every day, how long until I expect my neighborhood or church or job or any community I am in to do the same? How long until I “unfollow” these same people in my real life by not stopping to talk to them at the grocery store or allowing my mind to feed me the same negative thoughts I have when I see them in real life as when I see their posts online?

There is another way, though, that social media could actually fight against this easy slope toward the personal echo chamber it offers at every turn. What if you began following and “un-hiding” a few people with whom you disagree? What if instead of angrily rattling off a rant on their posts, you just picked up your phone and invited them over for donuts and conversation? What if social media became the avenue by which your real relationships expanded instead of contracted (plus, more donuts!). Who knows what thoughtful, compassionate, diverse communities might form from a few minutes of dissonance everyday?

I’ll end with this: If integrity is being whom you say you are when no one is watching, intellectual integrity is believing what you say you believe when surrounded by those who disagree with you. It’s easy to believe something in a crowded room of people who agree with you. What good is a belief that’s never been tested by opposition? It’s relatively easy to call abortion “baby murder” when you are surrounded on every side by established, middle-class families with plenty of disposable income to provide for additional children. It’s also relatively easy to call a bathroom ordinance “bigotry” when you are surrounded on every side by people who don’t have little kids using those bathrooms.

When our walls come down and we allow ourselves to be in real, genuine community with people who disagree with us, our opinions and worldview might not change. In fact, if they are based in truth, they shouldn’t change. However, we will change; we will become more compassionate and, oddly enough, more intellectually credible and authentic, because our ideas have been tested by the fire of opposition, not simply reverberated by the padded walls of the echo chamber.

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5 thoughts on “Social Media & Self-Education: Beware the Echo Chamber

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