The Public Square

Sherry Turkle's uses this from philosopher Allan Bloom in her admirable book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age to talk about the echo chamber effect: 

Freedom of the mind requires not only, or not even especially, the absence of legal constraints but the presence of alternative thoughts. The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity, but the one that removes awareness of other possibilities.

The argument goes that our social networks have us talking only to people like ourselves, people with whom we usually agree. Social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram homogenize ideas and limit our awareness of differing points of view. (Sherry Turkle is worried about it anyway—an unfortunate misstep in her book.)

But echo chambers are not simply, nor even predominantly, a technology problem. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has written about how our 'groupishness' or hive behaviour pushes toward similarity rather than difference — hence the subtitle of his most recent book 'Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion'

This leads me to two points:

  1. Social networks are no more to blame for our susceptibility to 'group think' than religious or political dogma. Take a look at how easily some are swayed by Donald Trump's frightening demagoguery.
  2. The stories we tell on social, and the causes we take up even if only on social and not in the streets, do raise "other possibilities".

We are better off as a society knowing about and supporting #BlackLivesMatter, a social network phenomenon, than we are never using the hashtag or expressing our support even just in a tweet. 


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