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April 09, 2007

Echo chambers

"Echo chamber" is rapidly becoming a meaningless term of derision in the blogosphere. Cf. this comment on the felon voting thread. Astonishingly, first six or so commenters who were gung ho enough to be commenting on Majikthise on Easter Sunday agreed with my core premise, namely, that it's a good thing to re-enfranchise felons after they serve their time. The shocking display of accord lead the next commenter to remark, "What a bloggy echo chamber," and drive on. Which, in turn, provoked a small tussle, which you can read for yourselves. Basically some subsequent participants were criticizing Pandagon for being "an echo chamber." As usual, the epithet was levied as if it were a meaningful insult. But what exactly is the problem with being an echo chamber?

It's hardly a criticism of a blog, or any other community to say that most of its members tend to agree, at least about the core issues that draw its members together. Being an echo chamber is only a bad thing if there's some kind of untoward pressure to make people conform. The real beef that most of the really bitter "echo chamber" detractors people have with Pandagon is that they've been banned. But some are just irrationally ideologically opposed to the idea that Amanda actively moderates the community.

Most wouldn't think twice about a book blog banning foodies who only showed up to start fights with the book commenters about how dumb reading is compared to eating. Yet Amanda takes all this flak because she wants to run a feminist comment section on her own blog.   

Two of the most interesting features of the blogosphere are its openness and its space for ultra-specialization. These two properties are interrelated.

If you cast a very wide net, you can attract enough people to sustain a very narrow conversation. Within limits, the bigger the better, especially online. You need a critical mass of dedicated participants to create a thriving community. There aren't a lot of places in everyday life where feminists can talk to other feminists about the finer points of feminism. Whereas, if I want to defend feminist first principles against a diehard misogynist, I can do that virtually anywhere. So, you can see why an actively managed self-identified feminist community like Pandagon is of great value to its members. If Amanda didn't work at keeping the community within certain relatively permissive bounds, the community would lose a lot.

For those of you who want to start special pleading about how feminism is worthless anyway, spare us and mentally substitute some example you like better. Imagine how you would feel if we were talking about a vibrant community centered around your favorite uncommon interest. For my part, I'm very glad that these specialized voluntary communities exist, whether I think the topic is interesting or not--and not just for the sake of the participants. If everyone was scrapping over first principles all the time, we'd never get to any interesting questions.

Let's say you want to start a stamp collecting club in your home town. Many small towns have general philately clubs, but few boast 18th century German stamp collecting clubs. Such a specialized club might be viable in a major metropolis, though--if only because there are more potential members. The larger the pool, the better your chances of assembling a minimally viable number of members for a vibrant club. That's true even if interest in 18th century German stamps is the same everywhere. 

The great thing about the web is that the potential membership/subscribership/fanbase/social circle is virtually infinite, which means that a lot of conversations and communities are sustainable online when they wouldn't be sustainable physical space because most of the participants are too far flung to interact with each other. Thanks to widespread internet access and good search technology, it's easy to locate people all over the world who share an interest as narrow as you want to specify. (I bet a lot of people already Googled "18th Century German stamp club", just to see...)

It's easy to dismiss discussions among people who generally agree with each other, and disagree with you, as being incestuous or idle or echoing. That's because all conversations presuppose a certain amount of agreement. Even the most oppositional dialectics is only worthwhile if the discussants agree on certain minimal standards of logic and evidence, and usually a substantial body of mutually acceptable evidence, too. If you don't even share that much, you won't  even clash with your opponent, you'll just talk past one another, and the dialectic will fail to generate knowledge. At that point, you might as well not even bother. Just write down your respective position papers in terms that might convince a hypothetical reasonable third party and get on whith your lives. That's more or less what happens in the blogosphere. Luckily, in the hyper-linked world of blogs, the same post or comment can be part of many different overlapping discussions at once. It's interesting to see the butterfly effect  where a spat between California tech bloggers can ripple outwards to the feminist blogosphere and the right wing blogs in the space of a couple of days.

The charge of preaching to the choir loses a lot of its force when you are publishing on the worldwide web. Everyone's a street evangelist, if only because of Google and Technorati.

I don't get the "free speech" argument with regard to blog comments policies. Anyone who's capable of commenting on a blog is capable of posting those same ideas on their own blog and linking to anyone they want. Amanda doesn't have provide a platform for commenters who are disruptive and opposed to the core mission of the blog. There's no intrinsic virtue in letting these people derail the discussion.

There is no free speech argument for some commenter's right to post on someone else's blog, not even some abstract case about fostering knowledge, or furthering dialog.
It's worthwhile to bring people together and help them learn from each other, regardless of whether they're viewpoints are close or far apart in some conceptual space. There's nothing intrinsically more worthy about a discussion between a far-left and a far-right ideologue than a disscussion between two Marxist feminists.

Sure, there are the truisms about how it's good to expose yourself to a wide variety of ideas and people to avoid reconfirming your own biases and getting cliquish. But it's equally true that that evangelism, salesmanship, and advertising tend to be shallow in terms of the content of the pitch. If you're always writing to persuade some hypothetical middle ground, or score points against someone you don't ultimately respect, you're likely to come off as a propagandist rather than an innovator.

As I argued above, different types of exchanges are good for generating different types of outputs. You'll get a different type of experience and different insights out of an incredibly ideologically diverse comments section than you will out of comments section that's dedicated to a more in-depth discussion of a narrower range of positions.

Personally, I take a hands-off approach. My niche is to provide a comments section where anyone can say just about anything. That's good in some ways and bad in others. I think the comments are livelier, but I also deter some of the "niche" feminist commenters I'd like to hear from because they'd prefer to spend their time having different kinds of conversations. 

If everyone just ignored all the people they consider to be beneath contempt and engages only those for whom they have at least minimal respect,  99% of pointless and disruptive flame wars would be eliminated. On the other hand, I can afford to be really hands-off because I don't have to deal with the same volume of comments, or the same prevalence of truly disruptive trolls that Pandagon does.

Luckily, we live in a world where we can easily belong to a large number of communities with different ground rules. The different blogs with different rules are a microcosm of how we can have the best of all worlds if we want to take advantage of what's available. It takes work for Amanda to maintain a feminist community and prevent her comments from become a formless free-for-all like most of the other big blogs. Lots of people enjoy the rapid-fire free wheeling highly social discussion that you find on, say Atrios--including plenty of Pandagon commenters. The blogosphere would be poorer if either alternative were to be ruled out of existence by idealists who think that there's just one model for a free or enlightening discussion.


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Off the top of my head, I'd say that the main problem with echo chambers is that they can excessively insulate people to the point that they don't perceive the world in a sufficiently predictive way. For example, you might end up not foreseeing the reaction that the public and opponents might have to your being hired as a celebrity campaign blogger, while other people, including your friends Lindsay and Ezra, could see it coming from a mile away. Just as a hypothetical!

Of course, nothing about spending some time relaxing in an echo chamber necessitates that conclusion. No one's required to believe their own hype, and most people will benefit from spending some time with like-minded folks, and some time ina more diverse, less controlled setting.

So, no, there's nothing inherently wrong with echo chambers. There's just something wrong with burying your head in one.

And, for the record, I've never, to my knowledge, been banned from Pandagon, so I've got no axe to grind there.

You mean this blog ISN'T about 18th Century German stamp collecting? Well I'm a little red-faced.

Oh well, as long as I'm here, does anyone want to talk about Amanda Marcotte?

The lack of baby bunny pictures on Sunday infuriates me!

O.M.G. What prompted this, and at such length? I don't understand the need for a principled defense of one's right to police a blog in whatever manner one wants. I don't believe that the idea that a community might have rules that allow certain people in and keep certain people out is one that's difficult to understand. I certainly can see that people might be aggrieved if they fell into the "out" category--I would so feel--but it's a blog, for cripes sake.

BTW, aeroman's got a good point. However, there are echo chambers, and then there are psycho chambers. It takes but one casual perusal of Little Green Footballs or Atlas Shrugs to know exactly what I'm talking about. So no matter how bad the echo might get here or at Amanda's, there is no way in hell they'll ever devolve into the psychotic cacophany that those sites are.

Isn't chiming in en mass when someone cries "echo chamber" in and of itself make you part of echo chamber? After all there is safety in numbers. Probably laziness is to blame. It's lame regardless.


And one more thing: Very, very, VERY rarely do I go trolling on conservative blogs, but when I do I like to think that I bring something positive to the milieu. For instance, a while back Pammy Dearest wrote about attending an AIPAC conference, so I wrote:

If your run into any AIPAC spies, make sure you tell them that Jonathan Pollard says "Hi!"

For some reason she deleted my comment. I don't know why.

There are good "echo chambers," and there are bad ones. Good ones are those where (as at Pandagon, say) voices that tend to be ridiculed and silenced feel safe speaking. Certainly, this can lead to problems, most notably a tendency to move away from argument towards shouting, and critical thought can wax and wane in that sort of environment, but it's much better than the alternative, a place where people who hold views that are unpopular outside of the blog environment feel uncomfortable expressing those views.

On the other hand, there are the bad ones. These tend to revolve around "cults of personality," and any semblance of critical thought and reason is lost. Unfortunately, in my experience, these sorts of echo chambers tend to happen in precisely the areas of the blogosphere in which critical thought is most important (check out some of the bigger blogs with which I share a domain, for prime examples).

So am I to understand that commenters are mindlessly parroting a comment intended to demean those who mindlessly parrot other people's comments?

This discussion reminds me of the song "Preaching to the Choir". There is a place for echo chambers, though that is probably too pejorative a term for what I see as a community-building exercise, at least partly. It's only a problem, as aeroman noted, if these echo chambers become the only places that people visit for their political and other discussions.

Now that I think of it, I don't like the term at all. Much useful debate happens within a particular ideological agreement.

I'd definitely be interested in getting my hands on an 18th century German postage stamp -- either that or an 18th century BMW.

It's not enough that people tend to agree with each other in comments threads, or that some cluster of blogs tend to agree with each other. It's hardly a criticism of a blog or a community to say that most of its members tend to agree, at least about the core subjects that draw people to the blog.

You're right, it's not enough. I can't speak for Aeroman, but my problem with echo chambers is entirely empirical: they lower the quality of discussion. The quality of discussion is also influenced by a lot of factors, which is why Echidne has better comment threads than Ezra even though Ezra's are ideologically diverse while Echidne's aren't. But there's a particular way excessive agreement can lower that quality.

Basically, there are two problems. One is based on the idea that echo chambers are defined around a core belief or movement - say, feminism, or science. Once they're set up, discussion proceeds around what furthers the core principles the most.

For example, a discussion of rape on a feminist blog will be about which perspective of rape is the most feminist rather than which is the most useful or enlightening. Even if you assume that feminism equals good, you can't conclude that the feminist perspective on every issue is the best one. What is considered feminist evolves over time, sometimes based on temporary political alliances and sometimes based on backlash within the feminist movement - see for example breast cancer. And sometimes movements just get things wrong. It's unreasonable to expect from followers of a movement based on six or seven issues to agree with the party line all the time, even tacitly.

Now, the actual discussion I'm referencing here - a mega-thread on Feministing about rape - happens to be an example of a good echo chamber. That thread was empirical. Although all the major participants were feminists, there was a real disagreement about the causes of rape, which was settled by looking at evidence rather than by consulting pseudo-scripture to see which position is the most feminist. But at the end one of the regulars still called me a troll, even though my level of disagreement with the Valenti party line is not bigger than this of many other regulars.

That last point, about my views versus the Feministing party line, brings me to the second problem with echo chambers: radicalization. Ideologically homogeneous groups have a natural tendency to radicalize, because while a liberal who veers to the right can be seen as a conservative-loving traitor, a liberal who veers to the left can't. Established political organizations and parties counter this tendency by the equally strong need to win elections or otherwise be politically effective; blogs have no such equivalent. Thus even blogs with a fairly anti-radical commenting body, such as this one, will only counter this tendency when the radical argues in an obviously offputting way, such as "You have to vote Green."

Going back to Feministing, although my disagreements with Jessica and Vanessa aren't any bigger than those of the other regulars (well, not "other"; I don't comment there anymore), they're in the wrong direction. I'm slightly less radical in that I treat rape as a violent crime rather than a gender-based one. Other commenters, such as Donna Darko and Tom Head, are more radical in that they take certain clearly radical ideas (such as Twisty's anti-blowjob nonsense) seriously whereas none of the Feministing frontpagers does as far as I can tell. But the flames on any echo chamber I've seen always go from more radical to less radical people.

Those two mechanisms cause discussions on most feminist blogs to be worse than worthless. But it's true on other subcultures of the blogosphere as well. Pharyngula's body of commenters is exceptionally positivist, to the point of not understanding why people could possibly have disagreements with the Heinleinian scientism that area of the blogosphere displays. One slogan I've seen on Democratic Underground is that Republicans want to replace the economic system that defeated communism with the one that spawned it; similarly, the people on Pharyngula seem bent on replacing the intellectual framework that defeated the anti-science excesses of the counterculture with the one that spawned them.

You can see the same two mechanisms in action there. The notion that religion should be considered a political movement like many other political movement can lead to insufficiently anti-religious conclusions. Therefore, radical atheist bloggers prefer to follow Dawkins and Harris's simpleminded totalization of religion as the source of all evil, to overblow the metaphysical features of religion in order to make it incomparable with any secular idea. Similarly, radicalization dictates that flames flow from extreme to slightly less extreme, so commenters who are nonreligious but talk about the positive contributions of religion or even about analyzing religion seriously are flamed by hordes of adherents to the Pharyngula party line, who themselves get flamed by radicals who think that wrong ideas kill and therefore freedom of religion is a bad idea.

1866 (or was it 1861?) is the year first stamp was issued, if I recall correctly (the Black Penny) so there are no 18th century stamps, German or otherwise. But the point still stands.

1840, I missed by a couple of decades, but was still in the correct century...

Echo chamber = well-practiced orchestra.

Pleasant music. Nice harmony.

A lot of people resent how quick to censor a lot of feminists are. It should also be noted that Pandagon had a lot of commenters that pre-dated the Amanda Marcotte era. A lot of us resenting seeing a relatively free and open comment section suddenly subject to an ideological code of conduct. It was once a site for all lefties, now it's only a site for feminists. That's understandable in terms of content, Marcotte is a feminist and it's obvious that most of her posts would be from that perspective. What's off-putting about it is that she feels the need to restrict the comments to people who already agree with her. Why would anyone listen to someone who doesn't care what they have to say? It's hard not to dislike someone who feels they deserve a voice, but can't stand to hear anything but echoes of her own.

I think the phrase "echo chamber" is supposed to connote not merely a chorus of opinions in agreement, but the idea that the people in the chorus are mindless. Also, it has been traditionally used to describe the phenomenon where the original sound ends up reflecting back with a surprisingly loud volume. It has been use to describe the mainstream media when they take any rumor started by Drudge and repeat it uncritically to the American people for weeks on end.

I don't think it's appropriate to simply use the term to mean "a number of people in agreement". The word "chorus" would do there, and also the phrase "preaching to the choir". I certainly think it's true that left-wing blogs tend to include a great deal of "preaching to the choir", but I do not think that they are echo chambers so much.

In particular, the commenters at Eschaton usually have little relation to whatever Atrios is talking about at the moment. That's just a bunch of 20-30 people who continually post on his blog just to communicate with each other. As for Pandagon, I don't think that's an echo chamber either.

coturnix: if you wanted to hear a good orchestra, the last place you would want to put them is in an echo chamber! You only want to hear the music once!

I made the first comment on that Florida-felons blog-article.

I quoted a couple of sentences which Linsday Beyerstein had written, and then wrote "Wrong."

Therefore, I don't think "echo chamber" describes the response to the article. (Regardless of whether echo chambers are good, bad, or neutral.)

Why bother commenting on an echo-chamber like blog, anyway? Having occasionally (like a peeping tom at a nudist colony) perused through some of the comments at Pandagon, Eschaton, LGF, Atlas Shrugs, Washington Monthly, it just boggles the mind how so little is said with so many words.

Very few blogs have interesting comment sections. This is one of them. There's nothing wrong with having an "echo chamber" but jesus- does anyone really get anything out of them?

"If everyone just ignored all the people that they consider beneath contempt and engage only those for whom they have at least minimal respect, 99% of pointless and disruptive flame wars would be eliminated."

I don't think a lack of respect is the issue with genuine trolls. They're trying to get some relief from their anger, and shout down or otherwise harass people who voice thoughts and beliefs they find threatening. Since large numbers of people in society find any discussion of sexism, racism, etc. to be extremely threatening, those blogs or postings are usually going to attract that many more trolls. I for one am very glad that there's blogs that discuss these issues with both more open and more restricted commenting sections.

I'm sorry, off the topic, but I can't restrain myself from commenting on this:

"I'm slightly less radical in that I treat rape as a violent crime rather than a gender-based one."

Well, its both, Mr. Levy; the fact that gender issues are bound up in most societies with power and violence really gets to the heart of what "feminism" is all about. And yes, people who agree on that basic premise can disagree strongly on such issues as how it came to happen.

Seeing as how I've disagreed with Marcotte without being either banned or flamed, I'm not sure the echo chamber accusation has much to stand on. I disagree with her habit of editing troll comments, but the essential fact is that if you understand the basic elements of the feminist worldview well enough to talk the language, there is plenty of room for constructive debate. If, on the other hand, you drop in repeating antifeminist talking points we've all heard hundreds of time you're not contributing to the dialog, just wasting everyone's time. Since quite a few of the people who do that sort of thing feel entitled to a defense of feminism from first principles (in just a few lines, please), it's legit to get a little testy with them.

I've learned a great deal from such 'echo chambers' as Pandagon and Majikthise.

Something that no one has mentioned that I think is endemic at echo chamber like blogs is a specialized vernacular. People seem willing to judge you, content free, based on whether you are well acquainted with the lingo of their particular specialized topic. To be charitable this type of judging is just a shortcut for whether or not the person in question is familiar with the background material. I think though that as these online communities mature though the tone and vocabulary becomes more cliquish to the point where it becomes extremely difficult for an outsider, even one who agrees in all essentials with the party line of the regulars, to join the conversation and be taken seriously.

While there's nothing wrong with moderating for topic, or to remove trolls, I think its plausible for someone to argue that Marcotte is a bit quick to reach for the "delete" key regarding some of her commenters. I can't exactly muster statistical data in support of this, but I do know that the only comment I ever posted on her blog was deleted, and that I didn't think it was really delete-worthy. It disagreed with her, but it wasn't insulting.

She was criticizing some article, I don't even remember which one now, and made a few rhetorical moves that I thought were unfair. She spent a great deal of time criticizing the author for what she read into his writing, then noted that the author "finally" got to what she believed to be the central point. The impression she clearly gave was that the author was only noting the perspective she found compelling in passing at the end of a long, mysogynist article. In reality, this "finally" was about 3 paragraphs in to a rather lengthy article, which focused at great length on exactly what she wanted it to.

I made note of this, and also of the strategy that she was employing in critiquing the article: as the article itself didn't make any blatantly sexist statements, she took statements that could plausibly have a sexist meaning if one were significantly uncharitable and if one were to add a lot of context that wasn't present in the article, compared them to statements made by people and in contexts where the sexism was obvious, and blasted the author for the sexism of other people in other contexts saying other things. It was the first time that I realized that what she was doing wasn't really critiquing the article she was allegedly critiquing, but rather, she was employing the devices of literary theory to connect a single sentence to a larger dialogue about feminism, and to use it as a springboard to critique that dialogue, while imputing it all to an unsuspecting author of a relatively lame newspaper fluff piece.

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