Welcome to the Echo Chamber

Posted by Whit Barringer , Wednesday, July 21, 2010 9:43 PM

A fellow grad student that I follow on Twitter said that Roger Ebert retweets (that is, he basically shows tweets he likes to his own followers verbatim) writers, artists, poets, and the like whose writing is like "bad high school poetry." To which I replied the following:
It's like being able to listen in on someone's echo chamber, or looking over his shoulder and seeing what he sees in the mirror.
Essentially, retweets do two things. One, they carry news like a virus, spreading from one person to another until almost every person on Twitter has at least seen whatever tiny piece of information has caught fire. The other is what I've hinted above - it creates a perfect reflection of a person outside of herself. It is a portrait created through negative space. When Ebert retweets writing, he is showing what he is drawn to and what speaks to him. A rapt follower can hear echoes of Ebert in his retweets. Regardless of whether the echoes are of his heart, his sense of irony, or his own brand of wishful thinking, they are significant.

But there is a danger to the echo chamber, and it's not just a Twitter phenomenon. It's the same phenomenon that populates the local sections of newspapers, and it's the same phenomenon that has kept television news so gossipy and literally incredible. Retweeting becomes a metaphor: the information, or the "tweet," comes from pundits and editors. The retweeters are other pundits and editors. Just as Ebert, a writer and critic by trade, retweets fellow writers and critics, Fox News "retweets" The Drudge Report and Olbermann "retweets" the Huffington Post, and vice versa.

These echoes are dangerous because they have a tendency to become louder than their source. When two phones are put on speaker phone and made to face one another, and then someone utters a single sound, the phones will echo back and forth into each other, becoming so loud they are a single undulating scream. This scream, when translated into words, slanted viewpoints, agendas, misunderstandings (in other words, when it is translated into "human"), is misleading and corrosive.

I used to be just as much a victim of this as anyone else. I mainly stick to Twitter for my news now, but there was a time when I only read blogs. They would report on each other as if the thoughts of other men and women in their living rooms "interpreting" AP press releases was worth something more than the key presses it took to blurt it out. Because what I read mostly aligned with my political beliefs (and if it didn't, I tried to read with an open mind but I often read opposing viewpoints ironically), I stopped reading so critically. I became a bit hollow, and that hollowness was filled with other people's echoes. Yet their echoes were only echoes of others, and those others' echoes were echoes of yet others, and so on and so forth until all that was left was a single, undulating scream. If this is what I was reading, then with what kind of corrosion was I filling myself?

I stopped reading political and news blogs more because they were taking up too much time than that I had some sort of epiphany regarding their effect on me. That doesn't mean, loyal Twitterer that I am, that I don't fall into the trap again every once in a while. But whenever I see a political blog or see pundits on TV, I try to remind myself that, almost always no matter who they are, the words they say come from a hollowness filled with echoes.

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