The echo chamber effect refers to the transmission of ideas or beliefs amplified and reinforced inside an “enclosed” system. The result of this effect is that differing views are censored or underrepresented, while similar views are given more weight and privileged. In other words, the echo chamber effect occurs when individuals surround themselves exclusively with likeminded people. By only looking through a filtered social lens, a complex, dynamic world view becomes difficult to cultivate. Alternative perspectives can be perceived as less valid than views represented within your own bubble. This creates a polarization effect, the result of which turns potentially insightful debates into an “us versus them” rhetoric. This is increasingly problematic because the spaces we once used as neutral gathering places to explore varying perspectives, such as town halls and community centers, are being replaced by social media platforms like Facebook. Because these are the places now where conversations are happening, humanity’s online discourse needs to evolve beyond toxic comment threads and into forums that enable more informed and engaged discussions.
Over the course of 10 weeks, twelve of my colleagues and I explored how we could use design thinking to tackle current social issues through a workshop led by Michael Ellsworth, the founding partner of the Seattle-based design firm Civilization. My group, called They Build, decided to explore the echo chamber effect in social media and how it amplifies already polarizing issues. Divisive issues, such as race, gentrification, and the current political climate, are used against social media users to prevent us from coming together and helping each other in our global community. With the goal of unification and open dialogue in mind, we brainstormed different ways that we could be critical of Facebook as a perpetuator of the echo chamber effect and demonstrate how awareness can help transform these commonly used spaces into productive, self-aware mediums of change.
Although this is a relatively new topic in the context of online communities, we saw several common themes that were consistent through our research: reliance on algorithms, loss of media mediators, unchecked information spreading.
Algorithms—computational formulas that distill user information into relevant data–determine search results, social media feeds (which is how many people consume information today) and what products are advertised on an individual basis. Algorithms have no moral obligations programmed into them; they are simply designed to sell you products. Because of the reliance on algorithms and the personalization of content, we are limiting our exposure to views and voices.
Historically, we have had media mediators in the form of editors and publishers These people were the gatekeepers; whether or not they chose to exercise complex moral decisions, they were capable of it. The algorithms that analyze and curate our information today are morally simplistic. They are hardwired to show us content based on quantity, not quality.
The other problem is that people are uncritical and often ignorant of the content they are consuming. They are overloaded with so much information that they hardly read full articles before sharing them, and rarely ever check their sources to make sure that statements are even valid.
Our biggest challenge was deciding how to communicate these concepts in a way that would get people to think about their involvement within their online communities. After developing several campaign concepts ranging from informational websites, to guerrilla street art movements, we landed on an experiential gallery installation to convey our ideas. This decision was predicated on the idea that effective art poses more questions to the viewer and leaves them with the opportunity to consider a more complex relationship with their use of the internet. We wanted to take advantage of the expectation that a gallery experience provides; namely, it’s not an incidental space, but a destination. With an installation, we could curate the interactions that could get people thinking about the thematic concepts that we had developed.
The main goal of the exhibition is to create an impactful installation in a gallery setting that leaves participants with more questions than answers. We want to be the catalyst for change. During our planning phase we spent time considering the flow of the gallery space, the order in which you got the information, and how we could guide people through the space. Most of our pieces invited participation on the guest’s part. It was extremely important to us that people would engage in the work to provide a more memorable experience and through the interaction we had the opportunity to communicate sometimes abstractly some of the concepts we developed.
Utilizing resources we had available to us on campus, we pitched our concept to an art department gallery space and secured a time slot. The biggest challenge after designing our exhibition was obtaining funding. I applied to a special research grant, Research and Creative Opportunities Grant for Undergraduates, which helped fund our endeavors. Meanwhile, I coordinated with vinyl sign vendors and finalized/produced signage and promotional material. Once the gallery space was ready for us, we had two days to install. Needless to say, it was a sprint. But with a whole weekend without sleep, and the help of loved ones, we completed installation.
A sensory exploration of the echo chamber effect in media, and the impact it has on our societal well-being - This exhibition explores the abstract relationship we have with technology and how marketing strategies designed to make money can keep people from accessing the spectrum of information available out on the world wild websphere. With this exhibition, we strive to bring awareness to the pitfalls of the echo chamber effect by inspiring individuals to open their hearts and minds and think together.
The most rewarding part of this experience was watching people interacting with our exhibition and engaging in discussion with each other about their participation on the internet. Many people had never heard of the concept of an echo chamber, and walked away with much to think about. Although our exhibition was in a small gallery space that does not usually get much traffic, we had a great turnout for the reception. Because of our location, we did not reach as many people as we would have like to, but the effect we had on the guests that were able to attend was impactful enough to get a buzz going about our work. Next time more focus will be placed on cultivating a stronger online presence, including with a microsite that can provide a virtual experience, which could reach a much wider audience. Despite time and resource constraints we were highly successful. A big shout out to Michael Ellsworth, the They Build team, and WWU Design Dept. for your time and support, which helped us realize our vision, thank you.