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Know Your Community: A Look into “Echo Chambers”

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Adelphi chapter.

The Internet is a funny place. You don’t need to be told that; chances are if you’re reading this article, the Internet is even older than you are. What’s even funnier is just how much of our personalities and interests are formed by the Internet; a substantial amount of everyone’s favorite shows, music, movies, and other forms of media has been personally recommended by some algorithm based on pre-existing knowledge about us. Every app does this, and applications like TikTok and Netflix are founded on this idea of “learning their customers.”. It’s the simplest math equation of technology: Better quality recommendations = longer retention from their customer. What could be considered more interesting is what these customers do with these recommendations, and how they interact with others based on them.

Let me give you another easily understandable equation: more shared interests between parties = longer-lasting relationships. Admittedly, this isn’t a one-to-one correlation; sometimes having TOO much in common could actually hurt the relationship, but generally, we understand this to be true. It’s incredibly difficult for someone who only speaks English to befriend someone who only speaks German, without a translator, due to their inability to communicate verbally with one another. We can think of an “interest” as another form of language: someone who is a fanatic about football isn’t going to have a very productive conversation about the sport with someone who has never watched it before. This isn’t to say that these two can’t be friends, because they might have some other shared interest, but it’s very likely that most of their conversations won’t be about football. Think of your best friend for a moment: you might not be interested in everything they are, or vice versa. Even though you might have a strong relationship with one another, you probably don’t talk about a subject that you don’t share in common much, do you? It’s that same idea.

So where do algorithms come into it? As we know, artificial intelligence is trained to “learn” us, and that includes our habits, hobbies, and interests. This is so they can recommend content that aligns with our interests and, more importantly for this article, pairs us with people who hold those similar interests. Tinder has recently launched a very rudimentary execution of this concept: users pick up to 5 interests of their own, and the algorithm will highlight if a potential match holds any of these interests as well. A more sophisticated version of this concept in action is the app that’s absolutely revolutionized the social media landscape: TikTok. If you’re constantly liking and engaging with content about cute puppies, you’ll have more cute puppies on your “for you page”. If you’re a Taylor Swift fan, you’ll probably fall down the endless rabbit hole that is #swifttok. Simple concept, but it gets more complicated when you consider there are communities outside of yours.

The entire concept of an “echo chamber” is that one only interacts with media that reinforces their own beliefs, or satisfies their own opinions. Lots of people use the term in a political context; Republicans are likely very rarely interacting with content that aligns with Democratic politics, and if they do come across this content, they will likely press a “Not Interested” button or block the user, and vice versa. The concept also holds true outside of politics, however, and leads to a lot of warped perceptions about certain mediums. 

I’m going to bring in a personal anecdote: I’ve recently been listening to artists like Arca, Ethel Cain, and SOPHIE, who are all artists that, while not technically underground, are probably not household names either. Because I’ve been listening to these artists a lot, TikTok recommends me content about them or with their music. I double-tap and keep scrolling through, but TikTok now understands that I enjoy content about them, so they feed me more. It gets to a point where a majority of my for you page is about them, and I automatically think that they’re the biggest artists in the world, because they’re the biggest artists in MY world. However, when you check their Spotify pages, they’re all wavering between 500k-750k monthly listeners; not a bad number by any means, but certainly not “biggest artist in the world” numbers.

So, what happened? TikTok took these (relatively) obscure artists that I like, and blew them up to a proportion where I thought they were much bigger than they actually were, because I was only interacting with content and users who are also interested in these artists. The situation is even funnier when it comes to a well-established artist like Taylor Swift. Everyone knows who she is, but not everyone likes her. As a matter of fact, her album “Reputation” was critically panned and disliked by a large community, but a huge Taylor Swift fan would never know that, since they’re stuck in an “echo chamber” of people who only have positive things to say about her and her music.

Echo chambers aren’t always inherently bad, (I actually found humor in the fact that the artists I was listening to were apparently more obscure than I thought), but they definitely can be dangerous depending on the topic. Unless somebody is completely neutral on every single topic ever, it is impossible to avoid entering an echo chamber when using social media, just because of how it’s set up. This requires a lot of digital media literacy to work around: whenever you’re scrolling, just keep in mind that not everyone has the same world experience that you do. Easy to visualize, difficult to practice. Just think of this concept the next time you find yourself hooked on an obscure horror movie from 2004 that social media keeps pushing on you.

I am a Junior Statistics major and Computer Science minor at Adelphi University, but I've always had a passion for creative writing! I've always loved making short stories, poems, and as I've grown up, more critical and analytical pieces!