Bring Your Own Echo Chamber
When certain Queensland Association for Healthy Communities (QAHC) ads were pulled from bus stops around Brisbane this week, my Facebook and Twitter feeds filled with protests, jokes, demands that the ads be put back and a lot of comments supporting the campaign and the creative execution. This story gained momentum fast, and even made it into the print and broadcast media.
There was one thing missing though. I never saw anyone I was connected with making claims that the ads were obscene and damaging to children. Obviously these people exist (the situation would never have arisen if they did not) but in my own corner of the Internet, they are invisible.
Online I am surrounded by people I agree with, at least most of the time, and especially on the things I care about. On Twitter I follow people who interest me with what they say and on Facebook most of my connections are built on shared experiences, like university or a football team. It is easy to mute or ignore statements you don't really like, and most social media platforms provide the user with a range of tools that give them control over what they see and experience.
Online communities are built around a shared purpose or values, and the Internet has made it easy to find the ones that suit you best. There are sites, pages and forums dedicated to small football teams, obscure hobbies and esoteric interests. People have always formed tribes and communities built on shared values and interests, so the emergence of these groups online is not in itself extraordinary. The real significant change the Internet brought was making it easier than ever to find others who share interests, and to make distance irrelevant. It does not matter if you are the only person you know who likes restoring 1950s blenders if you can now reach every other city in the world. The most obscure hobbies are only a search query away.
With the proliferation of specialty print and many channels of paid and digital TV, Narrowcasting is an important feature of the media landscape. With cheap storage, services like Youtube, Facebook and Tumblr, and the boredom of thousands with access to cameras and computers, the diversification of offline content is dwarfed by the diversity to be found online. Consequently, people have more options to tailor the media they consume and avoid the stuff they don't want.
Increasingly it is the user's social network that is affecting what they experience online. Facebook has made it easy for other sites to incorporate information from a visitor's social graph into their on-site experience. Instant Personalisation on sites like Rottentomatoes and Bing, and Facebook's Social Plugins (like the Recommendations plugin) give the user a far more customised experience. Bing and the search startup Blekko both include Facebook data in their results pages and Google's personalisation of search uses data from data centre down to user level to create a more targeted search experience.
Using online social networks to help curate information is an almost inevitable response to the vast amount of content available now. Selecting information based on social cues has been used as a tool long before there was an Internet. I am as likely to find new music through Last.fm and searching YouTube as I am by asking a friend. I have bought comics because someone I know liked it too before there was an Amazon. The Internet and the social web that it has spawned has merely made the process far more efficient, and more vital. Social media isn't why we make our own echo chambers or live inside a fishbowl, it just makes it even easier to do so.
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