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The Tumblr Echo Chamber

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Because of the complicated, multi-networked structure of the Internet, the concept of Freedom of Speech has been put under a microscope. We now conceptualize that freedom differently in a democratic society, simply because of the amount of information available and space in which to share that information.  What is important to understand when talking about Freedom of Speech in the network is that there needs to be parameters set to protect it, but more importantly it needs to be understood as a connector in and of itself.

Let’s first look at what freedom means online.  In his book “Republic 2.0”, Cass Sunstein claims “Freedom should not always be identified with ‘choices.’ Of course free societies usually   respect free choices. But sometimes choices reflect, and can in fact produce, a lack of freedom. But perhaps the argument is rooted in something else: a general hostility to any form of government regulation (Sunstein 153).” One of the primary uses of the Internet space is the spreading of ideas and information, and blogging has become a contributor of this spread, especially with regards to the political landscape.  Blogging provides a platform for individuals to say whatever they want, free of government censorship or corporate media influences.  They amass followers, support grassroots political efforts, and pick fights with the opposition while enjoying virtually no intrusion or censorship. Every voice can be heard, every idea fleshed out, and the consumer has the freedom to access and participate in all sides of the dialogue, all at once.

Now that we have this kind of freedom of expression, it is a natural reaction for us to want to protect it, fight desperately against interference or any form of regulation. What this does, however is open up the floodgates of access to all information. And once the floodgates open, it is extremely difficult for the public to decide on a filtering system for unwanted, unnecessary or damaging information.  Sunstein argues that filtering the system limits sharing of information and compromises freedom “For citizens of the republic, freedom requires exposure to a diverse set of topics and opinions” but he also acknowledges the echo chamber phenomenon that persists, in part to the overwhelming amount of information.

My personal echo chamber is the micro-blogging platform Tumblr.  Tumblr allows users to post text, images, videos, links, quotes and audio to their tumbl-blog and they can follow other Tumblr users, share messages, chat, and re-post content.  The user has a dashboard where they conduct communication and view the tumbl-blog posts of all the other users they follow. This type of blogging platform is designed to promote ease of use and connectivity within the community, and it works quite effectively distributing information. I can track how my posts move across the Tumblr community and the more followers I have, the more my voice is shared with the community, the more social capital and influence I build.

This is what makes Tumblr so appealing, the community of ideas is already set in place and the individual just has to start contributing. The Tumblr community has set up a fund for Japan relief, has organized social cause movements, distributes news in immediate time, and provides support to members. But there is an inevitable opposite to all this social and community good, sharing, happy fuzzy bunny stuff.

The Tumblr community, like most online communities has an echelon of posters who dominate the collective voice of the community. Because of their social weight, it is easier for them to set the tone of the group as a whole.  Tumblr is also open to all types of contributors, which means that voices from corporations, news organizations, fringe groups, individuals, everyone is sharing all the time. Sunstein says “These shared experiences provide a kind of social glue, facilitating efforts to solve fellow citizens, and sometimes helping ensure responsiveness to genuine problems and needs, even helping identify them as such (117).” But the individual has a choice in which blogs they follow. This filtering creates an echo chamber effect that Sunstein discusses at length. The people I follow on my personal Tumblr are people that are like me. They, for the most part share my ethics, interests, even political leanings and I purposely filter out Tumblr’s who don’t. In some ways, the people I communicate with on the platform are simply a reflection me.

And maybe this is the fear Sunstein talks about his book. He reiterates his concern about our new concept of freedom and how it actually causes group polarization, “But freedom properly understood consists not simply in the satisfaction of whatever preferences people have, but also in the chance to have preferences and beliefs formed under decent conditions – in the ability to have preferences formed after exposure to a sufficient amount of information and also to an appropriately wide and diverse range of options (45).” The danger is everywhere. It confronts you every time you join a conversation, read information, participate. And confronting the natural tendency to filter the amount of information your exposed to on a daily, hourly basis is exhausting.

Most people in the network don’t take the time to listen outside of their personal echo chambers, which is the real danger we face. So, will I open up my Tumblr following to different points of view? Will I start following Fox News’ Tumblr to balance NPR’s or The Atlantic’s Tumblr? I’ll have to think about that one.


Written by HiuHiMedia

April 20, 2011 at 11:06 am

Posted in Social Media

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