Thoughts on Echo Chambers

“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”
― Oscar Wilde

A few years ago, in the midst of a faith breakdown–by far the most personally painful experience of my life–I had a moment of realization. To take you through it I have to explain a few things.

First of all, you need to know that there is a vibrant online community focused on Mormonism and Mormon issues. It’s slang nickname is the Bloggernacle, a play on “tabernacle” which in the biblical stories was a portable worship place that was used by Israelites in the wilderness until a temple could be built. It’s significant to Mormons because there is also a building called the Tabernacle at Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah where the church is headquartered, that functioned for well over 100 years as the faith’s most important meeting place. The Bloggernacle’s function was similar in that for decades now it has served as a sort of cyber meeting place for people across a wide spectrum of faith to debate and discuss and even privately disclose deeply personal matters of belief or the lack thereof.

Secondly you need to understand how diverse this group of platforms is. There are sites and messages boards on Reddit, standalone blogs and discussion forums, social media accounts, and more. Some of these are academic focused, some give tips on apocalyptic prep. Some are feminist platforms, some focus on Sunday School lessons. It’s vast and depending on your interests you will quickly be able to find a community of like-minded individuals who share your interests, potentially even your cosmic perspectives.

This was powerful stuff and truthfully, when I came across these platforms, I was so so happy to have found other people–lots of them–who had the same issues and concerns as me within our shared faith community. Gradually my wide ranging readership and participation in the Bloggernacle narrowed. I found the platforms that focused on the issues I cared about most and read them regularly. Topics or writers who didn’t interest me faded away or were purposefully set aside. It didn’t happen overnight, it took a couple of years and I barely noticed the shift.

It was a moment of energy in the Mormon Feminist community in particular and the women I had connected with (many of whom I knew in person by this point) were organizing events of solidarity or assembly. For a long time I was fed and sustained by the connections I found. But at some point, things started to change. Our mutual stories fed and activated one another in times of pain, but in hindsight I also see how reading and hearing the pain of other people often compounded my own in unhealthy ways. Empathy is vital, but in some ways I became masochistic, constantly seeking out news, the topics of which enraged me, but also seeking the relief of having my anger and confusion validated. This is also powerful stuff. Every time the church or the cultural community did something I badly disagreed with, I read about it over and over again, often to the exclusion of other news or events. Most of my friends were either involved in these groups or deeply sympathetic to them and our conversations were dominated by the problems of faith, lack thereof, feelings of disenfranchisement, questions of conscious, and often anger. I had created a cocoon space that existed of a very few (very draining) emotional feedback loops.

The realization that eventually hit was that living in and among only people who agreed with me and validated all my feelings (especially negative ones) was not making me happy.

When I woke to the fact that I was living within an echo chamber, I made a decision. I unsubscribed from all the platforms, stopped seeking out stories of actions and policies that made me angry. I stopped courting upset and validation. I tried to stop talking as much and actively tried to start listening more. I broadened my news outlets, reactivated interests that I had let slide, and pointedly stopped focusing on mormonism, for good and bad. I took a break. Shock surprise, a more complex and gratifying life and social circle immediately followed. My head cleared. I was able to make big decisions about my spiritual life from a a steadier and healthier place.

Why the long and rambling story? Because this week we have new and abundant evidence that the echo chambers that make up our society are everywhere and far more powerful than we might have thought. I managed to find a relatively small one in an even relatively smaller and obscure religion that took over my life. My YouTube and Amazon.com suggestions come from algorithms built on my past preferences. My social media feeds, far from being impartial are equally curated spaces, the extent of which I probably don’t even properly comprehend.

It’s increasingly clear that this election was not just about political parties, it was about two separate realities. Complete with different news feeds, priorities, fears, and worldviews. I count myself among the many who didn’t realize how deep the divide truly was, partially because of the echo chambers I myself still move in. Once again I need to stop seeking out platforms and people who validate me and my opinions and do better about finding not just opinions but facts that challenge my thinking, broaden my view, and complicate my world.

I don’t think our echo chambers are making us happier as a nation. Most of what I see  in our discourse is bitterness along the lines of, “Why can’t the poor deluded other side just get its head out of the sand and see the light?!” We have work to do in overcoming opinion and prejudice to find common cause. The alternative is continuing our poisonous gridlock, or worse.

The sobering part is just how hard separating facts and opinions has become. And just how many people and businesses are invested in blurring them.

To end on another quote:

“It is not enough to win a war; it is more important to organize the peace.”
― Aristotle

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Echo Chambers”

  1. I hadn’t really thought of it like that, but it seems logical now you’ve said it..

    I’m not sure if I ever told you before, but I am still impressed by how you got out – I can only begin to imagine how hard that must have been.

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