Twitter, the great echo chamber

Today on Twitter Paris_David said “We need to get out of the echo chamber people. Conroy was always going to stay. Furious agreement on Twitter is not a campaign.”   Which pretty much summed up some of what I had been thinking about for a while. On Twitter there was a huge number of sincere, intelligent, well-meaning, slightly deluded people. Why on earth would Conroy have been changed? The anti internet censorship campaign has barely scratched the mainstream surface, yet for all of us who constantly listen to the opinions of people who agree with us, we start to get convinced that there is a great groundswell of opinion out there. The technical term for it is confirmation bias apparently.

I won’t claim to be the first person to think such thinky thoughts, and there is apparently a significant article out there somewhere which discusses the way that blogs help to both engage in confirmation bias and suffer from attitude polarisation which Google is not helpfully finding for me. Examples of some other articles include this one from Livescience on the way that political junkies choose their news and the Huffington Post on whether the internet can fix politics. Even my last post here proves the theory to some extent – with a piece promoted through like-minded folk on Twitter and through their blogs, I have received not a single negative comment. I wonder whether that might change if it got linked to by a mainstream media site – or whether the confirmation bias approach would mean that only those who were inclined to agree would bother to follow the link anyway.

What I wanted to discuss here though was the potential ideological impact of this echo chamber effect – yes, for those who are more familiar with my blog you know I can’t resist an opportunity to drag out some Althusser and Marx when I can. Does engaging in the great echo chamber make us believe that we have participated in political action and thereby act as a dis-abler for further political acts; acts which might penetrate beyond the sphere of the Twitta-sphere, and, more specifically, the Twitter community to which we belong. Before I start, let me just say, I love Twitter. Totally love Twitter.  And I am not arguing that it doesn’t have its role. It is just a matter of working out exactly what that role is.

Anyway, firstly, let’s face it, the people we follow, and the ones who follow us, are generally people or organisations we have sympathy with. Hands up everyone who has unfollowed someone because they said something we found offensive for essentially political reasons . And so we should  – we want to read things that we enjoy and find interesting, rather than things that anger us all the time. Occasional reading of right wing columnists is entertaining from time to time, and we all don’t mind a bit of outrage, but an endless stream of it would make Twitter exhausting. So we find like-minded people and we share our thoughts with the. So let’s not fool ourselves that when we link to something, or we make an important political statement, we aren’t generally preaching to the converted. This is a little different for people with a large imbalance in their follower-following ratio, or people who are famous, but even then the same holds true to a certain extent.

So following on from this, when we add a Twibbon to our avatar, when we write an outraged post and link to it on Twitter, do we really think we are reaching anyone who doesn’t already agree with us? There are certainly times where we might influence an ignorant-but-sympathetic follower, and we will certainly let others in furious agreement with us know what is going on. But how effective is this as a campaign strategy?

None of this is a problem, and there are indeed many positives in alerting people who are interested and sympathetic to events and ideas. The problem arises if we believe that we have actually engaged in some kind of significant political act. Like those people who turn off their lights for an hour during Earth Hour and think that they have done their bit for the environment for the year, putting a twibbon on your avatar, posting an outraged comment or turning your avatar green should be the beginning of action, not the end. Twitter has the potential to be the Prius of political protest, allowing us slightly complacent educated middle class types to pat ourselves on the back and think we’ve made a difference. That’s ideology at work.

As a slightly complacent, middle class type myself, I am not sitting here being superior and advocating burning down government buildings or throwing petrol bombs. I think that we just need to be careful to believe our own publicity, not to live in a world where we are convinced that 140 character statements can achieve real change alone. Twitter, Facebook and blogs have the potential to be an effective part of political organising and protest, but as long as we recognise the audience to whom we are speaking, and the limitations of what we can achieve.

Ideology and our responses to climate change

Now, let me just say up front, I am a believer. I ride my bike. I use low power light bulbs. I turn off lights. I conserve water. That brings me to Earth Hour. Now it is a lovely idea, a lovely symbolic gesture. But what really worries me about it is that it is something that people get all excited about, and for an hour turn off their lights – then an hour later they go back to their high carbon emitting ways feeling all good about themselves and what they have done for the environment. And then a year later, they turn off their lights again for an hour. My workplace participated in Earth hour – big effort there as pretty much only the crazy are at work where I work at 8pm on a Saturday night. And for one day they tell us to turn off our computers over night. Um, shouldn’t we always be doing that? Turning off the lighting on public buildings for one hour provides excellent front page vision for the Sydney Morning Herald, but why are those buildings lit up every night – wouldn’t one night a week meet the needs of tourists?  And why invent one non-sustainable event to promote awareness? At least when it is ride-your-bike day, that is something that people will do more often if they discover that it is easy. How often are people going to sit around in the dark for an hour? And really, isn’t it just preaching to the converted anyhow?

It is typical of the things that frustrates me most about our reaction to climate change. It is so replete with ideology – ideology in the Althusserian/Marxist sense – ideology which masks the realities of the situation. Just as turning off the lighting in our houses and on our public buildings for an hour each year is a pointless exercise which may be worse than pointless because it makes us feel that we are actually doing something noble for the cause, so to has been the governmental response to climate change. The approach has focused so strongly on placing the responsibility for lowering emissions on the individual – we need to change our light globes, we need to walk to work, we need to modify our houses – that it ignores the fact that the greatest emitters are business and the greatest levers of control lie not with the individual, but with the corporate world and the government itself. Doing something to stop environmental destruction is not a matter of individual responsibility it is a matter of community/collective/social action – and of the action of communities/collectives and societies which include companies and government. We can let them off the hook by focussing on purely individual action. I am not saying we should not “act local”, but we should not condone the individualisation of responsibility for that action.