Friday, January 7, 2011

Meta-news in the Echo Chamber

Animals are dying! Birds are falling from the sky! Fish are washing onto beaches by the millions! It's the end of the world!

Not to discount the possibility of Mayan vengeance, global warming, or the second coming of Christ, but there's another lens through which to view this sudden spate of mass death reports. Or more accurately, an anti-lens. We live in a massive echo chamber whose walls grow ever higher with each new Twitter account, Facebook Like button, and hyper-linked blog. This echo chamber can obscure facts and sensationalize stories. It is, fundamentally, a magnifying glass on our innate recognition of relevant examples.

Most people are aware of this phenomenon. We break our arm and suddenly we start noticing other people with broken arms. We recognize our own social anxiety disorder and suddenly realize a great number of our peers share this affliction. Recognizing relevant examples is a product of our social nature. This instinct helps us form stronger bonds with peers like us, particularly those with whom we have a mutual problem or issue. Working together, we are more likely to overcome or survive whatever previously unnoticed problem we now face. Emotionally, we feel less isolated and more validated by the shared bonds we now discover.

The echo chamber of post-modern pop culture serves as fertile ground for this natural tendency to thrive in. Trending topics on twitter are the technological manifestation of recognizing relevant examples. The all-powerful post-modern eye sweeps hither and fro across the pop culture landscape like Sauron's flaming orb. Anything it rests on withers under the shared interest of a million connected people.

But, while this communal focus provides emotional validation, it rarely provides real answers. Hence the term echo chamber. The stories bounce back to us, mostly unchanged from when we sent them out. We feel reassured that others are hearing the same stories but we never get truth. To quote David Foster Wallace's wonderful piece about television in the post-modern age:
"A dog, when you point, will look no further than the tip of your finger."
While the most likely truth behind these stories is a dull outlier in accepted statistical variance, our momentary fascination turns this statistical outlier into something else. Stories are misremembered, numbers are inflated, and anecdotes sensationalized. Not with any malicious intent, but rather as a product of our need to relate.

And isn't that kinda sweet in a perverted way?

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