You’ve got to be joking. Honestly, I think my brain’s going to explode. I was ready to leave this behind, and now I’m not so sure.
First, David Weinberger writes an essay that quite ably argues that although there may be echo chambers per se, at least in terms of politics (which is a very minor slice of the whole pie, of course), on the web, there are in fact a multitude of them, and as a consequence we are able both in principle and in practice to expose ourselves to a greater range of opinion and interpretation than we might otherwise be. The space (if it can be well-described in spatial terms, a discussion long-past and best left buried under the azalea bush out back, perhaps) as a whole isn’t an echo chamber, he argues, if I understand him correctly: it is a vast concatenation of echo chambers, varying in their vehemence and level of groupthink, and thus benign. A metachamber, not ringing with echoes at all, but with the grand hubbub that is the sounds of the little echo chambers (occasionally with a population of one) singing into the void.
I’d argue that this is saying precisely nothing. I would argue that the weblog world is getting topheavy with pundits and supastars and, heaven forbid, leaders, who may (or may not) have gotten there from sheer merit, I admit, but that this trend is making thinking about the medium taste more like top-down pearls before swine than I’m entirely comfortable with.
I would argue that it is a tautology that the internet is a group of groups, and those groups, as a result of human nature, tend to organically accrete around shared common interests and beliefs, just as they do in the real world, and further that it is easier on the internet to be mobile between groups, sometimes radically different ones. This, I agree, is one of the great things about our digital lives. Unfortunately, unlike in real life, it is also far easier for participants to express themselves in ways more extreme than they might do in their ‘real lives’, and the echo chambers where there’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop of — shall we say — excessive zeal can turn evil or stupid or both very quickly indeed. But this isn’t what Dr W is talking about, I don’t think.
He says

We believers need a chance to get together, too. Sure, BloggerCon permits contrary points of view, but it’s distinguishable from the “Pro or Con” conference in tone and topic. And that’s a good thing. BloggerCon helps build community and advance thought by letting us be passionate, without having to back off, argue for fundamental principles with which we already agree, and persuade others of the legitimacy of our enthusiasm.

And I’m not entirely sure that I agree. Why is it a good thing, exactly? I suggest that the less writing (isn’t that what this is all about, out here in the ASCII (sorry, UTF-8) world? the writing?) and the more self-congratulation that goes on, the less relevance personal websitery seems to actually have to anyone, including its practitioners.
Next (and I don’t mean to get all up in David’s face, but he started me on this) Dr W anticipates a second Bloggercon and mentions that Dave Winer is planning to “ask each of the moderators to work ‘Nuking the Echo Chamber’ into the discussion”, and notes that Winer asks “How do we methodically and systematically overcome the tendency for echo chambers to form and self-perpetuate?”
Ahhhhhh-hahahahhaha. Stop me before I kill blog again.
Am I losing my mind here? Is Dr Weinberger not a weblog-writer (brilliant and talented, intellectually grunty, fiercely sexy, all that, sure, OK — I’ve nothing but respect for the man even when he’s as wildly off the mark as I feel him to be on this) who is among that gang of Usual Suspects that show up at all of these blog conventions and conferences and so on and then tell us all about them (blogging about the talking about the blogging, which is often blogging about the blogging in the first place), whether we’re interested or not, who is a shaper, most certainly, of both the weblog universe’s thinking about itself and the old media’s perception of webloggers as well, is this fine fellow pointing to another of the Usual Suspects — this one even more of an 800 pound gorilla in the field, and one who’s running yet another of these conferences, at bloody Harvard no less — and praising a decision to have panel discussions at another blog conference about avoiding echo chambers ? With a straight face?
Am I insane, or the last one left who isn’t? Is plain old irony supposed to make me laugh this hard?
I wouldn’t care, honestly, if it weren’t a matter of many of these folks guiding and shaping so much of our thinking about weblogs and web writing and all the various activities that fall under the ‘blogging’ umbrella. The echo chamber in which Dr Weinberger unapologetically places himself, I submit, is the only one that is truly dangerous to our Happy Fun Shiny Weblog World at all, because it is the one from which so much of the thinking we take as common currency trickles down to us mere, bits-only mortals. Or is it only me that thinks that the Usual Suspects have an overly strong influence in the way we think about this stuff, that their frequent meetings in the world of atoms consolidates and extends that influence, and that sometimes it feels as if there really is an emerging Cabal™? Is it only because of the corner of the metachamber in which I find myself? Am I missing all the constellations of new voices who haven’t gotten linked as a result of what they write rather than who they’ve met?
Honestly, I’d really appreciate some help figuring out if I’m talking complete bollocks here, and developing unhealthy signs of compulsion in my semi-demented criticism of blog conferences. Is it just sour grapes because I’m poor as a church mouse and live half a planet away from all the action? Shouldn’t the tyranny of distance not matter any more? Is it only me?

Metablogging, Uncrappy

Join the conversation! 20 Comments

  1. Nah, it’s just the corner in which you find yourself. That corner takes itself *awfully* seriously, and thinks that it has important effects on things, but in fact the vast majority of people weblogging and journalling and websiting have never heard of these people or their opinions, and would just roll their eyes and ignore them if they had.
    “many of these folks guiding and shaping so much of our thinking about weblogs and web writing and…”: when you say “our” thinking, just how large or important a group of people do you mean by “our”? Do these guys really guide and shape the way you think about what you’re doing? If they do, it probably means you need to get out more. *8)
    The people who actually have significant effects, IMHO, are the people who actually produce useful software that people use (so Dave Winer has had an effect because of Radio and so on, which lots of people somehow find useful even though I’ve never been able to figure them out), and the people who do things that are fresh and interesting enough that other people want to try it also. People who pontificate, on the other hand, have in my experience an immeasurably small impact on the world outside their own particular circle of navel gazers.

  2. Do these guys really guide and shape the way you think about what you’re doing?
    Well, yeah, a bit, David, they do a bit. And not only me, but bloody great heaps of people, I thought. Less than I suspected? Maybe so, but I’m not entirely sure about that. In the end, regardless, it’s all going to wash out the way it’s going to wash out. I just like watching and thinking about the process some, between those bouts of navel-spelunking.
    (Also : thanks to Stefan and Ashes for the heads-up on the Firefox snafu. Should be OK now, I think.)

  3. In the long run it doesn’t matter, is what I think. As you have said before good writers will write. By extension good software developers will develop. What they may do is develop tools which will take blogging to the next level (just as things like blogger moved us on from static home pages).
    Whilst blogging a conference about blogging which is discussing breaking down barriers but, as you say, is located in Harvard and charges quite a few dollars/dinars/euros to attend is probably so self referential it will dissapear in a puff of smoke, does it really matter? Let them waffle.
    As far as I can tell the best thing that came out of the first blogger con is that the Accordion Guy got a girlfriend.
    Back in the real world, the average live journal or typepad scribbler is only concerned with letting their parents know they are still alive (without all the inconvenience of talking to them) or telling the world that they are still reading Harry Potter. They really don’t care who these people are, and frankly they shouldn’t.
    Could blogger con itself be an echo chamber that requires nuking?

  4. You’re not supposed to notice two things I write, much less put them together and expect consistency! I cry fowl!
    The Salon piece meant to say that the echo chamber meme criticizes conversations for not being totally open and rational. This misses the social role of conversations, which always assume some level of agreement, and that are often more about pulling social groups together than about changing minds…and there’s nothing wrong with that. So, I disagree with Dave that the echo chamber meme needs to be part of every panel.
    BloggerCon is an example of what I mean. It gives bloggers a place where we can talk about our hobby without having to argue from scratch in favor of it. Getting to hang out with other enthusiasts is useful, even though technically it’s an “echo chamber.” If BloggerCon were the only conversation we were ever to have, it’d be different.
    Similarly, Net “echo chambers” serve a social function. And if an echo chamber were the only Net exposure a person had, we should be worried. But that concern is a distraction from the basic fact of the Net which is that it is the most diverse “opinion space” in human history, and part of the usual Net experience includes not only browsing but also having opinions “pushed” on us via email, etc.
    So (pausing to inhale), I think it important to separate the bogus notion of echo chambers from the question of whether bloggers take themselves too seriously. To the latter, I’d say: Sure, but who doesn’t? Our world is our world because it seems important to us. Besides, there’s political importance to taking something seriously when it seems so trivial to much of the rest of the world.
    On the third hand, yeah, it’s just a bunch o’ bloggers writing mainly to one another, and it’s good to keep that in mind.
    I am out of hands.

  5. I wish I could find more to argue with you about there, David, but I can’t.
    Damn, that ain’t no fun!
    Also, I’ve got to admit that anything gets the mighty Accordion Guy some nookie is alright by me.

  6. welcome to the echo chamber Echo and the Bunnymen Perhaps it’s time to retitle my weblog . . . . guilty as charged. of…

  7. Do these guys really guide and shape the way you think about what you’re doing?
    In all honesty, I can say they do not. My thinking is more likely to be shaped by those who have something to say, something of substance, something that somehow moves me.
    That something will, in all likelihood, never be about the self-referential and self-congratulatory nature of web logs or the Grail of same changing the world.
    That isn’t to say that I don’t, now and then, run across something profound on the net. But it is rarely from anyone on the alleged A-list, most of whom I wish would stick to developing software so all of us plebeians can write in peace and attempt to entertain the dozen or so readers we may have if we’re lucky.
    Largely, I use a combination of sublimation and denial to keep from thinking that any of this matters.
    Do bloggers really to to conventions to talk about blogs and blogging? I thought the person who told me that was just fucking with me.

  8. The Meme Factory

    There’s an old Usenet saying that when you throw a rock into a pack of dogs you can tell which…

  9. Echo Chambers v the Delphi Method

    How does the concept of echo chambers from the Delphi method? How does the selection and interaction compare? What differences in results should we expect?

  10. Roomful of mirrors

    stavrosthewonderchicken verges on tears (of laughter) contemplating the irony of the “nuking the echo chamber” meme proposed for BloggerCon 2 in Echo and the Bunnymen, asking Am I missing all the constellations of new voices who haven’…

  11. In order to have an echo there has to be an actual sound first. The shape, tone and tenor of that sound define the echo, so in fact you can say that the bloggers who have the majority of the readership and are bringing new ideas or new perceptions to the world directly affect the ‘trickle down’ information economics.

  12. I’m just as confused as always about all this.
    I’ve decided it’s safest for me to adopt the characteristic blogger’s response to vent all this confusion and uncertainty – I’ve decided to launch another blog!
    This blog will only be used to explore one-dimensional lefty libertarian ideas, and will constantly restate the same point of view, cunningly paraphrasing itself on every consecutive post.
    To help prove that the phrase “echo chamber” is a null concept in blogspace, please refrain from linking to this blog. Or talking about it.
    As you read the blog it vanishes…

  13. I like what you’ve written, and I think it needed to be said – if only to create the additional clarification from DW, which I thought was great and added much to his previous words.
    And, I think it’s a “both/and” thing. There can be echo chambers in blogging, and the A-listers can be self-important while they are being smart, and blogs can be antidotal to so much of what else we consume as thought and voice (radio and TV), and can help people stretch their points of view – about their own ideas and about others.
    We do need (IMHO) some trail guides who slash out some of the path through the jungle of these new conditions – and the best guides have usually grwon into humility by the time they become great – because the conditions are so unruly, wicked and beautiful.

  14. Blog media dinner at Bastille last week

    Though it’s sure to annoy Stavros), I have to say I had a mighty fine time meeting face-to-face with a bunch of smart webloggers and new media types last Wednesday, February 18. Susan Mernit invited me (and blogged about it in Navigating the Info Jungl…

  15. I’m having myself a good old-fashioned rethink on the utility of conferences, panels, and such.
    As much as it pains me to admit it, what I’m largely seeing at these events is the retrospective formation of theory to account for behavior in practice. Which is well and good, I suppose: it definitely gives people inclined to do so anyway convenient handles with which to manipulate and discuss unwieldy and complicated practices.
    But that’s not what I’m *interested* in. Or not so much anymore, anyway. So the conferences will continue to be useful and important for those who attend them, think about them, write about them…and possibly unimportant, and navel-gazing and self-regarding and all the rest, to those who don’t.
    Without making value judgments, I will point out that the latter group is larger than the former, by far. It’s a group I can feel myself rejoining, viscerally and even intellectually. The A-list thing that I used to spend so much time and effort debunking has just gotten too icky for me, and in preference to charting the overarching theory of thought and action on the Web I’d rather just go back to checking in with you and Anne and Abe and a few other folks who bring me something of worth with your words.
    That’s just one solution, but it happens to be mine.

  16. Kankei: relationship or connection

    Contrary to expectation, drastically reducing my consumption of alcohol triggered a corresponding decline in my weblog output: my previous post was a couple of months …

  17. Sorry I missed this when it was fresh and active. I don’t have the time or energy to argue the points with DW either, but I sure am glad that someone is making sense. Sanity is disfunctional in an insane world, and your brand of insanity is both refreshing and purposeful, thanks.
    I wonder what exactly is the point of continuing the echo-chamber discussions. Really, all this talk about the structure and social organization of bloggerville has very little reality about it. The ‘space’ is so expansive that I distrust anyone who claims to have a theory about how it all works, and I’m particularly wary of people calling for politeness and moderation. The Happy Tutor has posted quite extensively about the “moderate style” over past months. It is the style of the powerful, the judge handing out capital verdicts. For the outsider, the reformer, or just plain trouble makers like yourself our reasoned arguments will be “cut off by the rope”. It is a style that can be effective, but only if you are willing to take it “all the way to the cross”, and I’m not into martyrdom, and I don’t think you are either. When is see someone like Winer ask, “How do we methodically and systematically overcome the tendency for echo chambers to form and self-perpetuate?”, I’m not tempted to laugh your evil laugh, but to preach against such evil.
    The goal of this power-play by self-appointed elites is to astro-turf bloggerville into one big echo chamber with their voices at the top of the ’emergent’ pyramid. That’s not how emergence works, it percolates up from the grass-roots level, and anything that attempts to establish a fixed power base for one group or another is going to kill off anything lively that was developing.
    That said, F2F is an important part of the equation. I met some bloggers including DW and HT at a small conference at the U of Chicago, and that was my entry into this world. This is necessary to move into action and solidify bonds, on the other hand I have little or no interest in hobnobbing with the A-listers on-line or off. The real action is off in the fringes where the revolution is still quietly fomenting.

  18. Linux Torvalds on Conferences

    I was just finishing Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary tonight when I ran across the following passage at the beginning of the last chapter. I immediately thought of my good friend Stavros the Wonder Chicken, and one of his recent …

  19. I Thought I was the Center of the Universe

    Returning to Halley Suitt’s writing, Delacour Rapprochement, she responds to Jonathon Delacour’s and Stavros’ statement about being “half a planet away from the action” with: One of the things he mentions is how he and Stavros The WonderChicken live fa…

  20. Any conference of like-minded people, anywhere in the world, can be written off as “navel gazing.” Ditto with any attempt at self-reflection. (Which doesn’t mean there aren’t navel gazers at large out there.) Any conference where there is no like mind among participants is going to be a very poor conference.

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