The Danger of Auditing the Echo Chamber

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“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man,” Heraclitus.

I recently sat at an event in the back row. Two gentlemen in front of me were listening to the speaker, commenting back and forth in a critical way. While it seemed cruel, it also seemed familiar, something I and many others on the Internet have and continue to do every day.

We audit thought leaders, friends and others opinions, and then reinvent the ideas, bandy them back and forth, and sometimes evolve them. It’s human nature. Consider the many conversations that are occurring this autumn about Mark Zuckerberg and his character as depicted in The Social Network, or the criticism and debate about Malcolm Gladwell’s recent New Yorker article on social change via social networks.

Assuming right and wrong, black and white can be a dangerous game. We assume a correct approach, a finite method, a sure answer based on our instincts, experience, and what we have heard. As a result, we can find ourselves disappointed as a result of expectations that may not have be grounded in the current factual reality.

Things change. Nothing can be the same as it was.

One can make educated judgments and decisions based on these assumptions, and often be correct. But at the same time, it is important to be open to change and new realities. Remain teachable as they say. This ability to adapt keeps us relevant.

Consider our theories and ongoing debates about influence. Who holds sway may change because our collective actions move towards the positive and negative. Some give influence to the popular, while others say influence ties to how many times your comments/content are shared with others. Perhaps it depends on the person.

The dynamics of social network technology continue to evolve. What gives someone clout can be taken away or impacted by new networks, capabilities and influences. I remember how in 2007 bloggers were pre-eminent. By 2008 Facebook and Twitter took hold, and comments began to occur on social networks. New voices arose to become influential, people who for whatever reason did not blog. While bloggers still hold a prominent role in these social networks, popularity via follower counts, retweets, links, and more became critical (and debatable) criteria for influence.

Today we are in the early midst of the mobile revolution. Frankly, we are just beginning to understand how pervasive mobile web access has become, much less how this burgeoning trend impacts our community behavior patterns.

There are eddies and pools, dynamics of social networking that reflect our true human nature. This sociological phenomena has yet to be truly grasped. Empirical scientific studies have just begun.

While we try to enforce finite concepts on this zeitgeist, we are at the same time evolving the way it works, changing our own information patterns as we seek to understand, evolve and grow this evergreen world. Because we are in constant flux, there exists a real danger in sedentary thought, and finite peanut gallery criticisms. It’s the danger of being left behind.

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  • http://nonprofitconnection.wordpress.com/hire-me/ Heidi Massey

    Hey Geoff,

    Really wasn’t going to comment because I didn’t think I had that much to say…but I realized I have a LOT to say!

    I think many people hate/resist/avoid change. Social media is so powerful because it is able to effect (and affect!) change on a very large scale. I have always embraced change…makes me a little weird, I know. And also has been a source of great frustration in jobs and different communities.

    There are infinite possibilities for what we are able to do now online-tools, uses, etc. But the possibilities today are infinitesimal compared to what will be possible just a few short years from now. This makes my heart palpitate with excitement. However, I don’t think most people can even see/understand what is possible today, let alone in the future. I was very surprised by what Gladwell wrote…not sure what that is about. But he, and others will eventually come around as they see for themselves what is taking place.

    The other piece is the uncertainty. For some this is scary. Things are changing so quickly that no one is able to predict what will be next, what will matter, have impact. It is easier to reject all of these new ideas and not be open to their potential. It is a bit like resistance to change. I think it is the uncertainty of change that scares people. Rather than being fearless and embracing all of this, people reject first…then when they hear repeatedly how great something is-an idea, a tool, or whatever-they become open to giving it a chance. Twitter is a great example of this-how many of us said, “This is stupid” for a long time after first learning about it? Many of us used to be excited for the first day of school because of the ripe possibilities that it held. To me, that is what technology is all about.

    Thanks for getting me thinking about all of this. Would LOVE to see some other comments that push me out of my comfort zone with alternative thinking :)

  • Julie P

    I thought Gladwell based his article on a premise that was assumptive, and wrong. It’s the same Chinese Wall illusion that is behind a lot of social media failure: that the guy online and the guy on the street are two different and distinct people. That’s also in large part behind some of those egregious privacy failures, too.

    I hopped out of my bubble this weekend and interacted face to face with my market, who are actually unique individuals who are offline and online.

    So well put, Geoff. So crucial to remember the definition of the whole. And how big and dynamic it is, with many potential destinations.

  • http://thesocialjoint.com Lucretia Pruitt

    As usual, I have a thousand different thoughts warring for pre-eminence in my brain after reading one of your posts Geoff.

    “enforce finite concepts on this zeitgeist”

    Wow – does that ring true. I’ve been struggling with both ‘sides’ of this debate. While I honestly think that the ability to express our frustrations online has lead to a lessening of the kind of physical interactions that create change (in America & similar ‘First World’ nations – I don’t discount the fact that we are not the touchstone for the rest of the world) – I also hate being told that my online relationships are essentially meaningless because they don’t meet someone else’s definition of friendship.

    For the majority of my adult life, I have been not just a socializer, but a social-connector. Are there more than a thousand people on my FB friends list? Yes. Do I know them? 99% yes – there are a few I’m just starting to get to know. But when I say that I know them? I’m talking about the fact that I honestly can tell you important details about the lives and passions of *thousands* of people. There are people I haven’t had the chance to share oxygen with, or break bread with (yet) that I know more about than I did people I worked every day sitting next to for a year.

    But you know – you put it brilliantly when you crafted that sentence above. Trying to impose limits on something new because it is something different has seldom made for a better understanding of it.

    I wonder, at times, if things were as contentious when the printing press made for a whole new world.

  • Howard Greenstein

    I’m reacting to Heidi’s comment above – about how much social change social networking has actually caused.
    Yes, there’s a new openness or an erosion of privacy, depending on your point of view.
    There are a lot more people interested in causes but not really doing anything except clicking “like” (which in most cases in inappropriate – “Howard likes ‘Joe is fighting for his life with Cancer.’” This slacktivism substitutes for real activism – raising money, generating real awareness, recruiting volunteers.

    I like Geoff’s comments about the mobile revolution. It means that we have the tools at hand, wherever we are, to document problems, share thoughts, and connect in-real-life via our networks (waves at Lucretia who he had lunch with due to status update recently).

    Some are predicting the end of the “social media revolution” but I see this as the trough of disillusionment (http://www.gartner.com/technology/research/methodologies/hype-cycle.jsp) before we really start to get things done with what’s been invented in the last 10 years.

  • http://geofflivingston.com Geoff Livingston

    @Heidi, @Julie, @Lucretia and @Howard: Thank you for coming by and commenting on the post. I have little to add, but am enjoying reading your additional thoughts. I sense that you, like me, see a moving target that’s incredibly hard to grasp.

  • http://nonprofitconnection.wordpress.com/hire-me/ Heidi Massey

    Lucretia, I loved what you had to say…I’m a connector too. The zeitgeist line resonates for me as well!

    Howard, Trying to get a read on what you are saying…that there hasn’t been change from social media or that there’s been some but the best is yet to come…?

    I think the concept is that these tools allow us, if we choose, to facilitate change on a larger scale. Citizen Gulf Benefits is one example that couldn’t have taken place without social media. I just read Beth Kanter’s post yesterday that was an incredible and comprehensive response to Gladwell…she listed many different ways social media has been used to create big change. Sure, the slacktivists are there…they always were. At least now they have some awareness that they might not have had a few years ago.

    We have said it a million times…these are JUST tools. What we do with them is up to us. But to impose limitations on them like Gladwell has, just because some are not making full use seems foolish. I am of the mindset that the potential is vast…and it is up to us how we utilize that potential.

  • http://thesocialjoint.com Lucretia Pruitt

    I actually love the fact that Howard & I had lunch due to a tweet when I was in NYC and he happened to be nearby (awesome lunch it was, to!) – and actually, that’s how Geoff & I connected for lunch in Austin last year at SXSWi.

    I thought about this a lot last night – I think there’s a bit of ‘pointing & talking about the extremes’ that is going on. Gladwell will look at one extreme and say “See! Proves my point!” and others will look at the other extreme and say “See? Disproves your point!” when the rest of us are mucking about in the middle saying “What? What are we supposed to have done wrong/not done/done right now?”

    It’s rather surprising to me that the guy who wrote “Outliers” isn’t noticing that his generalizations are based on the fringes. Then again, I was missing my own premise above – just because *I* connect with thousands of people and they mean something to me doesn’t mean that the majority of folks with thousands of “FB Friends” are ever really connecting with those people.

    It is hard not to color our analysis of this space with our own experiences – as we are all so personally involved.

  • http://thesocialjoint.com Lucretia Pruitt

    p.s. I love the fact that this post connected me with Heidi Massey – isn’t that the whole point of the social web? :)

    • http://geofflivingston.com Geoff Livingston

      Yes, it is! It made my day. Two great people.

  • http://socialfresh.com Jason Keath

    Great write up man. I relate it back to gossiping. We all do it, and likely in such a way that we could easily be dissecting the flaws of our own lives.

    I think constructive critiques often run afoul into unfair definitions of others because we are all driven to have and share an opinion. The important thing is to stay away from definitions, from concrete statements. It is always better (I guess I am being definitive there) to ask questions. To drive positive discourse.

    “Do he really think it is smart for businesses to pay for Twitter followers? That does not seem right to me.” That starts off a much better (more constructive) conversation than “That idiot said to pay for Twitter followers.”

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