Echo Chambers of Extremism

by Aaron Hayman in

Did you know that the internet you see is not the internet that everyone else sees? In truth, we all see a different internet. And this is not just because we search for different terms, visit different websites or customize our feeds. The internet itself changes, depending on who's using it 1. Yes, the internet literally conforms itself to the person using it. Most people don’t realize this and on the surface it can seem somewhat innocuous, albeit a little weird. But as more and more people use the internet as their primary source of information, it becomes a unknown force for societal change in unexpected ways.

We’re here to serve you

As a simple example, if I search for swift on Google and you search for swift on Google, I can guarantee you that the results I get will be drastically different from yours. Most people will get a lot of results referring to Taylor Swift, naturally. I, however, won’t even see Taylor Swift mentioned in the first page at all. Instead, I’ll get a lot of references to Apple’s Swift programming language. Why? Well, I’m an iOS developer who develops in Swift and when I search for swift, I invariable want to know about the Swift programming language. More importantly, Google knows this about me and customizes the results to show what it thinks I want to see.

Let’s stop for a moment and consider this: Google knows me. In fact, I’d venture to guess that it knows a lot more about me than I do about myself. 2. Perhaps not so much on a deep, soul searching level, but we all have habits and inclinations we’re blithely unaware of. Back in December of 2009, Google made a change where it started keeping track of around 50 different types of information for its users. The point was to make it aware of the choices I make when I’m on the internet and stores those choices so that it can better serve me later. And despite the privacy concerns, it really is a win for consumers. Over the years, Google has expanded the parameters it keeps track of and, more often than not, it serves exactly the pages we are looking for when we search for something.

But this goes beyond just Google. Search for something on Amazon and you’ll frequently see ads in your Facebook feed for items that match it. As you click on links in Facebook, you may find that your favorite news site suddenly starts prioritizing related news or displaying relevant ads. Click on an ad in your favorite news site and your next Google search may prioritize sites that reflect your interest in whatever product that ad was serving. Mention a product in an email and you may discover that Amazon’s home page shows similar items. Almost everything you do on the internet generates a footprint that “helps” it conform to your wants and desires.

While this may seem creepy (and it kind of is), it can be very convenient... there have been times I've never needed to leave the front page of Amazon, because lo and behold, what I want to buy is right there... how awesome is that? Yet when it comes to convenience vs "some bad thing", humanity is amazingly consistent at choosing convenience. More often the not, the internet is able to guess why you’re there, what you’re looking for and serve to you exactly what you need. It takes far less searching and effort than it used to. This is a convenience few are willing to give up (including me). I can honestly say my life is a little better because Google or Amazon showed me an ad for something I would have never considered, but turned out to be awesome when I bought it.

Why do they take this much effort? Well, the answer is easy: money. The better they get at guessing and serving your needs, the more likely they can find a way to fulfill your needs and sell you the solution. There's a lot of incentive to show you and give you exactly what you want. Almost every "free" service (like Email, Search, etc) is trading your privacy to learn more about you and how to serve you better. Google's entire business model is predicate on exactly this.

Our ever shrinking world

While all of this actually seems pretty awesome for shopping, it’s important to realize that people don't just shop on the internet. They get their news from the internet, they socialize on the internet, they post their thoughts on the internet, and they put their photos on the internet. More and more of our time is spent on the internet and it's becoming our world. Over time, the internet will continue to refine itself so that you’re only exposed to what you want to see. The news you see will begin to reflect your beliefs. The friends you're recommended to will tend to be like you. The posts you make will be presented to people who agree with you. Search on a topic you don't know, and you'll be presented with views on that topic that align with your beliefs. Browse through your "news" feed on Facebook, and most of what you see will confirm what you already knew to be true. And let's be honest, this makes you feel better about yourself and that keeps you coming back. It's addictive to be right all the time.

At the birth of the internet, many hailed it as the ultimate platform for the democracy of ideas. Here, finally, was a place where any thought could be spoken and no one could censor it. Where the media giants stood right toe to toe with your next door blogger. Each could be judged solely on merit. No one doubted that a lot of junk would be produced, but everyone would have access and at least the opportunity to be exposed to new ideas, and thus make some consideration of them. Many believed that truth would triumph simply because it could not be censored and it's value and merit would be there for all to see. Truly, as knowledge became a free and unrestricted resource enlightenment had to be just around the corner.

Yet what people are actually exposed to are an ever increasing volume of an ever decreasing variety of ideas. Instead of making our world a bigger place and expanding our minds, it's made it a smaller place with people who all think just like we do.

Unanticipated Extremism

There was a lot of shock and confusion at the outcome of our recent election. And yes, a lot of people were stunned when Trump won the presidency, even many of those who voted for him. But the confusion I saw went much deeper. People truly couldn't understand why anyone would vote for... well, pick your candidate. Choose Trump or Clinton and you'll practically have half the country completely baffled that anyone would vote for them. Over the campaign I heard both candidates honestly referred to as "evil", and with a lot of conviction that was usually backed with various anecdotal stories that clearly demonstrated this truth. But more importantly, there is a lot of anger and even hatred thrown at those people who supported the enemy. In each person's eyes, this is fully justified... or completely insane, depending on where you stand. We are beginning to speak the language of extremists.

What happened? How did we all become extremists?

To answer that, I suppose we should ask: How does anyone become an extremist? I believe the answer to that is almost always some sort of isolation. Humans are "programmed" to be biased. We have to be. Our minds are inundated with an immense amount of data on a daily basis, more than we could ever hope to truly process. Our biases allow us to pick and choose what data to process and ignore the rest. We prefer what we know to the unknown. We prefer to be right than wrong. We prefer to be around people who think like us. We prefer to increase our knowledge by building what's already there than by tearing everything down. The more we commit to an idea, the more we will defend it. Without our biases, we could not function. We would be paralyzed by indecision. For instance, we don't have the time to get to know every single human on the earth, so we create stereotypes that help us make extremely important decisions (should I trust them or not?). All of this helps us to not only function, but also to be happy in life. And happiness is a huge motivation.

But look at any extremist or cult and you should notice that they all are isolated to some degree. I would argue that it's very hard to be an extremist unless you're isolated. Isolation creates a feedback loop for your ideas. If the people you interact with only ever agree with you, you bolster each other up. Without any contrary ideas to challenge you, you begin to creep toward more extreme conclusions. This creates an "echo chamber" where the only voices you hear sound very much like your own. Remember, it feels good to be right. This is a biological phenomenon that literally releases chemicals into your brain, just as a drug or sex or eating a good meal will. We can easily become addicted to it, and so seek it out more and more to the point where we're unwilling to even consider alternative ideas. And when we're isolated, those alternative ideas rarely, if ever, make their way into our minds. And even when they do make it to us, they're easily rationalized away by the bulwark of truth so painstakingly established for ourself and by those around us.

Echo Chambers

The internet is isolating us. It's showing us only want we want to see, exposing us to only the ideas that please us. It's been creating echo chambers customized precisely to make us happy, to keep us coming back. Most people never even realize what's happening. It gives us the illusion of being connected to everyone, even while hiding from us those view points and ideas that might challenge us. Those who don't share your beliefs are shown to be stupid, inept, or even evil by all those voices in your own echo chamber. We accept it because it makes us feel good about ourselves. We're smart, good and fighting the good fight on the right side. Yet without balance, our viewpoints have ever so slowly been edging into the extreme.

Somehow, even through all this, most of us still maintained that people are inherently good. But then the election broke something.

I know liberals who are feeling true despair. This sentiment arises from the shock one might feel if you discovered that the brother you've known and loved for so many years was, in fact, discovered to be a pedophile serial killer. Except in this case, many Americans believe they've discovered that half the population of the United States are sexist, racist xenophobes who hate everyone that is not them, want to see women put back in subservience, black people made slaves again, and all immigrants immediately deported without discussion or recourse... except of course Muslims, who must be shot on sight.

I've seen conservatives saying some of the most hateful things, accusing liberals of being murderers, of actively supporting terrorists, seeking to destroy our nation, of being elitists and bottom feeders. I've seen them gloating over the despair of others with an attitude of, "Finally, you got what you deserved". It's as if they knew all along their sister was a witch and now can only laugh in glee among her screams as she's burning at the stake.

All of this is practically the definition of extremism. We've all been listening to our own voices for far too long.

The unbounded internet

The dream of the internet is not dead. The original dreamers were not wrong. The wealth of information and ideas available on the internet are unbelievably extensive. Whereas humanity’s knowledge used to be locked up behind ivory walls, given only to the favored and wealthy, it exists in the open for anyone who might wish to learn. And It's all there for the taking if only we're willing to seek it out.

It’s hard to overstate the opportunity this represents for everyone. Recently, I managed to change careers and taught myself to be a Software Engineer. I learned knowledge that used to be only available at large universities. I learned from programs at universities whose annual tuition is more than most people make in a year. I learned from Ivy League schools watching courses that would normally cost thousands of dollars. I did all of this for free, on the internet. Want to be a designer? Want to be an artist? Want to be a software engineer? Learn a business? It's all there to learn, and most of it is free.

Through the internet I've been able to expand myself, my horizons, my mind and become exposed to ideas that would have been impossible before. Every day I'm in utter awe at the wealth available to me at my finger tips. I read papers from news outlets from around the world. I follow blogs of analysts that live in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Germany, UK and, of course, America. I'm exposed to a wealth of different perspectives, new ideas, and information only available on the internet. I now work with a team of people who live in California, Russia, Ukraine, Pakistan, India, Columbia and other places around the world. We all work together, talk to and see each other on a daily basis as we work on a common project. All of this, because of the internet. It's amazing. Never in history has this much wealth been available to anyone, ever.

And so I would urge you: leave your bubble. Forsake the echo chamber. Let go of your prejudices. Really, it's awesome out here. Try out new ideas. Take the time to learn about people different from you. Consider different perspectives. Seek out the ideas and opinions of your "opponents". Try to understand them and where they are coming from. Don't let your life become small and petty, serving only as a parrot of the hate everyone around you speaks. There is so much wealth out here. You only need to seek it out.

  1. I make this statement very generally. The internet is more of a concept wrapping a lot of details I don’t intend on addressing. I’m more interested in how it’s commonly used than all the different details that are wrapped up in this concept. Of course every single webpage doesn’t alter itself for you, but I’d bet you’d be surprised at how many actually do, even if it’s only the ads that change. So if you feel the need to correct me, don’t. ↩︎
  2. Personally, I’d be quite curious to know what exactly Google knows about me. But given their dependence on AI and complex algorithms, I rather suspect even they couldn’t tell me. ↩︎