One of the largest critiques against most forms of conversational – blogs, social networks, twitter, etc. – media is it leads to people being stuck in echo chambers that continually reverberate and reinforce strong opinions shared by a like-minded group. I find this a cop out on a couple different levels.
I could spew forth an extended list of media properties that explicitly or implicitly lean towards the left or right, but let’s just use the most obvious comparison in the “traditional” media space – Fox News vs. CNN. And increasingly MSNBC (some would say NBC in general) added to the left lean of CNN. Anyone see the cover story on the New Yorker (lean to the left…) a couple week’s back w/ that stalwart of political journalism Keith Olberman’s quote asking the president to shut up? For fans of SportsCenter from ~10 years ago, you may be like me and pine for the days of Dan Patrick and Keith Olberman anchoring the 10p show. Thus, I have a hard time buying him as a hard-hitting political pundit – especially when NBC still pulls him back into the Sunday night football studio. It seems he’s taking the reverse trajectory of Dennis Miller’s Monday Night Football experiment. Every time he tries to holler down a new echo chamber, it bounces it’s way back to the original one. But I digress…kind of…anyway…
Considering human behavior and the history of media in general this analogy of conversational media as echo chamber is also a cop out. Before fair and balanced journalism appeared on stone tablets or papyrus scrolls, people had a tendency to gravitate towards people who are like them and to avoid, or at least be politely – or not so politely – standoffish to, those who aren’t like them (see: Bible). Since time could be recorded on a mass scale – i.e. when the printing press came into existence – media has been used as a means to join like-minded communities together (see: Luther’s 95 Theses and that whole Protestant Reformation deal). We live in a country that has been sited as the first “paper democracy”. I’ll stop there, but needless to say, I could make many similar analogies for each break through in media delivery and communication technology in history (telegraph, telephone, radio, TV, cable, Internet, etc).
Media history lesson aside, it is important in our professional lives as marketers to step outside of our echo chambers and take a look and listen into a few, sometimes many, others. Brands are bouncing off the walls of any number of echo chambers at any given point in time. Sometimes they come out like Tigger – bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy, Fun! Fun! Fun! Fun! Fun! – and other times they thud against the wall and roll out. Having insights and understanding about your bizarro-target audience and competition can be as important and beneficial as fully knowing those who most effectively and efficiently drive your business. Just ask Superman.
My professional echo chamber loudly reverberates with the benefits of digital media and the evolution of all media towards the wonders of digitization. However, I’m becoming more and more keen to a backlash against digital technology, especially as it pertains to the perceived negative effects of the Internet on society, that is gaining momentum. The Atlantic’s July/August issue featured an article by author Nicholas Carr called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” A very interesting read and very much contrary to my views, and his book – The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google – is now on my reading list. A further perusal of the bookstore (a digital one…) led me to realize there is an enlarging echo chamber for these topics, including claims that the Internet has led to the Dumbest Generation that could very well bring down the aforementioned paper democracy (it’s coming w/ that Amazon shipment of The Big Switch). And there are more where those came from – and mostly from intelligent intellectuals well-versed in communication theory. It’s not a backlash confined to TV networks, as it turns out (an echo chamber I feel pretty comfortable avoiding).
I think the important thing here is that you don’t immediately dismiss noise from echo chambers you don’t inhabit as being outright wrong. Always remember your Art of War – “So it is said if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will fight without danger in battles. If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or lose. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.”
I enjoy stepping out of my echo chamber because I enjoy figuring out why people do what they do because, more times than not, they do what they do for reasons that are all together different than mine. If we get stuck in preconceived notions about why people do what they do or how we should do what we do, we could go deaf in our echo chamber. Our enemies will overtake us, and our friends will think us irrelevant for not listening to them.