My neighbor and I were debating the differences between Spotify and Pandora recently. I explained how I loved Pandora and its ability to introduce me to new music. When I create a channel based on specific artist or genre on Pandora, the service plays other musicians who have similar sounds. While I try to stay on top of new music, I find that without listening to Pandora or satellite radio, I’m rarely exposed to new artists. “That’s exactly why I love Spotify,” my neighbor explained. “I know the bands I like and that’s all I want to listen to. I don’t want Pandora playing all this stuff I don’t know or like.”
As I talked with my neighbor, I realized his position of Spotify vs. Pandora is actually representative of a much larger trend online and in society: the niche. When it was originally developed, the great promise of the Internet was its unlimited access to information. It was going to be a democratizing force. It was going to foster greater conversations and expand learning opportunities to more populations. While these positives are undoubtedly happening, there is also a counter effect that is far less positive. I worry that with the growing expansion of the Internet and other online services, we’re all falling into knowledge niches that limits our worldviews and development. Here’s my reasoning. When I go onto Facebook, Amazon or Netflix, the magical algorithms working behind the scenes are processing my likes, views, searches and creating a “filter bubble” that only shows me more things that they think I’ll like. Since I read an article about a Marvel movie in development on Facebook, my feed is now populated with other articles about superhero movies. Since I bought a book on Online Teaching on Amazon, I’m shown similar titles. Since I watched the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix, I’m shown similar series. The goal of these services is to make it easier for me to find other things I like. While I appreciate the assistance, in a lot of ways, it’s narrowing my field of vision.
While some of this narrowing is a result of the filter bubbles created by algorithms, applications and services that run behind the scenes, our “knowledge niches” can also be directly attributed to our own overt choices and actions. Take recent political discussions on social media. In Twitter and Facebook, I can choose to which people I’ll listen and which ones I won’t. With the growing negativity regarding some issues and events, I’ve chose to hide certain people from my Facebook feed and unfollow others on Twitter. While this my lower my blood pressure in the short term, it also narrows my access to the larger political discourse and creates an “echo chamber” where my views and opinions are constantly being reinforced.
Before anyone thinks my opinions are just the musing of some curmudgeon, consider this study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Looking at the spread of information on social media, the researchers found that online users “tend to aggregate in communities of interest, which causes reinforcement and fosters confirmation bias, segregation, and polarization.” While the researchers primarily focused on the dissemination of conspiracy theories and misinformation, the findings are similar to discussions occurring in other venues. Take this blog post that discussed an “un-conference” session on echo chambers in science communication communities last fall. The author writes about her worries that she’s “preaching to the choir” and that we’re all becoming “more exposed predominantly to opinions like our own versus information that might challenge or broaden our worldview.”
Growing up, many of us were advised by our parents to “find our niche.” The reality, however, is that through filter bubbles and echo chambers, the niches we’re finding aren’t helping us gain access to information that can help us grow or develop. So, what’s the solution? How do we avoid falling into a “knowledge niche?” I welcome your comments and solutions.
Del Vicario, M., Bessi, A., Zollo, F., Petroni, F., Scala, A., Caldarelli, G., et al. (2016). The spreading of misinformation online. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(3), 554–559.