Let’s get something straight: I like to hear what I like to hear. I like to say what I like to say. And I like for everyone else to agree with me. I’m not asking for much…
As free-thinking and open-minded as I like to believe I am (and I am…really!), I can be as attached to my cozy echo chamber as the next person. Who doesn’t occasionally wish they were three years old again, the center of the universe, and oblivious to the needs of others?! Seems like Sharper Image would have solved this by now by offering us one-size-fits-all, wearable echo chambers (easy to accessorize with chrome trim and hand-held remote control!).
The term “Echo Chamber” typically refers to communications constructs (created organically by broader culture and/or conscious or unconscious design within organizations) in which people 1) surround themselves with the information they want to hear and 2) shut out anything that feels like dissent or does not fit with their worldview, support their agenda, or cater to their psychological comfort. (re-read Orwell’s 1984 if you need an extreme, dystopian refresher course).
Conversation, interaction and information exchange without friction is a very attractive notion. But without that friction very little (if any) meaningful progress gets made. This is true for family units, peer groups, Little League teams, PTAs and, yes, large organizations as well. Even countries, and nations states, and geo-political regions…you get the idea.
In fact, recent studies regarding the impact of echo chambers on public policy have mapped, quantified, pinpointed, and proven out the role that this missing friction can play when really big decisions are being made.
Last year, Yale researchers published “Media ‘Echo Chambers’ and Climate Change” in the Journal of Communication. The writers asked themselves if the steady rise of partisan news allows Americans to insulate themselves in echo chambers where they are only exposed to content that is consistent with their opinions – while simultaneously shielding them from dissenting views. I’ll save you the effort of trying to get your head around their application of a “reinforcing spirals framework”: the answer to their question was “yes.”
Then, just last month, researchers from the University of Maryland went a step further. They were able to demonstrate that the climate change debate (“contentious” on a good day) is fueled, at least in part, by how information flows through policy networks as well (not just media networks). In other words, our elected officials are people, too. People that consume media just like the rest of us, while also having direct access to other voices (some scientifically legit, others not so much) in the climate change debate.
To put it bluntly, the lead researcher tells us the “research shows how the echo chamber can block progress toward a political resolution on climate change. Individuals who get their information from the same sources with the same perspective may be under the impression that theirs is the dominant perspective, regardless of what the science says.”
The report is packed with plenty of depressing findings about who our leaders listen to and who they block out, but, in the end it underscores how important it is “for people on both sides of the climate debate to be careful about where they get their information. If their sources are limited to those that repeat and amplify a single perspective, they can’t be certain about the reliability or objectivity of their information.”
First we have to admit we have a problem. Don’t deny that you live in an echo chamber (at least one!). Accept its likelihood and be willing to exercise your listening, speaking, and messaging in new ways.
So let’s leave the big picture (national climate policy) and start bringing it closer to home (and by home, I mean work). Ask yourself if there are echo chambers within the field of Communications, Public Relations, your clients’ organizations, your agency, your team, etc. I’ll wait. OK, like the Yale study, your answer here is “yes.”
What can we do to escape the fate of our legislators? First we have to admit we have a problem. Don’t deny that you live in an echo chamber (at least one!). Accept its likelihood and be willing to exercise your listening, speaking, and messaging in new ways.
Here are some Echo Chamber Busters to consider:
1. Fix the Mix
The best remedies start at home. Begin by mixing up the channels from which you get information. Read outside your silo. Watch something so far off your radar it frightens you a little. Get your teams to do the same. Skip a few weeks of Electronics Minutiae Today and replace it with Puppetry International – I guarantee you’ll see things differently, which leads to discussing different things differently, which staves off and mutes the echo chamber (FYI – only one of these publications actually exists. Google them for the answer.).
2. Disrupt the Signal
In Public Relations we constantly complain about how difficult it is to penetrate the shell and culture of our clients’ worlds. Now that you know how their information intake cycles can impact them, change up your care-and-feeding routine a bit. Consider implementing a section at the bottom of your weekly coverage recap called “Outside Reading” and throw in a new, random article each week from somewhere way outside their category. They may not read it every week, but eventually your tech client will click on that link about the hydrothermal vent eelpout fish and they’ll be hooked (like said fish) – steering your relationship down the road to more reception and less echo.
3. Get Micro
The previous two tips are really basic, kick-starters for changing daily practice, disrupting your information rhythm, and impacting habitus. This one is really about changing the way we do what we do in 2015 and beyond. It’s about implementing strategies that can shake up and infiltrate echo chambers when you activate a campaign or launch a new product. By engaging in fixing the mix and disrupting the signal, your mind will be more open to getting micro with your actual work…
One of the conclusions the Yale team reached from their research was a proposal that “the development of communication campaigns focused on specific media outlets and audiences that align climate change and energy insecurity solutions with conservative ideals of limited government” could be the way forward out of gridlock. At Emanate we practice Relevance Marketing, which is certainly a very close cousin to what the researchers are proposing here, but I think they’re talking about a kind of uber-targeting and message alignment that we could all stand to do even more of each day.
Imagine not only targeting media outlets by specific audiences to which they cater, but further customizing pitches that align your messaging with very specific solutions and ideals that are proven hot topics with a group of people conditioned by a particular type of echo chamber. Based on budgets, we often cannot afford to get that far into the weeds when making news, but I’d argue that we also can’t afford to “boil the ocean” in the same way anymore and expect to get traction with – and certainly not infiltrate – the target groups deeply rooted in particular beliefs and cultures.
Yelling loud makes great echoes, but if you’re seeking to break reception patterns in a target group it might be better to talk softly and cater much more closely to what they want to hear.
One ongoing question in our own Public Relations echo chamber is “What the hell do we have to do to break through the clutter?” Now, through the magic of scientific study, we know we’ve got our work cut out for us in the echo chamber department – and blunt force won’t cut it anymore (if it ever did).
Yelling loud makes great echoes, but if you’re seeking to break reception patterns in a target group it might be better to talk softly and cater much more closely to what they want to hear. If you get it right, chances are good that they’ll start repeating your message for you.