The Social Media Echo Chamber

The Pew Internet and American Life project released their findings on young people’s use of social media yesterday. Apparently young people are less likely to use Twitter than adults aged 25-40 (although teenage girls are an exception). They are also less likely to blog. I don’t think that this survey data indicates that young people aren’t engaged in meaningful social life online or elsewhere – youth do lots of socializing online. This finding should remind us that participating in social media is not a unified experience. The relationships that committed Twitterers of a certain age construct (your author included) may be more representative of our age and demographic than indicative of social media itself.

No, what I’m thinking about is along the lines of what Christian Sandvig is working on: these applications are now becoming infrastructures for participation. To understand them, we need to know more about how they are built, how they work, and who controls them. Yes, we want to make things together, and we want to make relationships with people. It’s easier to do this using applications like Facebook Twitter, and YouTube. But this also means creating a relationship with the platform itself. The algorithms to which we’ve delegated the work of connecting and communicating also have agency. We don’t know much about them, in the main. Sometimes, we get a small view into the algorithms of certain systems – this week, I learned more about the School of Everything and how its search and matching

The question of social media use and agency is not just a question of knowing or being able to understand the design process. If different generations or social groups want to relate to each other in different ways, then there’s social interest in understanding how different infrastructures shape and are shaped by those relationships.

I feel that sometimes, the social media world that I’m part of acts like an echo chamber, with the kinds of relationships that “people like me” form getting reproduced by our practices – and perhaps even by our media infrastructures.  We start thinking that social media works a certain way because that’s the way it works for us.  I think it’s critical that research understand both ends of this process – the way systems are designed, and the potentially very different kinds of things that designs make possible, among different kinds of people.  Otherwise we’ll all simply be shouting into our own social media echo chambers.