Emerging Media Episode 4: Filter Bubbles & Echo Chambers

At first I was confused by the interrogative nature of the title of Axel Bruns’ book Are Filter Bubbles Real? but soon discovered that the book itself presents an expansive dialogue that explores the deep inquiry, because the answer to the question comes in the process of understanding it. Bruns’ work addresses the abstract by trying to let the terms take form in real time.

The goal here is to understand a little more about what is going on in the bucket that contains a much larger question of our time: comprehending the factors that contribute to Technological Determinism versus those that determine Social Constructivism and being able to see them both, sort of anamorphically, like in he GIF above. Bruns’ question allows us to remain relatively agnostic as the social scientist seeking for answers that exist at the moment, and somewhat, in the metaphors of others.

So the question remains: if Filter Bubbles and Echo Chambers are essentially real, does the poetics of techne use these terms to conveniently describe some other technological phenomenon that IS happening but evades being a topic of research due to the elusive process of its own cause and effect. This essay will attempt to address why we can’t put our finger on the matter, as well as what we do know and why it’s important. Bruns’ work takes a look at the leading research in the field and has done the work to determine that there are not clear and fundamental definitions of these terms as being used in political and legal frameworks, in an attempt to reassess and reapply them in a field based more in cognitive sciences. To proceed, Bruns’ presents some working definitions and qualities of these terms to help us understand how they function:

An echo chamber comes into being where a group of participants choose to preferentially connect with each other, to the exclusion of outsiders. The more fully formed this network is (that is, the connections created within the group, and the more connections with outsiders are severed), the more isolated from the introduction of outside views is the group, while the views of its members are able to circulate widely within it. Defining the terminologies remains the imperative:

A filter bubble emerges when a group of participants, independent of the underlying network structures of their connections with others, choose to preferentially communicate with each other, to the exclusion of outsiders. The more consistently they exercise this choice, the more likely it is that participants’ own views and information will circulate amongst group members rather than any information introduced from the outside.

Thus echo chambers are about connectivity in closed groups verses overlapping publics and filter bubbles are about communication tactics of deliberate exclusion versus widespread sharing.

While Bruns’ work concerns the way these filters and echoes work in a larger sense, he pays special attention to web-based activity during election seasons because it is a time of heightened interaction AND polarization. This means that during these times people resort to accessing the latest news and information, usually using a series of different devices and platforms. All these observable patterns are determined by a mixture of not only algorithmic curation and shaping, but also personal choice, hence it is also key to note that these effects play out differently via the use of search engines as well as engagement via social media. Viewing these pieces individually is essential in answering an unanswered question: when exactly does it turn from a small isolated community filter bubble to a more fully defined echo chamber, which may really only be possible on the fringes of political ideology and culture.

If anything, Bruns points out that we may be living in a “national filter bubble” where search results show very little variation as to where we get our news, which is actually, overall a very small selection of news sites. Both the right and the left are up on understanding their own views as well as the views of others, hence many users don’t necessarily go through the process of actively blocking such sources, even if people more actively seek out their own sources with views that agree with theirs. Part of the reason that people even use social media is to be engaged with people who have shared interests, which at the same time there is no determinate disconnection. Moreso with social media there is the possibility of connecting with anytime of interest, so the platform itself, while it may contain filter bubbles, is not a large filter bubble, but more driven by homophily, or individuals internal preferences.

Lastly, the call to action seems most critical and apparent via Media Literacy! This is something I feel strongly about as we begin to grasp at an understanding of such things as context collapse and device divide It seems important that a more elaborate program of study, even a survey, will soon become essential for all college students, in any course of study, to stay current in their practices and strategies of literacy and communication.

Afterthoughts:

Here is an illuminating YouTube video “Are Filter Bubbles Real? Axel Bruns” of a lecture at West Sydney University School of Humanities and Communication Arts in June of 2019 by Axel Bruns. It is noted that Alex Bruns is the ARC Future Fellow and Professor in the Digital Media Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia. I’m curious how approachable he is on these topics as I’d like to learn what types of qualitative and quantitative research he might have recently utilized in expanding his most current research, as well as what sort of cutting edge tools he might be working with at the moment. Are some of the AI Powered research tools we’re learning about able to address or reveal some of the methods of viewing these types of anomalies he’s talking about.

As a related side note, I’ve been monitoring the New Hampshire democratic primary using Crimson Hexagon to run a few different studies of data surrounding not only BUZZ, but also public opinion using key hashtags related to the primary. and candidate twitter accounts. As well, the day before the election, I will also start looking at the top influencers and influencing voter groups to see what commitments they’ve made to which candidates to gain insightful metrics on the US political election process in this historic moment in time, during a heavily contested election cycle.

another useful resource I stumbled on while writing this post:

AlgorithmWatch

Association of Internet Researchers: AoIR

Axel Bruns Homepage: "Snurblog"

Ignas Kalpokas's book review for the London School of Economics and Political Science

Echo Chamber? What Echo Chamber? Reviewing the Evidence from Snurblog

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