My subjunctive final project, the rather unsubtly named “Ekko,” was meant to be a criticism of the tendency to create echo chambers in online spaces. I don’t consider myself exempt from this behavior–goodness knows I have no hesitations when pressing the “unfollow” button if I happen to see an opinion with which I vehemently disagree. I don’t think curating an online community of people who hold similar values and opinions is an inherently bad thing. However, when taken to the extreme, I think echo chambers discourage us from critically examining our opinions, developing more nuanced points of view, and learning to respond thoughtfully to differing perspectives. At worst, they can lead to intense political radicalization. I intended Ekko to use humor to demonstrate the problems with online echo chambers in which Internet users are only ever shown opinions that confirm their own.
I want to be clear that I’m not advocating for forcing yourself to debate your racist uncle’s every Facebook post or regularly browse InfoWars in the name of critically engaging with opposing points of view. There’s nothing wrong, in my opinion, with insulating yourself from extremist opinions that fundamentally conflict with your own morals. However, I believe there is value in seeing opinions with which you disagree, even if only to strengthen your arguments for your own beliefs. A perspective with which I don’t necessarily agree, such as complete prison abolition, nonetheless can complicate my own thinking about criminal justice reform and push me to consider the merits of that argument, expanding my own worldview in the process. Again, while I don’t advise driving yourself crazy through constant Internet debates and encourage the liberal use of the block button when necessary, I nonetheless can’t help but think only ever seeing opinions that reinforce own own isn’t serving us.
“Ekko” took on a rather humorous tone, and I confess I had a lot of fun parodying corporate language and crafting funny, but unsettlingly realistic, customer testimonials. I tried to use the super positive, almost utopian language tech companies often use for their apps or products. The advertisements and promotional materials for these products speak as though they are the panacea to nearly any problem a person may have. Facebook will fix isolation and disconnection. The Calm meditation app will relieve any and all stress. Yelp will enable you to find the best restaurants wherever you go. This promotional language is, at the very least, an enormous oversimplification, and, at most, flat out untrue. As Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby say, conventional technology posits itself as the solution, and companies try to promote this view of their products. By mimicking that tone when describing an app that so clearly will create problems, I hoped to shed light on how actual companies use this same rhetoric to mask the more insidious sides of their products.
The customer testimonials were perhaps the most fun part of the project. I tried to identify specific communities and ideologies that have sprung up online and feed off of misinformation and echo chambers or reveal pitfalls of the online world. The anti-vaxxer community, for example, has exploded in recent years, borne largely of blatant misinformation spread online. To me, they represent the perfect echo chamber, where members only consume information that reinforces their existing views. I touched on online fan spaces as well, as they’re a community with which I’m quite familiar, and I’ve seen people become so entrenched in their views that they really do believe it’s okay to harass real people over cartoons and comic books. Curating your media to only ever reinforce your views is becoming so easy in our digital age, and I tried to reveal that it does have very tangible consequences, leading to further entrenchment in one’s own beliefs.
While I explicitly kept the project devoid of any explicitly political or seriously abhorrent beliefs to keep the project tonally light, those thoughts were nonetheless in the back of my mind when crafting this project. Incel communities, for example, are wildly misogynistic echo chambers that occasionally have extremely violent consequences. All of the members reinforce one another’s beliefs that the world, particularly women, are depriving them of things to which they are entitled, sometimes to truly awful ends. The neo-Nazi situation of last semester is still fresh in everyone’s minds, and I often wonder how much online reinforcement had to do with those students’ radicalization. I deliberately kept the tone of the website playful and lighthearted, but nonetheless meant to imply the seriousness of online echo chambers. I intended the use of humor and relatively neutral subject matter to introduce the topic in a non-threatening, easily consumable manner. In doing so, I hoped to avoid knee-jerk reactions against my argument. For better or (quite often) for worse, humor and playfulness can often be the foot in the door to introducing more divisive beliefs, and I hoped presenting the material in a lighthearted manner would ease people into considering it, with the intention that they would extrapolate the seriousness of online radicalization on their own.
An excerpt from the website explains that “cognitive dissonance, changing your mind or… admitting you were wrong” are “unpleasant” experiences. They undoubtedly are, but they can also be incredibly valuable. A healthy amount of questioning and challenging of one’s own beliefs has the potential to encourage intellectual and moral growth. Echo chambers largely prevent this growth, and potentially can lead to political radicalization (it only takes a quick search query of “red pilling” to see how quickly and dramatically that can occur). I intended for Ekko to show the potential pitfalls of echo chambers, and to demonstrate that the intellectual experiences we find most comfortable are not always the ones most conducive to our growth.
The project can be found here
Dunne, Anthony, and Fiona Raby. Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. MIT Press, 2014.