The Architecture of Echo Chambers, and the Rise of the Popcorn-Grabber

The comments section: it’s where we find the caustic spew of the people we all agree are despicable, and where our fingers point when we explain our distrust of humanity. But how often does one wonder: if everyone seems to agree that the comments section is filled with terrible people, where are these terrible people from? Is there actually some obscure corner somewhere in the world that has an army of online comment makers that explains why despite there being so many terrible people online, none of them seem to walk among us? Seems quite the far-fetched conspiracy theory. (Okay, fine, this actually happened, but it still can’t account for everything online.)

In a previous blog post, I explained that as repulsive as comments sections tend to be, they fulfill an essential niche in discourse, a lens into the thoughts that people are reluctant to have known to be associated with them, these thoughts of which I contended are important for the public to acknowledge and understand.

A fairly established response action to comments sections is the grabbing of the popcorn bucket, in most cases probably figuratively, an action now also often indicated during debates elsewhere in the internet, and outside the internet.

I’d like to make the case that the smugness represented in this action is problematic. Often there’s an implication that the popcorn grabber is patting themselves on the back for being neutral and unopinionated enough to deserve the luxury of spectating the verbal battle of people of clashing worldviews, or at least of the tendency of expressing them, rather than the much more emotionally frictional act of being a participant in such debates. It is not okay to perpetuate the notion that being a bystander establishes one as without opinion. The silence of the lack of political statements is a political statement, particularly if one bothers to actually point it out. An assertion that one does not want to hear a certain debate is definitely a political statement; it is the exclusive endorsement of the status quo.

This could be a valid position if the status quo was an okay state of the world, but I’d like to point out that the current state of the world is definitely a very unokay one; that is, even though you and I may disagree on how this world is seriously screwed up, we can agree that there’s something seriously screwed up about it. One who thinks there’s nothing wrong with the current world is one with whom I have serious issues with their worldview. And if such a bystander has opinions about what’s wrong with the world, they are pre-emptively asserting superiority of one’s own opinions when one says that others’ opinions should be more suppressed. There may be reasonable objections about a certain instance of a debate, like objections on the appropriateness of the location and context of a debate (‘can this debate not happen here?’), but saying that one does not want to hear a debate at all is definitely not the same as asserting nothing.

But there’s an even more important issue here, and that is that frowning at general discourse between groups of contentious views helps build echo chambers. And in a time when views are as distant from each other as they are today, echo chambers are a tradeoff of happiness now for more explosive frictional discontent later. It is important to contribute to keeping the expectation of contentedness from debate higher than that of saying one’s thoughts only to those who agree, because differences should have a chance at resolution, even if not to a harmonious state, at least to a better informed state, where one can update their awareness of the realistic distribution of the public’s views.

The other massive problem with echo chambers is that their construction inevitably parallels the construction of a clan of tribal mentality. Should these groups later decide to talk to each other, the feeling of a pack supporting one’s claims makes it easier for people to simply yell past each other, not heeding what exactly the other group is asserting. It is much more likely that echo chambers view an argument with “the other side” as a war for moral superiority rather than an exercising of speech, the intelligent animal’s nonviolent tool of communication and understanding. People don’t engage in unproductive debates because they like to; they do because our sweeping views about people arguing disincentivize productive debates by inadequately acknowledging their helpfulness.

It’s not hard for us to think of some sort of argument we’ve seen that we can’t believe people care about, and for which we’ve amused ourselves by watching it unfold. Surely, some amount of the time, it is okay for us to indulge ourselves with the popcorn we grab. But if we actually uphold that people should argue less, or indiscriminately convey the such towards arguments, we should be wary about what social constructs we are incentivizing, and for what communicative walls we’re giving the thumbs-up to their making.

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