Echo chamber has become a bit of a buzzword over the past few years. The basic idea is a space where everyone is saying and supporting the same ideas. People in an echo chamber are never challenged to think beyond their assumptions, to see a different perspective, or to learn new things that don’t agree with them.
Many people agree that echo chambers are bad. That we need restructure social media to reduce the echo chamber affect. That it is unhealthy to be in an echo chamber.
I agree with most of the criticisms of echo chambers. But I think it’s time to reframe the idea, because the criticism is also missing some of the benefits of echo chambers.
Benefits? Of echo chambers? Yes, really. Though I don’t blame you for doubting. After all, everything we’ve heard about echo chambers is bad. It’s almost as if we are in an echo chamber–about echo chambers!
Social Comfort Zones
But what if we didn’t say echo chamber? What if, instead, we called is a “social comfort zone”?
Comfort zones are already a familiar idea. From school, to relationships, to work, we sometimes need to “reach outside your comfort zone”. And when we are stressed or sick or worried, we sometimes need to “retreat into your comfort zone.”
The comfort zone isn’t inherently good or bad. It is a place where we are comfortable. It has all the same features of an echo chamber–it prevents us from growing if we stay there too long, it only holds the things we are comfortable with, it doesn’t challenge us, etc. But it also has good features that we don’t associate with the idea of “echo chambers”. Comfort zones are places we can relax. Comfort zones are low stress. Comfort zones help us heal.
What we call “echo chambers” are really social comfort zones. They have all the negative traits of comfort zones in work or daily life. But also all the positives.
What’s in a name?
Once we acknowledge echo chambers as social comfort zones, we can start having a healthier discussion about them.
One that encourages people to reach outside their comfort zone and expose themselves to other perspectives and ideas. But also one that doesn’t shame people for having and using a comfort zone. One that recognizes that some people live in places or situations where they are constantly exposed to other perspectives and their online or IRL comfort zones are a necessary part of how they manage their stress and care for themselves.
I want to give a shout out to Gargron and Mastodon.ART Curator for inadvertantly inspiring this post. And a shout out to the Fediverse in general for being a place that not only allows but encourages multiple accounts with lots of options for privacy controls so folks can have a comfort zone and a stretch zone on the same social network.
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