In his recent Andrew Olle lecture, Mark Colvin raised the issue of online echo chambers (a popular lament for some years now - see True Enough for instance) and juxtaposed it with a disappearing world where we are regularly confronted with inconvenient facts:
You no longer need Fox News or radio shock jocks to feed your prejudices and screen out the facts.
You just create a world where you get all your news from the twitter and Facebook and blog sources you've chosen.
And that world's already upon us.
A September Pew research study showed that a third of under thirties in the US already get their news from social media - far, far more than newspapers and equal with TV. Australia's famously a land of technological early adopters, and I believe the figures here would be similar.
Please note the segue which compresses 'getting news from social media' with a world where you only listen to what you want to hear.
As popular as this echo chamber notion is in some circles, especially old media, there doesn't appear to be much evidence to support the idea that people are less exposed to a diversity of facts and opinion on social media than they were before the Internet era.
A large study released early this year found that most of our friends on Facebook are weak links in our networks (ie people we hardly know and have little contact with) and that they point us to many sites and stories that we would not have found elsewhere. This is in accordance with other sociological research that points to the importance of weak network links (Malcolm Gladwell used some of this in The Tipping Point), and also accords I think with our actual experience of Facebook and Twitter. Our strong links, close friends and colleagues, are more likely to read the same stuff we do anyway and therefore are relatively less valuable in finding new stuff for us.
At face value, this study suggests that there is a high degree of serendipidity in social media, allegedly one of the attributes of traditional media that is less in evidence in the world of online social media.
In the context of the Facebook study, the unanswered question is whether or not we choose to look at web links that accord closely with our views or whether we also follow up on novel suggestions thrown up by our weak network links.
The argument for serendipity in old media is based on fairness and scarcity. When we got our news from newspapers, we ploughed through page after page often coming across stories and 'facts' which challenged our views.
Yet there have always been people who only read either the Fairfax or the Murdoch version of the news, or who never watch commercial TV or who only ever listen to the ABC.
In addition, there's plenty of psychological research that suggests that confronted with 'facts' people tend to interpret them to fit their existing world views, rather change those views. If the facts cannot be interpreted to fit our world view, we have a strong tendency to simply reject the facts (see, for instance, Karl Rove on election night). In any event, the 'facts' are rarely conclusive even where we are inclined to view them openly and fairly.
Former ALP National Secretary, Tim Gartrell, provided a good example from the experience of Generation One at a conference a few years ago. Generation One's initial advertising campaign focused heavily on simply presenting the facts on indigenous disadvantage. Some people saw this as a confirmation that more needs to be done by Government, and the broader population, to help overcome indigenous disadvantage. Other people saw the facts as evidence that indigenous people and communities need to take more responsibility for their own lives.
Moreover, I think that whether we lean towards echo chambers or serendipity is not dependent on technology; it's got to do with our individual personalities and preferences.
The Internet, and social media, makes both easier.