Friday, July 16, 2010

The Myth of the Echo Chamber

This topic deserves more than what I'm going to write today, but I wanted to quickly share this thought. On a regular basis on Twitter and on blogs and in books I read, people warn about not getting stuck in the echo chamber. In fact, I've said it myself more than once. While I value diverse and opposing opinions, and think they are necessary and critical, here's what I think:
There is no "echo chamber." It's a myth.
Do you follow at least one person on Twitter? Then you're not in an echo chamber.

Do you have someone's blog other than your own in your RSS aggregator? Then you're not in an echo chamber.

Do you teach/work in a building with at least one other person that you talk to? Then you're not in an echo chamber.

Do you have a family? Friends? A neighborhood? Then you're not in an echo chamber.

Yes, if you look at the folks I follow on Twitter, or the blogs I read, or the friends I associate with - they probably share some characteristics in their views about education (just to narrow this down a bit). But echo chamber? No way.
  • I learn from people that believe IWB's are a huge waste of time and money. And folks that think they are very useful.

  • I learn from people that think PLN is a term that is essentially meaningless and does more harm than good. And folks that think PLN is a powerful organizing concept for how we can learn in a networked world.

  • I learn from people that think if you can't measure it, it's not important. And from folks that think that if you can measure it, then it's not very important.

  • I learn from people that think standards-based-grading is a powerful way to provide meaningful feedback to students. And from folks that think that "standards" and "grading" are the antithesis of what education should be about.
And, at different times, I find myself agreeing with both "sides" of the above supposedly-there-are-only-two-sides-of-the-argument issues. As I continue to search for the "truth" (lowercase 't', capital 'T', I don't know), I expect that that will continue.

Not only do I think there is no echo chamber, I think there is also tremendous power in having discussions with people who do think in a similar (although not exact) way to you. Communities of similarly-minded people, passionate people, working in concert, can accomplish amazing things. We shouldn't denigrate that, we should celebrate it.

So, by all means continue to bring in diverse and opposing viewpoints into your PLN (or your not-PLN if you don't like the term). And continue to stretch yourself and your thinking by reading and tweeting and talking to new people. But please don't ever apologize for associating with other folks who passionately believe things similar to you, and please don't buy into the myth of the echo chamber. It doesn't exist.

Feel free to disagree in the comments.


  1. I have to echo what you said ;-)

    Of course a chamber implies a complete closure which never happens truly on the net. You cannot be there an avoid people outside your own ______ network.

    Maybe the thing is to keep in mind that we can fall into a mythical chamber if we are only tuning into a place where everyone agrees, if we can accept that there are always opposite, and valid (sometimes) opinions to our own.

    But yeah, I agree, they dont really exist. It becomes a cheap line that is used to diffuse a conversation ("Well that's a fine Karl idea, but you are just living in an echo chamber")

  2. I found this TED talk from Ethan Zuckerman to be an extension of this conversation. Essentially, he says we do stick close to home and could do better in connecting to global communities. While echo chambers may not exist, most of us never venture far from our own close knit community.
    Ethan Zuckerman: Listening to global voices

  3. I'm with you,(echo) I've said the term more than once, and usually as a precursor to a dissenting opinion that I'm about to say or agree with. It's catchy, it has some cache and jargon-ness about it, because people understand and can relate to it. (Which as an aside is why many are so comfortable with terms like PLN)
    I think that when we blindly agree and begin to "echo" things ourselves we do contribute to the noise, agenda, or idea that someone may be pushing, but so long as we are entertaining opinions and thoughts besides our own, we are better off for it.
    That said though, I've seen people, departments, teams, get stuck in ruts; agreeing with everything and being scared or afraid to dissent. So, in those situations we are "trapped" in an echo chamber of sorts where dissension is seen as not being a team player; and new ideas are stuck in heads or blogs, but are not in the rooms where change and progress can occur.

  4. I disagree. I find such overwhelming groupthink from the edtech community on Twitter that I often have to debate positions I essentially agree with just to stop the echo chamber I see every day.
    I think we need to look no further than the edtech community on Twitter as proof that we desperately need to teach critical thinking better in schools.
    Curious to see how balanced the comments are on this post. My guess is that most people will blindly agree with you without examining and questioning their beliefs.

    We'll see.

    Good post though, thanks for sharing your POV.

  5. After reading your commentary this came to mind:
    Even the "echo chamber" itself that some of your "PLN" suggests, Karl, can get interesting. You and I may agree on the main premises of standards-based grading, but following that agreement may yield a back-and-forth discussion focused on what it could/should look like in a specific classroom. That's where the big idea echo chamber sharpens those of us who agree - it presses us to understand our own beliefs at a detailed level.

    On the flip side, I wanted to suggest that the "watch out for the echo chamber" folks might be some of the same people who think their "PLN" only consists of folks they know virtually. In my own understanding and interpretation of personal learning networks, face-to-face colleagues are a large part, too, which further negates the echo chamber idea, because our colleagues don't agree with everything we think. If they did, we probably wouldn't feel the need to "create a PLN," right? :)

  6. I think it's very important to build a balanced network, both on- and offline. Mine is just as likely to say "I disagree" as "I agree." I follow blogs and people on Twitter who I know will push and stretch my thinking. We can disagree in a civil and respectful manner, yet still provide value to others. I actively seek out those who will play the devil's advocate role... and I'm just as willing to do the same.

    I really like this post, Karl, because I think there are many out there who see a PLN (or whatever term you want to use) as an echo chamber or bandwagon group... or whatever the term du jour is. I think if you see too much "groupthink," then your network isn't balanced appropriately.

    If I wanted a group of minions who simply echoed my thoughts and agreed with me all the time, I wouldn't be stretching myself or learning. For me, it's ALL about the learning and connecting with others. That's how I grow... and thus how I roll. ;-)

  7. The echo chamber occurs when we allow others to do our thinking for us. I may be wrong but this isn't about agreeing with the ideas but accepting others opinions without thought or examination.

    I will take either side of an argument for the job of the back and forth. Twitter and commenting are not the best way to banter, too much is at stake and there is too little opportunity to become a devil's advocate without others misrepresenting your motives or even beliefs. I really believe this stifles some great learning opportunities.

  8. I recently escaped the echo chamber and feel much better for it. Most EdTech conversations are so far removed from the primary issues facing our other school-based colleagues. I have found it so refreshing to refocus my efforts on teaching and learning, relegating technology to it's proper place as a tool frequently used to extend the learning environment, rather than the first focus of conversation.

    EdTech professionals who wish to reform schools would do well to read up on decades of extensive school reform literature.

    While some dissent in this thread may be a good sign, it pales with the other 99% of opinions from the school community that are not represented here. For example, I suspect that only two of 200 employees in my school are in a position to read this post and participate in this conversation.


  9. It seems as if the people leveling the "echo chamber" accusation are often those who disagree with the people in the group they claim are in the chamber. Certainly if you only associated with people who were clones of yourself, you would get an echo. But I can't point to one other person in the education community who articulates 100% of my thoughts on any matter.

    The key is that a person much choose to be open to hearing and considering the differences they have with other members of their communities. The true echo chamber is formed when you stop listening to anyone but your own thoughts, and those you already subscribe to.

    As to Richard's statement "only two of 200 employees in my school are in a position to read this post and participate in this conversation", it has nothing to do with "edtech" and neither does Karl's original post. It's about communication and how you create a network to learn from and with. I would challenge you to send the post link to those 200 people and see how they respond. You might learn something about your colleagues. :-)

  10. A week or so ago, I would have wholeheartedly agreed that the concept of "echo chamber" is overstating the true state of affairs. Now, even though I frequently run up against opinions, ideas that I don't agree with in my reading and discussions, I'm not so sure that an echo chamber of sorts doesn't exist. It has much more to do with technology haves and have nots than it has to do with those in or out of the daily use of technology for teaching and learning.

    There are still a huge (at least it's seeming huge to me) number of teachers and administrators in situations where it's easy to avoid technology, and simultaneously the kind of collaborative re-examination of learning that can accompany daily use. Extraordinary effort is sometimes necessary to make learning with technology happen at all.

    For those folks, who I submit are in their own "echo chamber" of sorts, it's so easy to see an "echo chamber" of technologically reform-minded, "out of touch" folks whom it's easy to scoff at, and easier to ignore.

    So we end up with our two "echo chambers" of those involved with reform and technology and those without the access or the will to pursue access. Both tend to be self-reinforcing. How do we bridge the gap?

  11. Alan - I guess that’s probably what spurred this post – the idea that the folks using “echo chamber” were too often using it to close off discussion. It was an easy way to dismiss an argument/discussion without truly engaging with it.

  12. Matthew Woolums - I haven’t watched Zuckerman’s talk yet (it’s on the list), but I have read some of what he’s said. I agree that my community is not as diverse as it could be – or needs to be – but that’s still a far cry from an echo chamber. Somewhat by definition, a community is going to be close-knit, and I think that’s a good thing. As long as a community isn’t completely closed to new ideas, I don’t really have a huge problem with it being focused.

  13. Michael Wacker - For me, there’s a difference between the “group think” you describe and the way I think people are using the term echo chamber. I’m not sure I can clearly delineate what that difference is, maybe it’s just because I hear it so often in the context of tech discussions, but it feels different. I’ll have to think some more about that. I think there is the danger of new ideas getting stuck in heads or blogs and not translating into action, basically what Seth Godin talks about when he says “you have to ship.” I guess our challenge is to make sure those ideas are considered in the rooms that “matter,” and that we force those folks to “ship.”

  14. George Haines - Thanks for the dissent because, of course, it helps prove my point! Seriously, though, I have trouble understanding why you feel the need to debate positions you essentially agree with. If you’re extending the thinking about them, or pushing back against certain aspects that you don’t think are quite right, that’s great. But if you are disagreeing with something you agree with just because you’re frustrated that lots of people are agreeing, I don’t get that.

  15. Matt Townsley - Thanks for your first paragraph. I think that was a big part of what I was trying to say, but you just said it much better. I think your second paragraph makes a good point as well, we’re only seeing one part of the bigger discussion online (Twitter, blogs, etc.). The folks that gravitate there are more inclined to generally agree on some things, which may seem to create an echo chamber. But I strongly agree that my PLN consists of face-to-face as well as virtual folks, and also includes books. If people are limiting themselves to virtual communities only, then they are missing a big part of what a PLN can be.

  16. Michelle - While I like the idea of having people who push and stretch my thinking, and I certainly read/follow folks I often disagree with, I’m not so sure I like the idea of the word “balance.” Do you have a “balanced” view of civil rights? Or do you think there are rights that everyone has? Do you have a “balanced” view of educating all students? Or do you think that some should not? I guess my concern is that, much like echo chamber, I see educators (and others) use “balance” as an excuse not to go full bore. If you believe passionately in something, you think something is incredibly important for kids, why would we go for balance? This may just be one of my pet peeves, though, your mileage may vary.

  17. Wm Chamberlain - Can you say more about “Twitter and commenting are not the best way to banter . . .” – I’m not sure what you’re trying to say there.

  18. Richard - I guess I wonder why only 2 of 200 employees in your school are in a position to read this post and participate in the conversation. As Tim said, send it to them. Invite them in. Invite them to lunch. (If, of course, this is something you think is important enough to talk about.) My blog was started as an extension of our staff development efforts, it really was a way to bring my entire school into the conversation. What are some ways you could bring your folks into the conversation?

  19. Tim - Yeah. Even the folks that I generally agree with most of the time I don’t agree with all of the time. That’s part of why I don’t get this idea of an echo chamber. I can’t think of any issue that’s been discussed on Twitter, blogs, etc. where there hasn’t been pushback from different perspectives.

  20. MMWmS - I think we bridge the gap by sharing. We invite folks into the conversation – and ask them to invite us into their conversations (if we aren’t currently involved).

  21. Karl, I believe serious dialogue requires a level of trust. We have a hard time accepting differing viewpoints, almost impossible when their is no relationships and those take time face to face.

    The teasing, the playing of devil's advocate, questions said jokingly but with an edge that pushes discussions are really hard to do online.

    Does this help?

  22. Use your imagination... picture yourself in an echo chamber. Look around... you're alone right?

    Nuff said.

  23. Karl: then maybe "balance" wasn't the term I should have used. Not sure what the right one is exactly-- I simply meant that I look for people in my network with whom I have some things in common, but don't necessarily always share the same opinions. It's important to me to find people who don't always think along the same lines that I do. So, if I can find a better term, I guess that's more of what I meant.

    And actually, some of my better discussions online and in person have been with people who vehemently disagree with me. In debating with them, I found that I either strengthened my initial position through that debate, or that I found a different perspective that I had overlooked.

  24. The echo chamber is alive and well. Denying its existence doesn't make it any less real.

    The “ed tech” echo chamber is only one of many echo chambers that are out there and that you can easily fall into (inside and out of both; education and technology)

    The key thing is that you have to continuously be aware of it and focus on pushing past it. It is only human nature to associate with those who support your views and with whom you share a common experience. It is that common experience which is probably what fosters those shared common views.

    The next innovations exist on the margins, on the edges far removed from where the vast majority of people’s views are. The danger of the echo chamber is that our ideas aren’t ever pushed to those edges where the next innovations will develop.

  25. Karl and Tim, the question of whether or not an echo chamber exists in PLNs is so tangential to the needs and concerns of 198/200 employees that I wouldn't think of inviting them into it. We do engage frequently on questions of teaching, learning, and technology. The most useful conversations center on students, curriculum, and pedagogy. The most effective interactions are face-to-face. We exchange web-based resources too, but precious few from the world of education technology.

    How many principals and superintendents are in education technology PLNs? If they're not involved, then the conversation is happening on the margins of education policy reform.

  26. Karl,
    I feel like there is so much to learn, and I am constantly learning something new everyday. I do not feel like it is a bad thing to have someone believe or not believe like you do. We were not made to agree with everything another person said or did. That is why we are all different. I love reading and seeing other peoples opinion on things, because it makes me think why do they believe this and then I form my own opinion.

  27. I hear the 'echo chamber' mentioned a lot (maybe because of the echo!) The term suggests a bunch of people interacting with others who already think the way they do. So let me say this... There are educators joining in all the time who hadn't been involved before... in Twitter, in #edchat, in reading blogs and then in blogging themselves. Don't underestimate the power of all this to bring about change. There are always educators who are reading and following and listening and learning and thinking (some of them quietly). I know how much I have learnt and how my thinking has shifted in the past year.In part this is due to the voices in that echo chamber, reverberating in my head, as I apply their ideas critically and make sense of things for myself. So yes, I think there is a bit of an echo chamber out there... but it's not necessarily a bad thing!

  28. What's the difference between an echo chamber and an affinity group (i.e., a group of people with shared interests)?

  29. Hmm very good discussion.

    I do believe there is an echo chamber, but as someone said it exists when you let someone else do your thinking for you.
    On the other hand I think it is very important to consciously bring people into your PLN who do think differently.
    As Michael Fullan says (
    1.Respect those you want to silence.
    2.Move toward the danger in forming new alliances.

    Or as my dad said, wisdom is being able to learn from those you think are stupid.

  30. Wm Chamberlain - Yeah, that helps. And I agree that face-to-face is easier, and often better. But I disagree that it’s impossible to have serious conversations and effect change online. I’ve seen it happen reasonably often, and I also think we have to keep in mind that we’re still pretty early in learning how to do this well.

  31. Michelle - Makes sense. Again, I think “balance” is just one of those pet-peeve things for me.

  32. Joe - Well, obviously I disagree. I just don’t see any evidence of an echo chamber. People agreeing – even often agreeing - does not equal an echo chamber. Funny, I think a lot of people would argue that the folks on Twitter and blogs talking about all this are on the margins, yet they constantly get criticized for being part of an echo chamber. Not sure how that works.

  33. Richard/Kassissieh - I was suggesting you invite them into the entire conversation(s), not just the echo chamber post. I’m curious as to why you think that’s not relevant for them. My guess is that we have a fundamental disagreement here. You think this conversation is about “EdTech,” whereas I think it’s about Ed(ucation). And all 200 of those employees surely should be interested in that.

  34. whatedsaid - You bring up a great point. There are a lot of folks who are participating but are doing so more quietly. The ratio of folks who read this blog to those that comment is very high. The same is true on Twitter – many more folks are just following along (at least initially) before they get their “online legs.” In a way, it’s a lot like teaching. You often don’t see the end result of your efforts.

  35. Scott McLeod - That’s what I was trying to get at above, I don’t think it’s bad to be part of a passionate group that is like-minded about a few things. I think the difference comes when you become exclusive of new ideas – and people. And if you begin parroting something that you either don’t believe, or haven’t really thought about, just to fit in. But I don’t really see that happening in my network(s).

  36. Brendan - Well, I’m not sure I like your Dad’s use of the word “stupid,” but I generally agree with him. (And, yes, I’ve used the word stupid myself, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s a good choice.) Reminds me of an old motivational tape my father-in-law listened to a while back. The speaker was talking about learning from everyone he interacted with, and someone asked, “You mean you even learn from losers?” And the speaker replied, “Why, yes. I watch what they’re doing and then I don’t do it!” While simplistic, I think there’s some insight there.

  37. August 13 will be my first day as a student teacher in a journalism classroom, and one of the lessons I play to teach to my students is the importance of seeking out other points of view. Thank you for the reminder that the purpose of doing so is to broaden one's viewpoint, to understand that most issues are nuanced, and to gain the ability to constructively debate with others and within your own mind.