Beware of the Echo Chamber.
Er, no, actually. It’s not.
According to a recent study published by Eytan Bakshy of Facebook’s data team, the reality is that, while it is true that we are more inclined to consume or share content that is posted by our closest friends, the sheer quantity of our you-know-Kevin?-I-know-Kevin!-too-type Facebook friends means that the vast majority of information that we actually interact with is novel in nature. Thus, social networks may ultimately “increase the spread of novel information and diverse viewpoints” [emphasis mine].
Of course, it is essential to note that the study in question pertains only to Facebook, and thus it begs the question: Do we see the same thing on Google+?
My inclination is that, if we don’t already, we will. Since it’s launch in 2011, Google+ has attracted 170 million users, a number that is sure only to increase over time. Look no further than last Wednesday when Google announced that it is redesigning the social network, and you’ll realize why this is the case. Users will now have the benefit of being able to “customiz[e] apps and the navigation bar…[have] more flexibility with profile pages and pictures…[and peruse the] new Explore page that posts what’s interesting and trending across the site.”
It is this latter feature that is particularly intriguing to me, for this is the type of “park” experience that Sunstein addresses in Republic 2.0. Users not only now have a public sphere for unintended experience but they also know exactly where to turn to get it. This is furthered, moreover, by the “Hangout” feature, which allows users to chat with strangers (although let’s hope that this doesn’t devolve into a chatroulette-type scenario).
Should this quell fears about the effects of Google’s personalized search? Not exactly. But the good news is that, as Google now combines data for users across all of its platforms, should most users really utilize the “Explore” feature, these users may record a lot of similar data points.
Thus, we may see an Echo Chamber. But it will be an Echo Chamber that reflects common experience across a lot of users.
And that is nothing if not encouraging.