Shouting into the Void: The Internet Ego Echo-Chamber

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(Disclaimer: The opin­ions ex­pressed in this ar­ti­cle are the author’s own and do not nec­es­sar­i­ly rep­re­sent those of the staff and/or any con­trib­u­tors to this site.)

Can you imag­ine be­ing so ego­cen­tric you can’t en­ter­tain the pos­si­bil­i­ty you’re wrong? I sure as hell can’t. I still strug­gle with self-doubt and mo­ments of sec­ond guess­ing my­self, and it’s only in the past year I’ve had the con­fi­dence to try and tame my fears and put some of my writ­ing out there. Sometimes what I write is writ­ten and re-written a dozen times, tak­en apart and put back to­geth­er again to en­sure the ar­gu­ment be­ing made isn’t fal­la­cious or bi­ased. Even in my more in­for­mal mo­ments such as this se­ries of semi-rants, I still feel that nag­ging sense of fal­li­bil­i­ty; the thought that at any mo­ment some­one could barge in, and in one fell swoop prove all my ar­gu­ments worth­less be­cause of some over­sight or misjudgement.

This is a healthy fear so long as it doesn’t crip­ple you; I know some of my fel­low con­trib­u­tors who’ve had great in­sights but talked them­selves out of putting them on the page be­cause of that same creep­ing self-doubt. Life is about bal­ance, both on­line and of­fline, and strik­ing that bal­ance is what helps us be ground­ed and func­tion­al hu­man beings.

But I’m not here to talk about my neu­roses; I talked last pre­vi­ous­ly about how so­cial me­dia can leave us feel­ing iso­lat­ed and alone if we let it, but what hap­pens when the pen­du­lum swings the oth­er way?

shout ego side 1We have more op­por­tu­ni­ties than ever to cu­rate what we do and don’t see on­line. Be it through who we friend on Facebook, who we fol­low on Twitter, what me­dia we read on­line, or what in­for­ma­tion we in­ten­tion­al­ly block out. In many ways it am­pli­fies what we think about our­selves, or our feel­ings at the giv­en mo­ment. If you feel lone­ly, it’s easy to seek things out that make you feel even more alone. If you think you’re the ab­solute poodle’s nip­ples, and that you’re God’s gift to re­al­i­ty and every­thing in it, then its easy to con­struct an on­line world that fits your delusion.

That am­pli­fi­ca­tion of feel­ings can turn into a feed­back loop, a screech­ing mon­ster of ego­cen­trism that if left unchecked will con­tin­ue to get loud­er. This is part­ly the source of what have been dubbed “cry bul­lies,” peo­ple who at­tack oth­ers then weep and wail when they’re told to stop.

To quote David Carr, a me­dia cor­re­spon­dent at the New York Times David Carr, “…the always-on data stream is hyp­not­ic, giv­ing us the il­lu­sion of om­ni­science.” He made this com­ment in ref­er­ence to journalist’s ut­ter fail­ure to see the di­rec­tion the wind was blow­ing in a 2014 Congressional race. Online me­dia hap­pens to be some of the peo­ple guilti­est of this as­sump­tion of om­ni­science and they feed the hordes of low-information cru­saders with ex­act­ly what they want to hear. The writer and the au­di­ence are com­plic­it in this dance and they en­gage in mu­tu­al bias re­in­force­ment, even­tu­al­ly reach­ing the con­clu­sion that they were al­ways right all along, and that noth­ing in their world­view had to change.

Two nig­gling prob­lems re­main in this seem­ing­ly per­fect arrange­ment: op­pos­ing points of view and those will­ing to voice them. The in­ter­net has be­come great at in­vent­ing shriek­ing nar­cis­sists. Instead of try­ing to break down the walls of un­re­al­i­ty, or­gan­i­sa­tions and busi­ness have in­stead elect­ed to re­in­force them. This is why we see the war waged on the com­ments sec­tion on many websites.

It’s “too sex­ist” or its “too trig­ger­ing” are just weak ex­cus­es. To me, the real rea­son is that the writer’s ego can’t take even be­ing mild­ly dis­agreed with. Their world­view is so frag­ile it will shat­ter if ex­posed to dis­sent. Someone out of touch with re­al­i­ty is ut­ter­ly use­less in many ca­pac­i­ties, and they are go­ing to find con­flict wher­ev­er they turn.

People who dis­sent on­line are in­creas­ing­ly be­ing tar­get­ing by smear cam­paigns, and E‑celebs like Wil “Shut up, Wesley” Wheaton have long cam­paigned for real names and faces to be to be shown on­line in the cru­sade to tar­get and shame those un­de­sir­ables who dare chal­lenge his frag­ile ego.

I write un­der my real name so let me say this. Wil Wheaton is a joke, a hang­er on too in­ept for a TV or movie ca­reer who sub­sists on geek cred­i­bil­i­ty from his one rel­e­vant mo­ment over two decades ago. He doesn’t re­al­ize this be­cause he’s sur­round­ed him­self with syco­phants and yes men who tell him he isn’t al­most uni­ver­sal­ly re­viled. Like many oth­ers with frag­ile egos, Wil is a proud user of the a Blockbot, and this helps re­in­force his echo-chamber online.

Blockbots and their sup­port­ers have been court­ed and ten­ta­tive­ly en­dorsed by every­one from Google, to Twitter, to the IGDA, and even the United Nations. They rep­re­sent the next step in ego pro­tec­tion in an ef­fort to re­move any chance their ab­solute in­fal­li­bil­i­ty will be ques­tioned. Rather than be­ing a prison cell for “trolls,” they serve as a blind­fold, a pair of gog­gles that dis­tort the on­line world and dis­play a pic­ture com­plete­ly out of line with re­al­i­ty. I’m re­mind­ed of a trail­er for Team Fortress 2 where the Pyro sees the hor­ri­ble im­mo­la­tion of oth­ers as a bright fan­ta­sy world made up of rain­bows and unicorns.

The same is true for com­ments sec­tions on­line; if you over mod­er­ate them or sim­ply turn them off all to­geth­er you get a false sense of your own in­fal­li­bil­i­ty. The deep­er you get into your ego il­lu­sion the less equipped to deal with re­al­i­ty you be­come and are less able to rec­ti­fy mis­takes. As we proud­ly state, we keep our com­ments open for pre­cise­ly that rea­son; we are ca­pa­ble of be­ing wrong. We get peo­ple point­ing out a small spelling or gram­mar er­rors all the time, which is free edit­ing for which we are grate­ful for even if a lit­tle em­bar­rassed when it hap­pens. That’s just a mild ex­am­ple, but if we fucked up fac­tu­al­ly I would want to know about it and fix it as quick­ly as possible.

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Some shout into the void and hear noth­ing but their own voice echo­ing back at them. They mis­take it for the voice of the en­tire in­ter­net and are un­able to pull them­selves away from a de­struc­tive track. This is my main prob­lem with Tumblr and why I find “Translating Tumblr” such a fas­ci­nat­ing, but some­times dif­fi­cult read. There are en­tire com­mu­ni­ties like shoplifters, oth­erkin, and peo­ple with eat­ing dis­or­ders on all points on the spec­trum. We be­gin see how the ego feed­back loop could lit­er­al­ly kill some­one in the case of an anorex­ic be­ing told they are at a healthy weight. Here a “safe space” can be a death sen­tence. Tumblr at its worst is an is­land of delu­sion where peo­ple with all kinds of is­sues can go to seek the op­po­site of help. Twitter with its cen­sor­ship and re­cent en­dorse­ment of Blockbots is fast be­com­ing that too.

During the ear­ly Enlightenment, mankind be­gan to re­al­ize they weren’t — as had been pre­sumed be­fore — at the cen­tre of the uni­verse. The Earth, and every­thing on it, were not as re­mark­able as had been first as­sumed. But a greater truth was discovered.

That the majesty of cre­ation was far more var­ied than we had imag­ined, and the uni­verse is bound­less space and po­ten­tial. If the Enlightenment had hap­pened on Twitter, these peo­ple would have sim­ply blocked Galileo for his un­pop­u­lar and un­com­fort­able opin­ion and made fun of him be­hind that block. Heliocentrism would have been re­gard­ed as “too trig­ger­ing” for the minds of those con­vinced they were al­ways right. “Heresy” has mor­phed in “Hate Speech,” but the ig­no­rance that kept peo­ple away from the truth about the won­ders of the uni­verse re­mains as stub­born as ever.

Most hu­man be­ings also come to a re­al­iza­tion in their life that they are not the most im­por­tant per­son on the plan­et. To de­vel­op as a well-adjusted and ami­able hu­man be­ing (read: not a com­plete cunt) you need a few well-placed whacks over the head with the re­al­i­ty stick now and then. Sometimes people’s mis­con­cep­tions need to be shat­tered for them to grow, some­times re­al­i­ty just has to kick the shit out of you for you to learn some­thing. That can’t hap­pen if you treat the in­ter­net like your own per­son­al fief­dom, or a nice safe padded cell.

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People dis­like change by na­ture; it makes them un­com­fort­able and fear­ful, but what many mis­take for ha­rass­ment and hate speech is just them com­ing into con­tact with the real world and not be­ing able to han­dle it. What is meant by “the right to be com­fort­able” is in fact the right to be in­fan­tilized. If ba­bies had ac­cess to Twitter, their moth­ers tak­ing their dum­my — a paci­fi­er if you’re a dirty colo­nial — away would be de­cried as an act of bru­tal in­jus­tice in­flict­ed on a help­less mi­nor­i­ty. #BringBackOurDummies would be trend­ing world­wide, and all those say­ing “maybe that’s part of grow­ing up” would be banned.

The “right to be com­fort­able” is the right to sti­fle oth­er peo­ple, and not have to feel bad about it. It’s the right not to de­vel­op as a hu­man be­ing and re­al­ize that maybe, just maybe, ad­mit­ting you are wrong from time to time won’t cause you to spon­ta­neous­ly combust.

Adults have no right to be com­fort­able. We all hold some shit­ty opin­ions; the most im­por­tant thing is be­ing able to tell each oth­er that. No one wants to hang around with some un­pleas­ant ego mon­ster. The only per­son you will ever ful­ly agree with is your­self then — and even that’s not guar­an­teed. If some­one con­tin­ues on that path then that’s who they’ll end up with. Themselves.

An in­ter­net of peo­ple who’ve blocked away any­thing but their own voice, shout­ing end­less­ly into the void, con­vinced of the right­eous­ness of the sound of their own voice. And I think that’s a pret­ty bleak vi­sion for the on­line future.

We’re all ass­holes, but the less­er ass­holes at least know that.

The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long-form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.
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