The Echo Chamber

Much of the “blogosphere” seems to be an echo chamber, with its own terminology (including the word “blogosphere”), cult leaders, conferences, and memes. Why? Is this healthy?

Almost 100 years ago, a Jesuit priest by the name of Pierre Teilhard saw the rise in speed of telecommunications as post became telegraphy became telephonics. Pierre realized that as this network continued to grow faster and more densely connected, it would make all of humanity as a single organism, each person acting as a neuron in the giant brain that is humankind. He called this organism the noosphere. His vision for a networked global society was prescient, and the analogy to neurons is interesting to reflect upon today.

So we start with a question. Why is that that healthy brains don’t get into feedback loops? Nathan pointed out to me that it’s because neurons have natural inhibitors and rate limitors; signals travel quickly and return to a neuron before the neuron is ready to fire again. Consequently, the neuron does not re-fire, the signal is not propagated, and the loop quiesces. It’s possible that one of the deleterious effects of multiple sclerosis (MS), in which demyelination of the axonal sheaths slows signal transmission, is that the slowed signal has more time to make it back to the original firing neuron, making it more likely that the neuron is ready to re-fire, causing a feedback loop and the jitters seen in patients with MS.

Here we jump from (mildly speculative) biology back into the blogging world. What effect are new tools having on collective thought? If we can consume information from divers sources at a much greater rate and rapidly republish that information in turn, we are in effect increasing the signal transmission speed at the same time as we lower the time-to-refire.

With enough people spending a great deal of time blogging, we have a mass of potential processing that quickly amplifies and redistributes signals, with very little damping. Lacking enough external inputs (namely, new data, such as events in the world or creative works being released), and unwilling to sit idle, the system turns upon itself to act as input. Just as neural pathways that are used often are strengthened and conversely those used rarely are weakened, the blogosphere learns to listen to itself and becomes increasingly absorbed with its own state and technology. Outside events, arguably the original point of the system, become almost ignored. The point of blogging becomes blogging. We get conferences whose point is to blog about how people are blogging at (and about) the conference.

This is no longer a “conversation”.

This is a diseased noosphere, one with something akin to MS, only for the opposite reason.

The best thinkers don’t merely consume quantities of information, they consume quality information and take time to formulate a response. The key shouldn’t be speed, it should be thoughtfulness. You serve a purpose when you helpfully digest an issue from a new perspective and add new data to the conversation. When you’re merely reposting a link with a kneejerk reaction (which is all you can have if you’re posting about subjects five minutes old), you’re not helping.

So don’t go to town with a linkblog. Don’t run a blog. Run a website. Post when you feel inspired. Don’t worry about keeping up with the latest feeds, and for God’s sake, don’t get wrapped up into the blogosphere and become part of the problem.