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Note to Self

How to Shake Up Your Echo Chamber

This is the latest installment of "Question of Note," in which we take a listener's question — your question! — and find just the right the person (or people) to answer it. See them all here as we go along.

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Some people call it the "echo chamber effect." Others worry about filter bubbles or homophily. Every once in awhile you'll hear hands wringing over birds of a feather.

Or you could just say it like listener Anid Chan in Portland:

"I have a concern about personalized feeds. There is so much information out there, but I know that most of what I see are opinions and voices like my own. I worry this makes us more judgmental about other people, because most of what we believe gets emphasized by people who think the same way. How do we break out of the bubble?"

Anid is right. We are more likely to have friends who are similar to us in age, education, occupation, and location. Channel that truth through the ever-present intersections of race, gender, nationality, ability, sex, and class, and, yes, it can get vulnerable and uncomfortable and even ugly. Cocoons form – comfortable and multi-platform cocoons, because we are also most likely to click on, like, or comment on things we already agree with. Then, because they want us to have positive experiences with their products, many of the social networks we use assume we want to see more of whatever it is we've chosen to click. The algorithms learn to reward opinions or people they think we’ll like. In a company-sponsored study of 10.1 million of the most partisan American users on Facebook, researchers found that people’s networks of friends and the stories they see are skewed toward their ideological preferences, though there are different interpretations as to why. Twitter too: an NYU political scientist found that about two-thirds of the people followed by the median Twitter user in the United States share the user’s political leanings. 

Happy almost-election season, right?

Which brings us back to Anid’s question. What does it really take to put more diversity - however you define it - into your news feeds?

We asked two people working to do this for BuzzFeed - yes, the news website known for cat video and listicles. But the reason you know about them is because Buzzfeed spends a ton of energy figuring out what gets shared, why, and in which communities. 

Katie Notopoulos is co-host of BuzzFeed’s Internet Explorer podcast. She was the force behind #UnfollowAMan (which is exactly what it sounds like). Tracy Clayton is co-host of the BuzzFeed podcast Another Round, and one of the driving forces behind the CocoaButterBF initiative, designed to make BuzzFeed a little bit less monochromatic. They joined Manoush to talk about their work digging into the deepest corners of the Internet, thinking about their audiences, and figuring out what to elevate on one of the biggest platforms out there. 

And for the average Internet reader? Here are some tips from Tracy and Katie:

1. Try. Acknowledge that there is a problem. To quote:

"I... often come across the person who is like 'hey, you know, can you help me find a black writer to write about this, or an Asian writer to write about this, like I just don't know where to start,' and in addition to just sort of general cluelessness, [it also suggests] just, like, laziness. You know this is something that you have to try to do. You don't necessarily have to try really hard, but you do have to try. So start with trying, and then graduate to Google, and then see where you end up."

2. Keep your not-quite-friends on your friends list. Look them up occasionally. Facebook says your "weak ties" are a good way to get range. According to the company, 23 percent of users’ friends are of an opposing political affiliation. If you look them up every once in awhile, the algorithm is more likely to filter a wider range of posts and updates into your feed. So go ahead and stalk your high school ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend's mother you friended on a whim. It'll be good for your worldview.

And on a more serious note? If they say something offensive, don't necessarily unfriend. We made a flowchart for you here.

3. Click on one link you're only semi-interested in once a week (or more). Katie says a good feed should be "10 percent infuriating." But this doesn't have to be a hate click. Just a conscious effort to convince the Facebook or Google algorithms into thinking your interests are broader than they perhaps even are. Make a game of it. See what happens. Report back.

4. Unfollow one person whose perspective you know a little too well. Follow someone else instead. Take Katie's lead and #UnfollowAMan. Or a white person, or a Democrat, or a Republican, or a 30-something, or a New Yorker... whatever applies. The key is to replace him thoughtfully. 

Here are some of Katie and Tracy's suggestions in a Twitter list

And here are a few more solid curation feeds we've been into these days. This is obviously not a comprehensive list and suggestions are always welcome:

5. When you sign up for a new service, choose broad categories. There's always a new "it thing." When you try them out, treat them all a little differently. Katie uses the example of Apple News:

"When you first sign up, it asks you 'what categories of news do you want?' And that's a really daunting question, but it's funny because I'm so used to like, 'I follow these outlets already and these people,' and so this was, 'here's a totally new app that's going give me a totally different experience.' Immediately I was seeing articles by outlets that I don't normally read."

Basically, this tip boils down to "when you try something new, really try something new. Even if you don't stick with the service, you can discover new people in the process.

6. Join a public group. New perspectives on politics and the world don't necessarily come from political websites or world commentary. Sometimes, joining a public group about a lighter, more social topic is the best way to see what people are really talking about, and to teach your social networks that your interests can encompass more types of people. Katie recommends Dogspotting. Which is also exactly what it sounds like. You'll see new names, new people, new communities, and new languages. And dogs.

A dog in Canberry, Australia. (Danielle Griffiths/Dogspotting)

7. Embrace your inner fly on the wall. Sometimes, the metric of success here is finding conversations that allow you to just listen, and not say anything at all.

Tracy says one of the takeaways from hosting Another Round – a podcast in which she and her co-host Heben Nigatu talk about race pretty frequently – has been the reaction of white listeners:

"We get a lot of emails white listeners, that say, 'you know what I'm just so glad to be able to sit in on these conversations... I've never had access to them before.' And I think that Twitter allows you the same sort of distance from really intimate conversations. I feel like people on Twitter are more likely to talk more candidly [about things] that concern them and their lives and their own personal experiences with people who have a shared reality."

Special thanks this week to Julia Furlan, Eleanor Kagan, and the rest of the team at BuzzFeed audio.

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