Social Capital and the Echo Chamber

Do you ever feel like you’re living in a cave? Seriously. You shout out, but all you hear is your own voice reverberating off the surrounding rock. No matter how loud you get, it’s always the same result. Maybe you don’t mind it, but maybe you crave to hear someone else’s voice or just something different.

This is what it’s like living in an echo chamber. Of course, you probably don’t actually live in a cave, but with the way the online world has emerged, you might as well be.

The social media echo chamber is alive and thriving, reverberating the comments, videos and memes of like-minded people. It provides a safe haven for agreeability and strengthens shared views, but to what detriment? What about varied opinions, outside information, and diversity? Today’s youth have only known a world filled with mobile devices and social network sites — so how are they being affected by this virtual echo chamber?

The Youth Echo Chamber

For those of us who were adults during the advent of modern connectivity, we were afforded the unique opportunity to experience the world before and after the introduction of the World Wide Web. Flip phones were a thing, Solitaire was probably the most graphically intensive computer game most people played, and human contact was the norm. Remember landlines? Technologically, we’ve come a long way in the past 30 years or so.

Things are a little different now for youth. As of January 2017, 92% of young adults in America own a smartphone, with 86% of this group logged into at least one social media site. As the years have gone by, various social media networks have popped up, including Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit and WhatsApp, to name a few. And since 2006, Facebook has allowed anyone claiming to be 13 or older to set up an account.

Needless to say, social media is an integral part of our youth’s lives. But what does this have to do with social capital?

You’d think that with all this connectivity, we’d be living in a utopian world where everyone is connected to great diversity, but it’s sadly the opposite. With social media, we have built close-knit groups that reinforce our own established views separate from most outside sources. This form of self-segregation has proven to be detrimental to not only our political ideology, exposure to variety, and day-to-day lives but to how young adults interact with the world.

Every day, millions of youth (and most adults for the matter) are choosing to engage with a narrow spectrum of followers and media outlets through their social media feeds, comforted by the familiar and accessible. There may be a big world out there, but for the most part it goes unnoticed, especially by at-risk youth.

The real question is: What are the dangers of exclusively interacting online with those who agree with you?

For youth, it creates homogenous groups that reinforce the negative traits of bonding social capital (isolation, tribalism, polarization, gang activity/crime) while severely limiting the positive aspects of bridging social capital (diverse experiences, expansive networking, life-changing job opportunities). But if all you know is that which is in front of you, how can you be expected to embrace something new?

The key is to engage and expose. We must flip the script and use social media to our advantage.

We have to encourage youth to step outside of their comfort zone within the echo chamber and into a world that makes them feel like they matter. By exposing them to new experiences and people they would otherwise never have contact with, we can significantly increase the chances of saving at-risk youth from being lost within the echo.

How do we do this, exactly? Since this is an emerging issue that has just recently garnered proper focus, we’re still trying to figure out the best course of action. Abstractly, it comes down to getting youth to compromise and open themselves up to opposing views.

One idea is to get two individuals or groups from differing backgrounds and have them sit down and talk. By getting to know each other face-to-face, youth are more likely to understand and embrace something new through communication and empathy. This offline approach forces participants to get from behind a keyboard and engage IRL. Social Capital Builders has formed a new partnership with Liveit - a social capital sharing platform where youth can connect to a limited number of supportive adults, including employers and mentors. Details soon to follow.

Another tactic can be introduced virtually. By getting young people to check out a new YouTube channel, Facebook page or Twitter feed that offers exposure to positive content they’ve never encountered — and getting them to interact via comments, posts, email, etc. — they are that much more likely to engage with, for example, a network of weak ties that may lead to an educational opportunity or their first job.

Through initiatives like Flipseed (a Google Chrome Extension developed at MIT Media Lab that allows a user to view Twitter or “flipping your feed” through another person’s eyes) and youth events like Restless Development UK’s Unfiltered: Break Out of Your Echo Chamber, organizations are now addressing the effects of the social media echo chamber, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

Ask yourself these questions: How is a young adult supposed to find a decent job if the only people he or she interacts with online are in the same predicament? What about being exposed to a world outside of their own social media feed? Do we want to keep perpetuating the echo or return the call that young adults so desperately need?

This is certainly a complex issue, but finding freedom from the social media echo chamber could be a major piece of the future economic opportunity puzzle. We are just now realizing its effects, and it will take some trial and error, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start taking action now. Let’s help our youth break free from their echo chamber by building social cpaital.

Investing in our youth’s social capital is the gift that keeps giving. Invest some today.

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