Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Social media echo chambers

A guy named Donald Cyprian has come up with an idea that he says he got directly from god.

It's a social media platform he calls "Instant Christ."  On it, you can post Christian messages, and you can ask for prayers from other members.  Not only that, people can record themselves praying for you, and post the audio file so you can hear the prayers you're receiving.

"It’s basically a Facebook for Christians in a safe environment, because if you’re on Facebook you’re liable to get anything on your timeline," Cyprian said.  "It’s very distracting to a believer when you’re trying to walk in the spiritual realm.  When you’re going through something you want to know that you’re fishing in the right ocean."

The hope is that "Instant Christ" will draw away Christians from the more freewheeling sites like Facebook and Twitter, giving them a place to meet the like-minded and to express themselves without fear of criticism or ridicule.

I think this is a bad idea, but I wonder if you'd be able to guess why.

It's not because I'm critical of their belief in Christianity.  As I've said more than once, anyone is free to believe anything they want, as long as they accord me the same right.

For me, the problem with this is that it turns online social media into an echo chamber.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Some platforms already have this tendency; Reddit, for example, is divided into hundreds of "subreddits" each devoted to a different set of interests and ideologies, and many "Redditors" never venture outside the ones peopled with the like-minded.  For good reason, sometimes.  Christians who post to the r/atheism subreddit, even with the intention of  asking a question or spurring reasonable discussion, are taking a chance of exposing themselves to ridicule and being accused of trolling.

There are many downsides of places like Facebook, but one of the upsides is that it exposes you to lots of differing viewpoints -- if you choose to "friend" people who aren't exactly like you.  Humans naturally already tend towards surrounding themselves with people who agree with them, and places like Facebook and Twitter give us the opportunity to see other points of view expressed, if we're willing to listen.

This is why I've resisted the temptation to pare down my Facebook and Twitter contact lists, to unlink from people who post content that annoys me, angers me, challenges me.  I have deliberately stayed in contact with people who are from all sorts of different ideological backgrounds -- my Facebook friend list contains Christians (from moderate to evangelical), Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, and the unaffiliated.  I see links posted by Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and people who don't care about politics one way or the other.  

Let me be clear about this; I'm not bragging about how incredibly open-minded I am.  I have strong convictions about a lot of issues, and some of what I see posted I think is dead wrong.  Being willing to expose yourself to multiple viewpoints doesn't mean that you believe them all, nor that you think there's truth to be found in homogenizing whatever you see.  I more agree with Richard Dawkins on this point; "If two people have differing opinions, it is not necessarily the case that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  It may be that one of them is simply incorrect."

But what this does is keeps me honest.  When all you see is what you already believed, you never have to face the fact that you might be blindly accepting biases, that you may not have all the facts, that your being surrounded by a Greek chorus of the similar-minded has made you unlikely to recognize truths that others see clearly.  I'd rather be occasionally pissed off than to turn away from a source of intellectual, political, and philosophical checks-and-balances.

And this, to me, is the problem with platforms like "Instant Christ."  It might be comforting for Christians to isolate themselves from the rest of the world, but that comfort comes with a cost -- cutting yourself off from even having to acknowledge that other people may not think exactly like you do.

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