The web as a cultural echo chamber


Peer pressure is a condition generally associated with youth. But in this era of social networking has peer pressure become more of a lifelong force?

A Columbia University research project suggests that the Web acts as an echo chamber to amplify certain signals to the point where they become popular by dint of repetition, over and above any intrinsic worth. Describing the experiment — the results of which first appeared in a scientific journal and are now percolating into the lay media — Columbia sociologist Duncan J. Watts writes:

“The reason is that when people tend to like what other people like, differences in popularity are subject to what is called “cumulative advantage,” or the “rich get richer” effect. This means that if one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still.”

Watts lays out the methodology and results of the experiment in a New York Times article that filtered into my consciousness via Unmediated. The implications of this work are profound and reinforce my own ambivalence about whether the web will be the salvation or doom of public discourse — or perhaps both at varying volumes.

There is, among many new media partisans, what I consider to be a naive faith that the “wisdom of the crowds” will solve all problems. Surely with so many minds able to focus on problems, there will arise from the previously unasked the genius of a solution. And this will happen or has happened just as believers think.

But will those occasions rise above or be subsumed beneath the mass of cultural dreck that — thanks to some slight initial favor — get amplified in the viral method which the Internet facilitates?

That answer we’ll find out in time, but as I feel grouchy and particularly stressed this morning, I would simply point out that when people say they have a “virus” it is generally not a good thing.