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Filter Failure Can be Fun

Submitted by Kate Sheehan on July 5, 2011 - 7:19am

I have long been a fan of NPR’s On The Media. It’s interesting to me both as a citizen who tries for a varied media diet and as a librarian. The show frequently touches on how we consume, process, and access information. Just before ALA, they did a politics-focused piece about the echo chamber that could just as easily apply to answering reference questions, looking for ideas in librarianship, or making decisions about purchasing technology for your library.

Fear of the echo chamber is not new in online circles. It’s inherently a contradictory concern. As Lee Rainie tells Brooke Gladstone, the heaviest internet users are the most likely to be exposed to a wider variety of information. In other words, the savviest online information consumers, the very people who are likely to be worried about getting stuck in an echo chamber, are the least likely to be in one. This is a little like the conventional wisdom on narcissism – if you’re worried you’re a narcissist, than you aren’t one.   

Recently, I had an interesting conversation with a fellow tweeting librarian about the “library rock star” phenomenon and the concern that the voices of those few are drowning out other ideas. Again, I felt that contradictory tug. Yes, there are librarians with very visible platforms, but aren’t there more of them since everyone and her dog has a blog? Hasn’t twitter given more and more of us megaphones?

Offline, I am more often asked about how I “keep up” with the online world of librarianship. Rarely do people in my offline life ask me about how I combat the potential for a filter bubble. My advice has evolved over the years. I used to refer them to my Bloglines account chock full of library-related blogs and websites. At some point, my concern became not that I was missing out on unheard voices or differing opinions of librarianship, but that I was missing out on everything else. If, as Michelle exhorts us to, we should become nodes of information (a call we should all pay attention to), how can we effectively do that if we spend all of our time keeping up solely with ourselves?

At ALA, Brooke Gladstone, co-host of On The Media, called librarians “the general practitioners of our culture” and I felt a frisson of recognition and delight. It was that generalist, wide ranging, voracious outlook that drew me to library school. Gladstone also exhorted the audience not to fear the effects technologies are having on our culture. These fears, she reminded us, have come with every new method of communicating. In her closing remarks in the On The Media piece on the filter bubble, she points out that while we may be hard-wired to choose echo chambers and technology makes it easy to do so, the same technology makes it easy to break out of our bubbles.

Ned Potter is well-known for asking librarians to break out of the echo chamber. He’s pushing us to advocate for libraries outside of librarianship, and how we consumer information is an important piece of that. Personally, I find Ned to be an excellent metaphor for the internal push-pull of the echo chamber. While my online life has always revolved too heavily around libraries, would I know about his work without the Internet and without that intensive connection to librarianship online? Maybe not. But I first started talking to Ned on Twitter not about libraries, but about music. I think of that every time a librarian stops following me on Twitter after I go several days without a library-related tweet.

The honesty and genuineness that Michelle asks us to bring to our online lives extends to what we consume online. Bringing our whole selves to bear on our online presence will allow us to be better connectors, better advocates for libraries, better consumers and providers of information. We may be experts in controlling the fire hose of content available to us online, but life is sometimes more interesting after a filter failure.