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Breaking the echo chamber with Public Sphere

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If you use any of the social media platforms, and I’m assuming you probably do, then you are complicit in shaping and curating your experience. Which posts are visible to you, what adverts pepper your newsfeed, the people you interact with, and crucially, the people you don’t, all comes down to the choices you make as a user.

Some of this is obvious and conscious. It’s very clear for example that we cherry pick our friend list and that upon liking a commercial page, adverts for related products will start to crop up. Much like the proverbial iceberg however most of this curating happens beneath the surface, through seemingly inconsequential decisions. Whether or not you liked your aunt’s photo of the Grand Canyon, how many 3rd wave punk bands you follow, and even how many seconds you spent reading a headline from a link you didn’t even click on, all of this information is tracked and fed into sorting algorithms that decide what you do or don’t see every time you open Facebook.

Innocuous when used to sell socks. Not so innocuous when used to sell Presidents. The same machine logic that brings you together with fellow New Wave fans systematically isolates you from those with contrasting political affiliations, morals and opinions. And in that cosy oasis of meticulously curated content is where most of us remain. Most, but not all. Online start up Public Sphere hopes to provide a space where these matching algorithms are flipped upside down. A space where users are matched not according to parity of opinion, but by their diametrically opposed beliefs.

Discussing various sources of inspiration, Public Sphere founder Jamie Livingstone cited one in particular. “The most notable of the stories was when my partner’s friend’s daughter was doing her thesis while at university studying criminology. She’s a Muslim girl and one of the things she wanted to investigate was the thinking behind the mentality of the British National Party. She wanted to go and interview someone from the BNP and perhaps unsurprisingly the university didn’t like the idea of that. But she eventually did meet someone from the party in a controlled environment. Turns out he’d been in the aftermath of 7/7 and seen the mess and had a knee jerk reaction. It wasn’t as if everything was automatically roses and they skipped off into the distance but there was a back and forth and a little bit of catharsis that went with mutual understanding. I don’t think he’d actually ever spoken to anyone from the Islamic faith. I think more of that and we’d be doing a good job.”

It’s moments like these that Jamie wishes to provide a space for. “A lot of what inspired our thinking were those times when two disparate people of vastly differing opinions, mind-sets and viewpoints have got together, found a common ground and thought about progress in their own way. I don’t know how cliché that sounds” he laughed, as I assured him that it didn’t.

When asked if he thought the more conventional platforms were particularly susceptible to the echo chamber effect he replied: “Of course I do. I try to be less judgemental about the whole thing than I used to be. Before I would see people virtue signalling, on twitter especially. Or just the pure hate. It’s very off-putting”.

I point out the blurb on Public Sphere’s website specifically disavows virtue signalling in favour of real debate. “That’s what we want to avoid. Some of the no platforming stuff, which has probably got way out of control, I think most people will agree, the interesting thing about that is that it comes from a good place. A lot of it is unfortunately counterproductive. I do think it’s a big problem but I don’t want to focus on the problematic part, I want to focus on the good impulse behind it. We can build something that is the antithesis of that…hopefully.”

The basic structure of public sphere places the user in a one on one chat conversation with someone who has expressed the exact opposite view, with the option to upgrade the debate to audio or video as long as both parties agree. I asked how this matching would take place.

“We’ve gone with swiping. I.e. Swipe right to agree swipe left to disagree. People like to swipe,” he laughed. “Initially it’ll be based on purely if they disagree. One agrees one disagrees. Beyond that there’s a way, at least in possibility, to structure in a way to gamify it where people are rewarded for listening, you know. I’m looking forward to the gamifying part of it. It’ll be beta heaven. Really it’s a balancing act of making it valuable but also very accessible at the same time.”

I asked Jamie who he envisages being attracted to the platform. “One of my big passions in life is talking to strangers. Having these really engaging discussions, getting out of your comfort zone and seeing a different perspective. I know a lot of people who really enjoy that kind of conversation. Then there’s the angry people taking to Twitter. I know a lot of people, unfortunately some of my family, who like going looking for an argument and that’s not really what I want. However if someone did and they end up thinking ‘oh I wasn’t expecting that’, then that’s brilliant.”

When I asked how many of these people are likely to have their positions completely changed Jamie pointed out that this wasn’t really the goal of Public Sphere. “I almost don’t like the idea of someone doing a complete about turn. Part of the point is to realise the ambivalence in all this, and realise that there are a hell of a lot of grey areas. The amount of times people will change their minds will be quite minimal. It’s more about that acceptance of the potential legitimacy of other people’s narratives rather than changing someone’s opinion.”

The potential for such compromise and explorations of the greyer areas of the human experience is certainly promising. As is the option to forge connections by remaining in touch with your partner after the initial debate. With Public Sphere, users will have a fascinating alternative to the mollified environments of most social media platforms. At the same time they will be able to gauge the intensity of the interactions according to how brave they’re feeling by beginning in text chat and graduating, with the mutual consent of both interlocutors, to face to face. You might not change your partners mind, but hopefully both of you will come away with a better understanding of the other.

Public Sphere will be launching this coming spring, for those of you bold or intrigued enough to sample what it has to offer.

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Image by Jenia Filatova
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