Thursday, July 23, 2009

What's So Wrong With the Echo Chamber-amber-amber?

A common complaint among Social Media professionals about Social Media is that it has become an "echo chamber." David Armano sneezes, and it seems within minutes a million tweets and retweets cause Kleenex to become a hot trending term on Twitter. While I understand the gripe, I wonder if it misses the point; after all, the so-called "echo chamber" is not without its uses and benefits.

Social Media Explorer featured comments from guest blogger Kevin Palmer that are typical of the growing "echo chamber" backlash:
One thing I have the most trouble getting over is the massive echo chamber that is social media... In the end I guess maybe social media is led by a few people, a few examples, and then everyone else is a self-proclaimed expert even though they are just glomming original ideas from another person twice removed. If that is the case I am going enjoy the seat on the sidelines while you all decide who the pivot man is this week.

Yes, it is annoying to see a bunch of people parroting each other without adding value, but believe it or not, I think that is one of the benefits of the "echo chamber." It is our ability to see and access the tweets and posts of so many different people that permits us to determine which ones add value (and get added to our Tweetdeck lists) and which ones do not (and get ignored or unfollowed). In other words, the "echo chamber" gives the clueless a chance to identify themselves as such. I'm reminded of the Woodrow Wilson quote about Free Speech: "If a man is a fool, the best thing to do is to encourage him to advertise the fact by speaking."

Another benefit is that, while the "echo chamber" may create a lot of noise, it permits one to discern trends out of that noise. Scanning the tweets from the 2,000 people I follow is a great way to see the forest for the trees--sometimes no single tweet stands out, but it can be the tweets, replies, and retweets on a particular topic that make it apparent something interesting and noteworthy is occurring.

Those who carp about the "echo chamber" also tend to forget that it isn't new, nor is it a phenomenon of Twitter or Facebook. Any community of humans can and will become an echo chamber--Michael Jackson dies, and echoes are heard everywhere from the office water cooler to newspaper headlines to cell phones (AT&T had the largest spike of text messages in its history the day Jackson died). If you drop a kernel of interesting information in the center of any sufficiently networked community, you will create a ripple of discussion; the fact that Twitter allows us to see these ripples across millions of people in real time strikes me less as annoying than fascinating.

My final concern about the grumbling is that one man's "echo chamber" is another man's "Viral Marketing" or "Word of Mouth." As marketers, we cannot complain that posts and comments about the latest Nielsen Media research report are clogging our RSS feeds while at the same time encouraging consumers to tweet, blog, Digg, and post to Facebook the news of our latest product innovation or promotion. You really can't call one thing valueless "noise" and the other valuable "sentiment" just because the latter pertains to your brand.

If the "echo chamber" is getting to you, take a break; log out of Twitter, silence your phone, and turn off the PC. Once refreshed, jump back into the chamber, because that's where news happens, trends develop, opinions form, reputations are managed, influence is created, and--increasingly--where brand value is fostered.

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