Knowledge Hub Archive

How do millennials escape the echo chamber?

By Dale Pearson

All my voting life, I have been taking part in elections in which I have been wrong. I don’t mean wrong about who or what I voted for; indeed, my political views are irrelevant. I mean there hasn’t been an election that has taken place since 2009 (the year I proudly became an adult) where my prediction of the result hasn’t been way off: by at least 10%. Basically, the difference between a landslide one way or a landslide the other.

Many millennials, like me, live out their lives online

It’s also no coincidence that since 2009 (the year I proudly became a twitter user) I have been doing most of my civic engagement online: debating, learning, consuming, socializing in a vast social media echo chamber. A space that primarily consists of people who already agree with me and are more than happy to reiterate the opinions I already hold.

I know this is happening politically because, every few years, a big panoptic event like an election shows me the world as it really is: with easy-to-understand maps and percentages. I know this is happening economically and socially too but, if I’m being honest, I’m less sure of what that world really looks like.

Many millennials, like me, live out their lives online and this is problematic. A generation who does not understand people with different backgrounds or beliefs to them are unlikely to make a generation of great leaders. A generation who does not understand the world around them are less able to persuade it, affect it, appreciate it or even sell to it.

But I don’t think this is an ‘awareness’ problem.

Smart millennials, at least, are well aware that Facebook and Google’s algorithms can work against us. Many of us know this in great detail—we could even recite the computer code for you! If the problem did lie in awareness, it would be easy to solve. We could simply tip the scales by following people we wouldn’t normally follow; by ‘liking’ things we don’t really like. It wouldn’t be long before our news feeds became more balanced and our online reference-points became more pluralistic.

How do I know that they are not just some 12-year old troll sitting in a basement?

This is a nice idea… but it doesn’t work. I know because I tried. I sought out the dissenting opinions, I followed the other sides, but I struggled to keep engaged. I struggled to maintain any sort of meaningful dialogue. Inevitably, my feeds reverted back to blissful consensus.

I think the real problem is trust. It’s easy to find contrary opinions online; it’s hard to trust them. How can I verify the author’s sincerity? How do I know they are not motivated by greed or hate? How do I know that they are not just some 12-year old troll sitting in a basement? These doubts niggle and so we recede back to our own spaces, not just because we find the opinions more agreeable but because we trust them. We know where they are coming from. We understand their reasoning.

Even in such impossible circumstances, I’m optimistic about this generation’s ability to find a way. I think the idea of networks and networking is beginning to take on a new meaning for many millennials. For certain generations, ‘networking’ conjures plastic name badges, dry conference rooms and painful small talk over cheap wine. But the brightest millennials are often also the ones who are seeking out opportunities to meet new people and build up diverse networks. Online platforms support this but it starts in the real world. It’s no surprise that the idea of the ‘turbulent network’ is gaining in popularity—that you can build productive relationships with people who will take different stances on nearly any issue but, crucially, people whose sincerity you can trust.

It’s no surprise that the idea of the ‘turbulent network’ is gaining in popularity

Increasingly, this is also the generation that travels. And not just island-hopping in South East Asia. More people than ever are travelling to work and to study—in the process building turbulent networks with other people from completely different cultures. It’s estimated that by 2020, over eight million students will travel to study; double what it was just seven years before (UNESCO).

I think my generation needs to not just be the ‘online generation’ but also the ‘networking generation’. It shouldn’t be assumed that just because we are more connected, we are also more cohesive. Employers should give graduates the chance to work in new places (culturally, as well as geographically) and support their ability to work with new people when they do. Universities too should not assume that just because 10,000 students occupy a campus together, or that a student studies abroad, they will build relationships with people who are different to them. Some students need a structured way to do this—a neutral space to explore their differences and build trust.

The challenge for my generation is not an easy one. Group-think and insularity have been hard-coded into our everyday lives via a vast online echo chamber. But I also think that this generation, more than any other, genuinely has the means and the appetite to escape it.

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Common Purpose runs student leadership programmes and study abroad experiences in cities around the world. Work within a diverse group and develop your Cultural Intelligence (CQ)—the ability to cross divides and thrive in multiple cultures.