The Surprising Difference Between “Filter Bubble” and “Echo Chamber”

Nick Lum
Nick Lum
Jan 27, 2017 · 3 min read

By now, you’ve probably heard of “filter bubbles” or “echo chambers,” but what you might not know is that these two terms are developing very different connotations. And which phrase you choose to use could change the tone of your conversation—even if you didn’t mean to.

First, some background. These two terms share the same denotation (literal meaning): a phenomenon in which a person is exposed to ideas, people, facts, or news that adhere to or are consistent with a particular political or social ideology.

So at a glance, these terms seem to be synonyms. But if you look at how these terms are actually used, a distinct pattern emerges—“echo chamber” is used much more frequently as an epithet, to refer condescendingly to someone else’s failings. “Filter bubble,” on the other hand, is much more often used to refer to one’s own blind spots, or to discuss the phenomenon in a neutral or academic way.

The data for these conclusions come from Twitter—where I’ve spent hours poring over thousands of of tweets relating to filter bubbles and echo chambers. After realizing there were distinct patterns of usage, I manually analyzed and semantically tagged hundreds of individual tweets. Here’s what the data show:

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Pejorative Use

Self-referential Use

Academic Use

Connotations Matter

Considering how touchy political conversations can be, the last thing you want to do is to give someone the wrong impression about your intentions. So if you want to err on the side of civility, use the term “filter bubble” instead. It’s more closely associated with self-reflection and intellectual thinking, and is hardly ever used in a pejorative way.

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