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:
“Echo chamber” is used much more frequently as a pejorative term, to condescendingly refer to someone else’s failings (e.g., “it must be nice in your echo chamber” or “LOL at the liberal echo chamber”). This term is used pejoratively over eight times as much as “filter bubble,” which is used very rarely in this way.
When it comes to talking about their own condition, people are much more likely to use the term “filter bubble.” This term is used twice as much to refer to the speaker’s own condition as it is to blame others. And it is more than three times as likely to be used self-referentially when compared to “echo chamber,” which is only infrequently used self-referentially.
In addition to being used to describe specific people or groups of people, these terms are also used in an academic way—to discuss the phenomenon itself. “Filter bubble” is much more frequently used in this manner—it was more than twice as likely to be used in an academic sense as “echo chamber.”
Connotations matter, and if you choose to use the term “echo chamber” in a conversation, your listeners may perceive that you’re using a term that is frequently used pejoratively—even if this was not your intention. And since “echo chamber” is used mostly to refer to “other people” instead of oneself, people might also think that you’re interested in assigning blame elsewhere, instead of thinking critically about your own actions.
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.
About The Author
Nick Lum studied linguistics at Swarthmore College (though he ultimately majored in Economics), and he is the creator of Read Across the Aisle, an app designed to help people break out of their filter bubbles. Read Across the Aisle has been featured in Fast Company, Bloomberg, and Philly.com.