‘For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles … surrounded by people who look like us and share the same outlook and never challenge our assumptions’
It’s been well documented, our retreat into individual echo chambers. The way that the technology that connects us in fact divides us.
Because it’s never been easier to find people and things that reflect what you already know you like, and ignore everything else.
This has changed the nature of fame – ‘a video can have millions, or billions, of views on Youtube, and you and I will never hear of it’ – and leaves us shocked when it’s revealed that half of people think completely differently to us.
During the last month of the US election campaign, the Guardian asked US voters to ‘trade realities’; with liberals and conservatives taking a scroll on a Facebook feed of the other side. One compared the experience to waterboarding.
Unsurprisingly, US advertising agencies did some soul-searching in the wake of November’s election result: openly questioning their faith in big data and their recruitment policies. Did the ‘metro elite imagery’ so often represented in advertising still represent an aspirational ideal?
There’s an urgent question here, for communications agencies: how do we connect with audiences we don’t understand as well as we thought we did? How do we get beyond our own experience, to understand how things feel for everyone else?
We can become vigilant checkers-of-our-privilege. We are all prone to confirmation bias – only noticing evidence that supports our existing beliefs. The antidote is an awareness of what we’re hungry for: and actively looking for evidence that suggests another view.
We can be more deeply curious. There’s ‘diversive curiosity’: the attraction to everything novel, which is superficial and easily satisfied. Sound familiar?
Then there’s ‘epistemic curiosity’: a deeper desire to understand a subject from top to bottom. It ‘depends on friction, on uncertainty, on being aware of our own ignorance’. It’s the form of curiosity most under attack from technology, and precisely what we need more of.
Ian Leslie, author of ‘Curious’, encourages us to be more like Leonardo da Vinci, who would doodle in his notebooks the Italian word “dimmi” (“tell me”).
We can invest in more, good, exploratory cultural research. Starting with the audience, not the brand. Using methodologies that get us as close as possible to their real experience, and techniques that don’t rely on them reporting what they think or feel.
Making sure we’re working with researchers who are able to connect with our audience. Bear in mind: ‘Most researchers are middle class … This can cause a problem as it means they often fail to connect, resulting in respondents who either don’t open up properly or tell the researcher what they want to hear.’
We can make it a priority to read more, and more widely. Reading makes us smarter and has been proven to enhance empathy. Something of a competitor sport among business leaders, Mark Zuckerberg believes so strongly that reading is the best way to connect to others (after Facebook, I’m assuming) that he set up a book club – with a reading list focused on “different cultures, beliefs, histories, and technologies.”
We can shake up our daily habits. Every day we default to familiar news sources: for many of us, only things written in Guardian Egyptian seem relevant. If we’re trying to understand what others are thinking and feeling, we need to see what most people are seeing. Ideally complementing our guilty Mail Online consumption with the Sun, the Express, the Mirror, the Sunday People.
And we need to watch the shows that the broadest cross-section of the audience are watching. When Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy asked fellow MPs who’d seen the ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ Christmas special, she was met with titters: “It beat the Queen’s Speech and yet the Intelligentsia are horrified. They don’t get the joke”.
We can fight the algorithm. Facebook and Twitter now decide ‘which moments we believe you will care about the most’. This is based on our past behavior and interactions, reinforcing the echo-chamber effect. If we want a true view of what’s going on in other people’s lives (those we follow at least) we can choose to disable the algorithmic feed.
We can listen harder. Starting with our colleagues, our family, our friends, their friends… Listening is the no.1 empathy builder. You might just be surprised what you hear.