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MATTHEW McLAUGHLIN — Break the echo chamber

Matthew McLaughlin

The internet and social media have empowered us with far greater amounts of information and at increasingly faster rates than any other point in the history of humankind.  The benefits of this democratization are omnipresent and permeate almost every aspect of our lives now.  For technologies that have largely only existed for about a decade, it is hard to imagine our worlds without them.

Social media has become a platform that I use to learn about and observe significant events as they happen regardless of geographic location.  Aside from being a mechanism to toss out 140-character opinions or share pictures of a U6 soccer game, social media has become a real-time professional and amateur news feed.

I have found certain social media outlets to be timelier and more relevant than conventional news outlets when it comes to monitoring the volatile weather we experience in Mississippi.  With certain social media channels, you experience witness accounts, first-hand evidence, phone pictures, soundbites, and reactions that provide color to events unfolding and carry the narrative of a story in real-time.

Law enforcement and first responders are also using social media tools to prioritize responses and the allocation of resources in disaster situations.  Whether it is in response to the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013 or Hurricane Harvey’s landfall in 2017, social media platforms are enabling us to be more responsive to immediate human need.

And while there is tremendous value in the timeliness and relevance of information shared through social media, it is not without faults. Often times, people struggle with discerning truth and facts from opinion and judgment. Believing opinion and judgment as conclusive truths can lead to deeply polarizing positions and inflammatory rhetoric towards those that do not share the same beliefs.

Couple this with a closed-loop network of “friends” and “followers” that presumably share similar beliefs and you are left with an echo chamber where thoughts, opinions, and judgments are left unchecked and unquestioned, which can create extreme bias.

To further complicate this confirmation bias and the echo chamber effect, the algorithms used by social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are not necessarily designed to provide users with the most accurate and timely information.  These social media platforms are using algorithms that are designed to enhance and increase engagement by steering users towards information that reflect their own ideological preferences.

This is having a profound influence on the world as we know it. Instead of being used for sharing relevant, timely, and accurate information, social media is wearing away at our shared sense of reality and presenting people only what they want to see to confirm their own, albeit limited, world view.

Without heading out too far down the path of social media morality and ethics, what does all of this mean in the context of entrepreneurship and starting a company?  What can entrepreneurs learn from the confirmation bias and echo chambers created by social media platforms?

First, entrepreneurs and startups should not necessarily rely on social media for customer validation.  Recognizing that your homogenized group of “friends” and “followers” are not necessarily reflective of a target market is critical. Product or service feedback relied upon from this “friends” and “followers” group will contain extreme bias and lead to choosing improper development paths.

Second, echo chambers exist in other environments outside of social media. Seeking feedback on a particular product from a group of people that come from largely similar socio-economic backgrounds and share similar life experiences will lead to confirmation bias in the same way confirmation bias is created in the social media context.

In the end, be aware of the confirmation bias that is embedded throughout social media platforms.  And, be intentional in reaching and engaging with your actual target market.  Go ahead, disrupt the comfortable, curated content of a shared “reality” … and break the echo chamber.

» Matthew P. McLaughlin is an attorney with McLaughlin, PC in Jackson, Mississippi, and serves as the executive director of the Mississippi Brewers Guild.  Matthew’s passion is working with creative and entrepreneurial-minded people and organizations, having worked with and advised hundreds of entrepreneurs, startups, and social innovators throughout the Southeastern United States.  He may be contacted at matthew@mclaughlinpc.com or 601-487-4550, or you may visit www.mclaughlinpc.com for more information.

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