Voices Carry

By Jay Menard

The problem is not the existence of echo chambers. They’re a fact of life. The only problem comes from not realizing you’re in one and not searching out other voices.

The other night, I was ‘involved’ in a conversation that occurred without my knowledge. It was a Twitter discussion about whether London’s downtown was over-represented on the social network. As I’ve discussed the need to seek out different voices, my name came up.

To be honest, I think over-representation is the wrong word. It’s just the simple fact of life that certain types of people flock to certain locations. It’s neither good nor bad, it just is.

The only danger is when we believe our limited experience represents the totality of thought. And that’s why, from a communications perspective, seeking out differing voices to ensure we’re getting the whole story is just common sense. Social is just one tool in a broad and diverse community-growing and communication-fostering tool box.

You can look at it this way: You know what other voices are underrepresented?

  • Anti-gun lobbyists at NRA meetings;
  • Atheists at Sunday Service;
  • Republicans in the Monarchist League;
  • And so on…

The simple fact of the matter is that we are a community made up of a wide and diverse range of people with varying interests. I consider myself lucky that my life’s experiences have allowed me to explore and interact with a wide variety of people. But even within those social and cultural spheres, I find clear delineations.

  • For the most part (and, yes, there are exceptions to every rule), my sporto contacts aren’t strong patrons of the arts. And vice-versa — my arty friends are not exactly clamouring to watch the game…;
  • My downtown colleagues know little about what’s really going on in the suburbs; and my suburban friends have little to no interest in the downtown;
  • Back when I was at Western, the Townies and the Bubble-Dwellers rarely interacted;
  • Even the interaction between my daughter’s French-first-language school and the greater English community is limited.

And you know what? That’s OK. We all have needs and our own lives. And we all have venues for our voices.

I’m involved with my daughter’s school and the issues on the parent-teacher board there are not those espoused by those who focus on the downtown. Neither is more important than the other. Are adults with pre-teenage children over-represented on this board? Are adults with no kids underrepresented? No. It’s just a venue for a certain type of person with similar needs to interact.

Personally, I’ve found perspectives change with age. And that’s doubly so if you have children. After all, it was easy for me to advocate an all-urban, we-don’t-need-cars lifestyle in my late teens, early-20s. But things change. As I got older and had a family, my priorities and beliefs changed. It should be clear that the values and needs of a double-income/no kids family differ wildly from a couple with multiple children.

Neither is better. And both should be respectful of the other. We have room — and, more importantly, we have a need — for both.

So is “downtown” over-represented on London Twitter? You could make an argument for that. Certain sub-sections of certain communities are more vocal and do a good job of creating an on-line community. I’ve been blessed to live in areas where there has been a vibrant and supportive community that exists completely off-line. And I’m well aware there are conversations happening at Legion halls, Church groups, and cultural organizations to which I’m not privy.

But those conversations are happening. Those groups have ideas, hopes, and beliefs. They are no more or less valuable than what happens on social networks – they’re just different.

That’s why My London does not focus on one area. That’s why I try to temper my views with the understanding that there are no absolutes. I know all too well what I don’t know and I believe in doing one’s best to ensure all voices are heard – in a way that’s best for them.

If I did an on-line survey, I know I’d be getting responses from a fairly homogeneous group. But if I asked those same questions in a Legion Hall, a cultural club, or a religious organization I’d also be aware of a similarity in perspective.

Echo chambers exist both on-line and off. This city’s strength is its diversity of people, neighbourhoods, ages, and perspectives. Recognizing that and working to find mechanisms to ensure everyone is heard and valued, equally will be our best hope for the future. Because that’s the only way we’re going to get the critical mass of support to move things forward – by finding solutions that are embraced by (and beneficial to) many parts of our community, not just one or two.

Are other parts of the city underrepresented on Twitter? Maybe. I’d prefer to think that those communities choose to interact in other fashions. The fact that they’re not on Twitter isn’t wrong or indicative of a lack of engagement. It’s just not their medium or venue of choice. Sure, the seniors in the Cherryhill area may be few and far between on social media, but that doesn’t mean they don’t offer valuable perspective or have worthy ideas. It’s just that their preferred form of communication doesn’t involve 140-character limits.

In fact, the only thing ‘wrong’ is the assumption that one form of engagement or interaction is superior to the others.

Is London’s Twitter over-represented by a certain group? Maybe. Who cares? If it was the only place where I was getting my perspective, I’d be worried. But I believe there are so many other voices and so many other perspectives to which I have access, it helps me get a more well-rounded view.

While voices carry, you just have to be willing to get close enough to hear them.

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