Audience fractionalization is the Internet inevitability that has radically changed media in the last ten years. With so many outlets vying for your time, you must choose a nucleus. A core group of bookmarks you visit each day. Fractionalization forces platforms to cater to their audiences. It allows for niche content markets and supports a variety of interests. It’s digital competition, which is good. However, some side effects hamper this unabashed freedom.
The splintering of the marketplace accelerated with the 24-hour news cycle. Cable stations offered audiences more voices and a variety of ways to consume the news throughout the day. The stories didn’t change, but the personalities and commentaries acted like plastic wrap, keeping content fresh for longer. Everyone could choose their favorite show, commentator, and presentation, customizing the news consumption experience.
If cable news is coffee, online media is crack. The explosion of social media has been the Fast and Furious NOS button for fractionalization. Content is now ultra-specific to its audience. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram invite you to choose your own friends/followers/content. It’s the pinnacle of customization. Users’ response to this freedom has allowed the industry to flourish. However, when left to our own devices, we often tend to gravitate towards those with similar views. I enjoy comedy in many forms, so I follow many comedians on Twitter. My feed is a pretty liberal space. If I’m not careful, it’s easy for me to become insulated.
Thanks to its algorithm, this happens within the Facebook platform. “Friends” whose statuses you like and comment on frequently, appear even more frequently. It’s concentrated orange juice concentrate. This is where the danger lies — not in the shark attack or house fire kind of way, but in the “what if I really could have nachos for dinner every night” kind of way.
As the audience at-large continues to splinter, mini echo chambers unintentionally crop up. The looming Presidential primaries are a perfect case study to watch this phenomenon work. Are you seeing all of the same articles about all of the same characters shared in your timeline again and again? Issues that seem like “trends” may simply be a figment of your digital neighborhood.
Any reasonable person will acknowledge that a variety of perspectives and opinions is healthy for personal growth and awareness. Savvy executives rely on the differing views of leaders to help them weather the choppy waters of business. If they don’t, they become Gavin from Silicon Valley.
The idea of an echo chamber runs contrary to the premise of social media anyway, which is that everyone (with a computer/phone) has a voice. Of course customization enhances the experience, but without contrast, any color is boring.
Like-minded people finding each other on the Internet, commiserating, and taking action is how we got the Occupy Wall Street movement, but it’s also how Neo-Nazism survives. I don’t aim to foster cynicism and distrust. Online media is largely a boon to society. Just make sure that amongst the stock market floor of shouting that is the Internet, the loudest voice you hear isn’t a reverberation of your own.