In praise of echo chambers, and Nuzzel

I once spent an afternoon during my time at the MIT Media Lab with a marker board and Kshitij Marwah. We drew out the various news products we could make using link-sharing data from once-removed contacts in users’ networks. We thought we might help people discover content they were likely to like sooner, by surfacing trending links before even their own network had discovered and shared them.

A version of this idea has successfully been productized by the team at Nuzzel. Once a critical mass of your contacts share a link (8 seems to be the magic number in my network), the app sends you a push notification with the story. The app primarily looks at shares within your immediate network, but also has an extended network view. With its timely but manageable updates, it fits squarely within a new generation of apps designed to live in your phone’s notifications shade.

Screenshot by @nmonroe

It has quickly replaced scanning Twitter’s actual feed for keeping up with stories I should probably read. I still look at Twitter for random serendipity, but Nuzzel lets me feel like I’ve seen the most socially relevant pieces each day even when I don’t have time to read them. Twitter itself has dabbled in this space, in its acquisition of Summify’s best-of-your-stream email service and more recently, the “while you were away” attempt to pin the most compelling tweets for your attention.

The utility of this service seems to directly confront well documented academic fears of echo chambers and filter bubbles. To be fair, these arguments admit that echo chambers can be quite convenient. Yet I am certain, as other studies of link sharing have shown, that the net effect of using Nuzzel is exposure to more ideas, not fewer. And in the transition from graduate student to professional, which generally means more conference calls and fewer open tabs, I have newfound appreciation for the ability to discover and consume socially relevant media. I’m not at all concerned that I’ll stop discovering and consuming totally oddball stuff that will never interest someone at a cocktail party. But Nuzzle is useful in the same way that finally watching The Wire, rather than Amazon’s Betas show, would have been a more socially effective use of those same hours.

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