On Echo Chambers & Viral Loops: Why Twitter Works, Unfocused Conferences Don’t

I was marinading some chicken this morning in one of my favorite mixes (there’s a good food franchise in there), when it dawned on me – as social beings, we have an innate desire and need for feedback and feeling like we are part of a community.

This is one of the reasons I love cooking so much. As a creative I not only get to produce something way better than its individual parts, but I have instant gratification through a viral feedback loop – the people I am cooking for. I don’t get any joy cooking for myself, love cooking for my family and adore doing big dinners (circa 16 guests) — the bigger the echochamber in this instance – the more gratification potential.

However there is a tipping point — pulling together a meal for a group larger than that and it becomes more of a painful logistics exercise than fun. I believe this is also due to the fact that there is a law of diminishing returns at work here as well — the more people who tell me they loved my portugese-southern african, peri peri chicken the less of an impact this will have.

And so it is with blogging. I remember hacking together my own blog back in 1998 (I think the term then was “zine”) and really enjoying getting my voice out into the nascent blogosphere. But I also found it somewhat disparaging when I received minimal feedback. This prompted me to find other ways of connecting with my potential audience and I set up a number of online groups that morphed into a collective think tank.

Spurred on by the depth of engagement and reinforcing feedback I was receiving, I got involved with one of the first social networking phenomena to achieve scale: First Tuesday. But that’s a story for another day.

Fast forward to 2003, when blogging started to get real traction. Why did it take off? Essentially, the blogosphere had achieved sufficient critical mass to become an effective echo chamber.

Blogging software promoted interaction through comments, trackbacks and more recently leaderboards (instant viral feedback loops) like Digg and today’s Techmeme. We continue to see innovation in this area, for example you can video comment on this post via a Seesmic plugin.

Let’s helicopter out a bit. The blogosphere as echo chamber seems to work best within niche areas. The early adopter, tech geek set is a classic example. A relatively small, but vocal group, geeks are highly adept at creating reverberating conversations and memes. The same cannot be said for all niche groupings, but as a general rule: niche promotes echo.

Before this becomes a missive, let’s now zero in on the miniblogosphere and in particular the tool that has ignited this space, Twitter. It works because it is an even more effective echo chamber than the broader blogosphere. And it comes as no surprise that is has achieved exponential growth within the tech geek grouping. Twitter is the perfect storm for geeks.  Twitter is a double wave instant viral loop – tweet quick, achieve nanoinstant feedback.

This miniblogging tool is also being used as an echo chamber funnel by the geek community. Blog posts are promoted to a tight knit group of followers through a tweet that, if picked up, is pushed out more broadly.

Conferences can also form effective echo chambers provided they are focused. Perhaps this is why the Web 2.0 Expo, which took place in San Francisco this past week receives mixed views. Personally I find its coverage too broad, preferring instead to participate in the Web 2.0 Summit where I know the quality of the noise echoing around me is higher.

Finally, social networks would do well to look at how they can create more effective echo chambers, both at a macro cross network and micro level. For example, groups are a common feature on social networks – Facebook groups have not been particuarly effective. Why – they are a very poor echo chamber. There is limited ability to create conversation through them.

Contrast this to Ning‘s roll your own social network – each micro network has the ability to become a micro echo chamber for a niche that its creator will promote to his or her personal network.

Time to bbq that chicken…bon appetit!

[Photo courtesty of jolou]

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