Monkeyspheres, Dunbar’s Number, Personalized Search Results, Infobubbles, the Media Echo Chamber Effect and You

Why am I posting stuff about media echo chamber effect, and online filter bubbles / tailored search engine results and monkeyspheres? I have been doing some thinking about how we all increasingly isolate ourselves into smaller and smaller tribes of like-minded and similar people, and how that makes it very difficult to:

  1. understand why “some people are so dumb”*
  2. understand why what we hold as self-evident is not necessarily evident at all to people outside our self-selected infobubbles
  3. understand why (politically speaking) many liberals SUCK at messaging and reducing complex political views and opinions to simpler statements, especially when compared to conservatives*
  4. avoid inadvertently offending people you had no desire to offend when you mistake a difference in taste with an indication of intelligence (or lack thereof).

A few months ago, I posted an editorial cartoon on Facebook about angry Republicans fleeing the US for a non-existent industrialized First World paradise where no universal health care plan exists.

(PROTIP: Canuckistan is not your huckleberry nor your Eden, conservatives.)

Responses were, as usual (because I have self-selected a group of smart folks to associate with on Facebook, primarily (see how this works?)), thoughtful and interesting.

Posted by my Facebook friend, ‎Mike D*********:

You do realize that people who can’t distinguish between, socialism, communism, and fascism or know what they mean aren’t going to be able to understand or want to believe any of this.

I think that educated people who are literate and capable of parsing what they read sincerely do not really “get” what it is like to be a person who does not read, who lacks critical thinking skills, who finds it easier to accept information from sources who dumb it down the most and in the most entertaining ways, who can not spell, and so on. We just have no way to relate to them, and they do not relate to us.

Worse, many of these people are not exactly unintelligent, they are uneducated and have not been taught critical thinking and logic skills, they find it exhausting and unproductive to learn how to be a critical thinker because it takes time and effort and ends up challenging their core beliefs and assumptions, and their everyday personal problems naturally take higher priority.

We do not help matters when we dismiss people who have not been given intellectual tools and guidance as being irredeemably stupid. It just makes them angry and encourages them to resist exposure to people and ideas that make them feel “less than” or stupid. Who wants to constantly be reminded that you’re really not all that bright (even if your ignorance is not your fault, or reflective of your underutilized abilities)? Your peers do not read books, they do not discuss challenging ideas or complex music or keep in touch with issues that fall outside their monkeyspheres, which are generally small and focused on their social circles and entertainments and basic survival needs and buying shiny new stuff. Your peers can’t pass a basic literacy test or read a paragraph and identify the main idea promoted by the sentences in the paragraph. They can often not find their own state on a map, much less Iraq or the UK or Australia. They struggle to identify how many sides a triangle has.

I think we really, truly do not take into account that we have self-selected our way into an online and offline community full of people who are of similar backgrounds and educations and intellects, and it becomes an echo chamber because the people we communicate with most often are frequently in agreement with us, or, if not in agreement, we just assume they have critical thinking skills, that they like reading, that they have intellectual curiosity.

Facebook is a prime example: Eventually you weed out the real “dumbasses” on your friends list when you can’t bear to link the same derptard to Snopes AGAIN or ask them to fucking Google something for crissakes or correct their apostrophe abuse ONE MORE FUCKING TIME because there are just not enough hours in a goddamned day to explain that it is “you’re” not “your,” for fuck’s sake. Google compounds the problem by spying on our interests to fling unwanted shitty advertising our way, but it also slowly starts adapting search results based on its nosiness about what you write and read and research online. You are increasingly isolated from alternate points of view, and increasingly likely to become polarized and set in your ways because there are fewer challenges. You start to believe your point of view is self-evident, because you have been in your little Google-enhanced bubble and only seeing links to people who agree with you.

Think about it: If you are a liberal (for example), you aren’t watching FOX or reading Drudge or listening to Rush Limbaugh. Fair enough. Google is going to pick up on that, and the friends you choose to communicate with on social networks are slowly going to more accurately reflect your own ideas (because your tolerance for listening to a Glenn Beck audio clip is nil). You have possibly ditched all the lazy writers who drove you nuts by typing everything in txtspk (if u no wut i meen). You dropped the ones whose idea of entertainment was NASCAR and added those who like Euro-style football. You drop the Twitards in favor of friends reading Vonnegut and Joyce for fun. You remove Jersey Shore watchers, Duggar fans, Jon and Kate and the 8 viewers, and Kardassian fans and talk about Supernatural and Mad Men and True Blood and The Wire and Walking Dead or the flippin’ documentary channel and TCM. Your friends who drink are drinking the good stuff and not sharing their drunken escapades with the whole world. You drop the people who can ONLY make fart jokes and seem to enjoy annoyingly predictable puns and circulate Maxine, Family Circus, Garfield and Ziggy cartoons; you add the folks who like Carlin and Hicks and Jeni and Bruce.

Your circle narrows to mirror you, and it is harder and harder to see past that mirror and realize HOLY SHIT, I have forgotten that the whole world does not have taste which reflects mine, the whole world is not literate, the whole world does not enjoy reading, the whole world does not like music that is not infantile and over-processed and irritating, the whole world does not think like I do.

And they vote.

Admittedly, some are too lazy to vote, but you can’t count on your literate and intelligent and educated friends to vote, either. They will talk themselves into knots, voting for third parties that do not stand a chance and which benefit the incumbent. They will claim both political parties are exactly the same because the system itself is fucked up, ignoring that — while they are correct — not voting is not an effective way to change the system. They get narrowly focused on one or two niche issues and pout and sulk and threaten to withdraw from their civic duty because their pet issues were not addressed to their satisfaction, and refuse to look beyond those interests.

It is not just the people who have a legitimate excuse (lack of education, a below average IQ, a lifestyle not conducive to self-improvement, a dislike of complexity, a dislike of reading for pleasure or edification, a limited vocabulary, a limited world view). Some smart people also self-sabotage by over-thinking everything and getting all bent out of shape that the world that they are seeing mirrored back to them is not agreeing with what they feel is self-evident. They (we, I) do not understand Sarah Palin’s existence. Intellectually we sort of grasp what is going on, and why the Stupids (sorry to be unkind) are so enamored of her. We just can’t GRASP it, because in our increasingly self-selected isolation bubble filled with like-minded people who enjoy contemplation and learning new things and get off on answering questions and doing research and reading and have higher-brow tastes for the most part (along with lower-brow things we dismiss as guilty pleasures because we know they are low brow and we “should not like them”), we do not relate to someone who could see Palin as anything but a bloviating self-important ignorant boob.

No, they do not know the difference between socialism, communism, Marxism, and fascism and they are content to let some talking heads define those terms FOR them, and refuse to believe they have been given a spoonful of shit info. NO ONE WANTS TO ADMIT THEY ARE NOT SMART, even if, deep down, they know they are dim in comparison to most. They watch news that doesn’t make them feel stupid, even as it makes them more stupid. They watch entertainment that does not tell jokes they don’t understand, because not getting jokes makes you feel dumb, and that is no fun. They hang out with people who don’t make them feel inferior in comparison, and they are not bad people because they do that. You and I, we are (I am going to assume) comfortable with our smarts and not threatened by smarter people or people who are more informed about a subject we are not as knowledgeable about, because we know we’re smarter than the average bear out there.

It’s OK to be compassionate about it, but it is not cool to be smug about it (but let’s face it, you’re going to occasionally feel smug when some Young Earther or Flat Earther or Conspiracy Tin Foil Hat Wearing Theorist pops up on the periphery of your infobubble / monkeysphere because, if you are smart, you are in the minority and it gets depressing and irritating after a while, and mocking the source of your annoyance is only human). It just makes the problem worse.

Trust me, I have made this mistake a thousand times and pissed off people and suffered for it, and most of the time it was a situation where I was firmly ensconced in my monkeysphere and just BLIND to an alternate POV due to a bad mood or moment of smuggery or being spoilt by being around brilliant peers for a lengthy amount of time to the point where I just forgot that not everyone on the planet is a genius or even particularly smart. I always feel shitty about it, because I don’t like making other people feel bad.

Yes, I have a right to express an opinion or to be discerning or even to be grouchy now and then, but I don’t have a right to actively make someone else feel bad if (as is usually the case) their guilty pleasure is something I can’t fathom enjoying at all–me thinking “if you’re so smart, why do you like boxing?!” is RUDE, and I am just glad I have never thought “you must not be so smart, all evidence to the contrary, if you enjoy listening to Kottonmouth Kings because that is crap music.” I am aware that bad taste (or a single incidence thereof) is not an indication that the person is sub-normal mentally, thankfully. But I have still made the mistake of viewing everything from within my personal infobubble and social circle from time to time, and that’s when my head almost explodes at the idea that people insist on believing debunked information, or voting for obvious assholes, or buying stupid and badly-written books that happen to be unfathomably (to me) popular.

We have to step outside the infobubble now and then and try our best to see other people’s points of view, and have compassion for those who are not exactly stupid as much as they are under-informed or poorly educated. I suspect that liberals in particular have problems with messaging and reaching the average person because we seem to think things are self-evident to anyone who isn’t stupid, but, surprise, there are a lot of people who are not so much stupid as they are not exposed to the same information and who are not interested in getting into debates about ideas. They want soundbites and factoids and Cliff’s Notes. Maybe some aren’t stupid as much as they are busy and just not as interested in politics. Figuring out how to reach the busy and mostly disinterested requires exiting the monkeysphere and not being a superior asshat when we do.

Mike D**********:

I am sure there are liberal educated people who shun or cut off those who disagree or don’t make sense and I do agree with you that could be a problem but I don’t think it is the major conflict. I think it has less to do with information and more with morality. I’ve been reading a lot about how the conservative mind works and they have 3 additional morals than liberals do: authority, purity, and loyalty to group (like all whites). They consider these equal or even more important than the two they share with liberals: Justice (fairness), and Care (not hurting others).

One of the biggest problems is when the loyalty to group (whites, Christian, place they live) becomes more important than causing harm to others (non-whites, non-Christian, someone who is not like everyone else they associate with). Purity isn’t much better (punishing women for having sex in a way they don’t like). Authority is what makes them follow the leader and why they need to believe the president isn’t valid (kenyen, muslim, etc).

Morals have more to do with feelings than thinking. This means you can have a brilliant person capable of critical thinking and logic who still feels they are superior because they are white, is misogynistic, and doesn’t want to follow someone who doesn’t already agree with their beliefs. If they have love for their beliefs and didn’t allow or were even taught how to allow for the event they were wrong, they fight to defend them like they were a child. I believe this is the main problem to over come and not an intelligence or educational issue.

If you think about it, even a below average intellect can accept there is no Santa, unicorns, Zeus, or Easter Bunny. However, if you try to tell them that feeling they have been having to have sex with someone of the same gender isn’t really a demon trying to tempt them or they are wrong about their belief that no matter how awful they are the only being that matters will forgive them if they worship him they might try to kill you.

This is because most people don’t make it to adulthood believing Santa is real. No one is really told that Zeus is the one who they must worship anymore. This means there is less of an emotional attachment to those beliefs. When someone has spent much of their life believing something they may not have the skills to cope with being wrong. It may even cause them to be suicidal. So it is reasonable to see them thinking truth and facts are life threatening and be willing to harm someone who tries to enlighten them.

The only real solution is to expose children to as much as possible. It is why conservatives are trying so hard to stop kids from going to school younger, learning facts, or accurate history. If we can’t classify religion as child abuse or expose kids to alternate ideas, then we can only hope the access to information and their innate curiosity will overcome any isolationism they face. I am not sure there is a way to get someone to accept the truth, reality, facts, logic, or reason if they do not have a way to cope with them.

I got asked what I meant by “monkeyspheres” and posted some links about what monkeyspheres (a.k.a. Dunbar’s Number) are. Cracked actually does a good job of simplifying the idea and being amusing about it. (I linked to their article below; if you are in a hurry, you can scroll down to the Notes section.)

Suffice it to say that there is a theory that we can only intellectually grasp a finite number of people as belonging to our personal “Us” category, as opposed to a “Them” group. People in the “Them” group, which, by definition, is going to include several BILLION other people, are foreign to us in ways not restricted solely to language or geography. Our “Us” group is the small circle with which we can form stable social relationships and feel (emotionally) some care for. We can intellectually care for people in the “Them” group, but when you get right down to brass tacks, we are most comfortable relating to those already in our tight little “Us” unit.

Forgive me if I over-simplify.

I was using the term “monkeysphere” as shorthand to describe how that “Us” group increasingly becomes homogeneous over time and makes it more and more difficult to relate to or understand people we place into the “Them” group.

Note that expressing empathy or solidarity with a group you do not actually belong to (say, being a straight person in favor of rights for gay people, or a man who identifies as a feminist, or a white person outraged by racism and mistreatment of people of color, or a liberal quoting what a Republican says about an issue, or an atheist who happens to be fond of several people who take comfort and feel satisfaction with their religious faith, a thin person who hates fat shaming, a parent who dislikes other parents who criticize the childless or vice versa, etc.), the assumption you will run up against, often, from people who do not personally know you is that if you express understanding of a particular group’s issues, or try to understand, you must belong to that group yourself. (I.e., You post a lot about gay marriage issues, you must be a lesbian. Well, no, I am a 0 on the Kinsey scale and have no sexual interest in women whatsoever, I just happen to think gay people are PEOPLE who deserve equal rights. I don’t have to want to date a lady to believe that is the moral thing to do. :)) We instinctively seem to understand that monkeyspheres / groups / infobubbles tend to be homogeneous or similar.

So not only is it unusual to try to be inclusive of Others in your personal “Us” group, the default assumption is that you really CAN’T include people who are too different from you. (I disagree, but you have no doubt noticed the same thing.)

In theory it is simple to say “Be excellent to each other” and to try to follow that. In practice, it is apparently all too easy to construct monkeyspheres that are full of people who have more in common with you than not, and it becomes more and more difficult and uncomfortable the more entrenched you get within your comfort zone and “Us” bubble to see past the mirroring of ideas and attitudes and privileges and assumptions that are native to you and the people like you in your monkeysphere / “Us” group and try to grok what someone in the “Them” group thinks, feels, or has experienced.

Mike D**********: 

Hmmm – I don’t believe people really think you are gay for defending gay rights. It is just the best retort they can think of and it is probably mimicry. It is akin to a racist person calling you a racist before you can point out they are. It is common strategy that if you can’t defend your position, you should go on the attack. If you play their game you defend against their attack and they never have to go back to defending theirs. Personally, I believe the best retort to someone calling me gay is telling them they should have no problem with me sleeping naked with their wife/gf. They never seem to be expecting this and they are much more willing to get back to the issue of them being a hateful bigot.

David R******:

But. It’s so much easier to stay in my monkeysphere, damn it!

P.S. Thanks for the rewind, I missed it. Great stuff. I would have more to say but I’m entirely too apathetic at this point to pull it together. I realize this is part of the problem. I’m everything and nothing and totally part of the problem. I try to feed my Give A Fuck everyday and it just hasn’t been working.

It is indeed a lot easier to stay in your personal monkeysphere. I’m just not sure it is the most practical thing when we are upset about how people outside our monkeyspheres are handling Important Stuff. We might be behooved to move beyond looking only within the echo chamber and trying to grok Others who come from alien perspectives. It’s easier to just label them “Them” and dismiss them altogether.

One can also argue that it seems to be the more liberal-minded who are even willing to think about this sort of thing and attempt to branch out and empathize, but I think that sells other folks short. You just have to learn how to speak their language a little better, maybe.

David R******:

A bit of fatigue sets in, I know your life is complicated, as is mine, as is everyone’s. At the end of the day sometimes, it feels like all I can do to simply mock a few morons. But yeah, it WOULD be better, to be better than that.

It is exhausting to choose not to go the easy route, believe me. For instance, it is definitely easier to snort derisively at the latest genuinely ignorant thing Palin has said or done than to attempt to figure out WTF is floating around in that pointy little noggin. I suspect it is kind of dark in there, and scary. However, I won’t know for sure until I at least try to parse what’s going on. 🙂

JaceSan L********:  

Not being as far left as some of my friends I try to keep an open mind when listening to conservatives argue their points. Unfortunately anyone arguing from a religious perspective, or the belief that embryos are entities, is already going to irritate me because I don’t hold the same beliefs that they do.

And I guess they can banish me to their hell if they’re too narrow-minded to accept the fact that not everyone holds the same beliefs that they do.

FTR I know some liberals that are just as dismissive and unable to accept anything that differs from their opinion. And they’re just as irritating to argue with.

Audra B P********:

The people *I* have trouble understanding are the extroverts. I do not understand the constant need of some folks to be around other people. Does not compute. Oh, and they need to stop telling me to get out more. NO! That’s the last thing I need. Give me solitude and a book any day! 😉

Victoria K******:

Every human being alive [except those with certain brain dysfunction] have an instinctive drive to find others who will aid their survival. Like minded individuals with whom to companion with. Some we will spend extra time on to see if there is any possibility of connection and others we understand right away there is little hope of that.

I’m participating in a thread right now that made me want to tell you to keep doing what you’re doing to try to round ’em all up. Keep reaching out to calibrate yourself because the more experience you have the better you’ll recognize what experience you are lacking and who you would include in your life boat and who you’d have to let swim on their own.

Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section.

How many monkeys are in your sphere?



What is a Kinsey scale?

“The Kinsey scale, also called the Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale, attempts to describe a person’s sexual history or episodes of his or her sexual activity at a given time. It uses a scale from 0, meaning exclusively heterosexual, to 6, meaning exclusively homosexual.”

What is the media echo chamber / echo chamber effect?

“The echo chamber effect refers to any situation in which information, ideas or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission inside an “enclosed” space.

Observers of journalism in the mass media describe an echo chamber effect in media discourse. One purveyor of information will make a claim, which many like-minded people then repeat, overhear, and repeat again (often in an exaggerated or otherwise distorted form) until most people assume that some extreme variation of the story is true. A media conglomerate that owns multiple media outlets can produce the same story among “different” outlets, creating an illusion that a media consumer is getting information from different sources.”

A TED talk by Eli Pariser about online filter bubbles.

Google herds users into more restrictive infobubbles:

Starting this week (07 December, 2009), Google will present search results in the order in which users are most likely to prefer, based on their recent search histories.

In a blog post, Google’s director of search product management, Johanna Wright, said Google is now better able to provide the most relevant results using analysis of 180 days of Google search activity from users’ browsers.

If someone always searched for ADA and often clicked on results about the programming language, Google might show them those results before it showed results for the American Dental Association, for example, she said.

Also starting this week, Google will automatically deliver search results based on what it thinks users meant when they typed in their search terms.

Blogger Matt Brezina on “Social Networks, The Monkey Sphere, and Moore’s Law of Human Relationships”:

“The Monkey Sphere (also known as Dunbar’s number)  is a theory from evolutionary biology which was derived from the study of groups of monkeys (or more specifically non-human primates) in Africa.” article titled “What Is The Monkeysphere?“:

“The Monkeysphere is the group of people who each of us, using our monkeyish brains, are able to conceptualize as people. If the monkey scientists are monkey right, it’s physically impossible for this to be a number much larger than 150.”

What is Dunbar’s Number?

“Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person. Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. No precise value has been proposed for Dunbar’s number. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 230, with a commonly used value of 150. Dunbar’s number states the number of people one knows and keeps social contact with, and it does not include the number of people known personally with a ceased social relationship, nor people just generally known with a lack of persistent social relationship, a number which might be much higher and likely depends on long-term memory size.

Dunbar’s number was first proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who theorized that “this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size … the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.” On the periphery, the number also includes past colleagues such as high school friends with whom a person would want to reacquaint oneself if they met again.”

On “Us” and “Them”: ingroups and outgroups:

“In sociology and social psychology, ingroups and outgroups are social groups to which an individual feels as though he or she belongs as a member, or (for outgroups) to which they feel contempt, opposition, or a desire to compete. People tend to hold positive attitudes towards members of their own groups, a phenomenon known as ingroup bias. The term originates from social identity theory which grew out of the work of social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner.”

Pink Floyd covers the topic:


2 thoughts on “Monkeyspheres, Dunbar’s Number, Personalized Search Results, Infobubbles, the Media Echo Chamber Effect and You

  1. wonderbink says:

    I’ve been thinking a great deal about the notions of Us and Them and if it’s possible to dismantle the concept of Them to the point that a critical mass of people refuse to take it seriously. I try (not always succeeding, mind you, but I try) to operate under the assumption that there is no Them, there is only Us, and that WE have to find a way to make this work.

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