4 July 2016
I have two main ways of getting to work. One way – my normal way – involves a slightly soulless walk, slightly mediocre coffee, and a slightly less crowded tube train at the end of it. The other way features rammed carriages but significantly better flat whites.
I was in the later establishment just over a week ago. It was a Friday. One of the more characterful features of the place is that it typically plays loud, high BPM music more frequently found in places like, I don’t know, Fabric I guess? I don’t really go to clubs any more, but this is the sort of music I assume they still play.
In short, it is not the sort of accompaniment you expect with your morning coffee. Once I was in there and they were playing – at their traditional ear splitting volume – The Teaches of Peaches (by Peaches). Watching the ripple of confusion spread through the queue as people figured out that yes, they had heard that lyric correctly, was quite a beautiful sight to behold.
Back to that Friday. There was no music playing, and a glum look across the faces of all the staff. You can probably guess which Friday it was.
It was an extraordinary day for so many reasons that plenty of people – who know far more then I do when it comes to politics – have written about at length already. One further little extraordinary thing happened in this coffee shop deep in the heart of the city of London, though – some random strangers started talking to each other:
“I’m just so shocked” said the woman at the head of the queue to the barista.
“Me too” butted in the woman behind her, in a flagrant disregard to London’s extremely clear (but unwritten) rules about interacting with others.
“Everyone I knew voted to stay, I was so sure it would be OK” she continued.
“Oh me too” says woman #1 – let’s call her Debbie (she didn’t look like a “Debbie”) – “I even rang up my friend in Yorkshire and he said that he was voting to remain too, so it’s not just us in London”.
The guy at the till didn’t get a word in edgeways, and remained looking glum throughout.
Other than the lack of protocol, judging by my social circle Debbie and her new pal are pretty representative. To my knowledge, I don’t know anyone that voted to leave, and I imagine that – bar a few school friends that you’ve still got on your Facebook that you desperately try to ignore whenever they post something vaguely political – you don’t really either.
One of the most defining things for me about the aftermath of the referendum was the deafening wave of surprise radiating across my social media. It was clear that many people had not even given it much thought that it might go a different way than they were expecting.
Why is that, though?
I’d like to think that most of the people I interact with online are pretty smart, clued up people, so why did they all get it so wrong?
To answer that, you’ve got to look at how people consume news and get information. For an ever increasing amount of people, the way they get news has completely changed in the last 10 years. This is hardly news – hey, guess what, everyone uses social media now! – but, it’s had a slow but significant effect on how people view the world.
Your friends have always been an echo chamber. They inevitably share a whole bunch of things in common with you, and probably have roughly the same world view, give or take. With social media, this group is now much wider. You get to see the thoughts and opinions of far more people then you ever would talk to on a regular basis. And this group is also your entry point to traditional media. I found out about the leave vote on Twitter, and I found out about Boris Johnson abandoning his leadership bid – like a child who realised they shouldn’t have taken that cookie before it had cooled down – on Facebook.
Within this wider group you probably have a set of people that you don’t even know; celebrities, journalists, pop stars and writers. And all of this, your friends, your acquaintances, your celebrity maybe-if-I-tweet-something-interesting-at-them-they-might-respond follows, add up to feeling like a wider viewpoint on the world. Here I am, getting all these various views on all sorts of various things; I must have a pretty good handle on what’s going on out there.
But of course you don’t, because you’ve carefully crafted your own bubble without even realising it.
London has always been a bubble, media has always been a bubble, but now everyone has their own precisely crafted, unique bubble with which to view the world through.
This is quite dangerous, of course, leaving people thinking that they have a wide point of view, thinking that they understand what most people’s opinion is on something (and why), when in reality they really, really don’t. Again, I saw the effect of this post-brexit – the same shocked people also coming up with a litany of reasons and excuses about what happened, casting aspersions and accusations towards half the country, without really grasping why someone might have a different perspective then what they, and everyone else they know, and everyone else they know, had.
On the flip side, I think this also explains in part the rise of the leave movement, which fought a campaign founded on promises of a better future that were perfectly designed to spread around a whole different set of echo chambers.
This is only going to get worse, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Bit of a downer.
The only thing to do, then, is to realise it and be aware of it. Taking a step back and trying to get some perspective is hard, no doubt about that, but it’s ever more important. Don’t just ignore the people that post views you don’t agree with on Facebook, don’t just take one look at the trends on Twitter and scoff at their irrelevance; they are both representative of something out there that may be much larger and more significant then your own little bubble.