Gen Z Is Ready to Torpedo Social Media’s Echo Chambers

We all love a good Twitter scroll (at least for now) or an unnecessary long TikTok binge, but occasionally these binges become formulaic and boring. Our feeds become redundant and it doesn’t take much for the algorithm to spiral down a hole of ideas. David Pierce, A Verge Writer, once wrote that when his social

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We all love a good Twitter scroll (at least for now) or an unnecessary long TikTok binge, but occasionally these binges become formulaic and boring. Our feeds become redundant and it doesn’t take much for the algorithm to spiral down a hole of ideas. David Pierce, A Verge Writer, once wrote that when his social media feed descends into placid boringness, he starts “slowly degrading back into a morass from which I will try and extricate myself next year.” If that doesn’t tell you something about the echo chamber media feeds, then I don’t know what does.

Our social media feeds are complex and infinite. They are online spaces that are curated by algorithm data that predict what we like. By tracking our every move, social media will seamlessly find and give us content that is, as TikTok so presciently states, “for you.” It seems that our decision to double tap or swipe up has bigger consequences than we think.

And members of Gen Z, myself included, are anxious to see social media structures dismantled and reformed into something that we don’t have to fear. .

I hadn’t realized how harmful these feeds could be until three years ago, when a 21-year-old man traveled 6srcsrc miles from Dallas, Texas to my hometown in El Paso to commit a hate crime against Hispanics. We all wondered how someone could do this and found strength in ourselves to heal from the tragedy. A few weeks later, we found out that he was an avid visitor of 8chan, the online platform that promoted white supremacist content and hate. He went so down the rabbit hole that there was no coming back—and it cost 21 lives.

Navigating social media is tough, especially when you know that everything you do is being tracked. Machine learning is employed to organize these giant pools of user data—by first understanding that online spaces are not natural but artificially engineered. We know that everything we see as we scroll is deliberate. When we start to see a lot of one thing, we may never stop seeing it. It is the reason why you may never stop seeing a certain trend or idea on your feeds. Companies aren’t interested in leveraging your data to do what’s best for you—they are interested in using it to figure out how to keep you on the app and engaging with its content for as long as possible.

That isn’t such a surprising idea on its face—a private company lives and dies based on how much its service is being used by users. But many people don’t use social media simply to find a distraction or communicate with others. Social media is now a place where people turn first to get information about the world. And that’s not a service that always runs neatly with company goals.

According to one report by Deloitte, 51 percent of Gen Z teens use social media feeds to get their news. When information is drowned out or filtered by the time it gets on our feeds, we don’t always get the full picture. In times of rampant misinformation, clickbait, and different versions of the same story; media companies selecting what part of the conversation we subscribe to is dangerous. “A lot of my knowledge about the world and my politics comes from social media,” Sarah Baum, a fellow Gen Z social media user from New Jersey, who relies on these Apps for her job, told me. An algorithm-driven feed only provides a half-formed or distorted picture of what is really happening.

This narrative is far too common. The algorithms are promoted as an automated, intelligent way to give us what we want. Have an interest in cute puppies? The feed will answer the call and give you all the derpy pugs you can handle. Falling into a K-hole of 18th-century history? Weird, but the feed will serve you up some history posts.

The problem is that young people like myself want to move away from narrow-minded circles and are currently neck-deep in. Gen Z is tired of redundant feeds and wants to be exposed to more than what is handpicked by the algorithm.

“Everyone talks about what side of TikTok you’re on… but I love learning about new things,” said Baum. “Sometimes something will pop up on Tik Tok about a new book that I’ve never read or a thought I’ve never heard of, and I am not exposed very often.” Ironically, the algorithms’ ability to more precisely predict what a user wants and deliver it to them is exactly what younger users don’t want. Unable to fully overcome the clutches of the algorithms, people like Baum are now “operating social media with a healthy skepticism,” she said.

The loss of user control over social media preferences is exacerbated by the push to bite-sized content like TikToks and Youtube Shorts—which are massively consumed by Gen Z. Swetha Tandri, a 19-year-old who runs Melodies for Math on TikTok which has over 68k followers, told me “seeing the same things over and over again can get repetitive.” I asked her how she deals with the downward spiral in the echo chamber, and she said she has to take specific “engagement” action that pushes the boundaries of what the algorithms have pegged as under her interests. “For me, YouTube shorts are just insanely repetitive. I always used to get shorts about the royal family after the queen’s passing and it started to get repetitive. A lot of times I have to click ‘not interested’ to get certain things off my feed which are there all the time,” Tandri said.

Ian Gates, another 19-year-old social media user from Atlanta, Georgia, told me he’d “love to see new ideas on my feed. I try to go out of my way to follow people who disagree with me. Following accounts I disagree with like Tulsi Gabbard, The Progressivists, or even continuing to follow friends who post political views I disagree with.” Contrasting opinions on his feed is something he values on social media, especially as transparency in media continues to grow as a concern for him and his peers.

Joshua Jones, an 18-year-old user from Louisiana, put this more succinctly: he wants social media companies to “keep it real and keep it 1srcsrc.”

Many people will say the solution to breaking out of the echo chamber is to simply engage with different content. But leaving the algorithm echo chamber is harder than it seems, and some Gen Z users don’t even know where to begin.

“If you’re so deep into something and you want to exit, you might not even know, like, how to do it or what you need to search,” said Tandri. Other users agree. “It’s just very hard…especially with TikTok” added Jones.

Based on her own experience, Tandri suggested users should avoid falling into the “doomscrolling” trap perpetuated by feeds. “If I doomscroll, it changes my entire feed to only be related to content about that,” she complained. When the debacle over Taylor Swift concert tickets stormed through the internet, she found her TikTok feed slammed by Taylor Swift content for a whole week.

The struggles presented by many Gen Z social media users reflect what researchers are saying about big media companies. Andrew Selepak, a communications professor who specializes in social media at the University of Florida, believes that certain apps create more filter bubbles than others. “Tiktok is probably going to be one of the biggest echo chambers that a user will find themselves in,” he told me. “That is particularly concerning for Gen Z, where the platform they spend the most time on is TikTok.” A big reason why Gen Z is struggling with social media is that “they’re not allowing the intentionality that is necessary to escape the echo chambers.”

If Gen Z consumers break out of the echo chamber, they will engage less, which is why companies are shy to give users control. “If people say users want something different, they are going to see some things that they find less interesting,” Filippo Menczer, A professor of Informatics and Computer Science at Indiana University, told me. “They have to be able to turn the phone off.”

According to Selepak, social media companies “have no real incentive to change their algorithms.” Despite Gen Z’s concern about social media feeds, looking at this through a profit-driven perspective is essential because companies “want users to stay on the app as much as possible to see as many ads as possible. They have no motivation to provide users content that could upset them, that may make them switch apps.” User-led reform, while a long shot, will need “some tremendous movement where the users stop using the platforms as a form of protest.”

Menzcer added that “if the majority of a younger group likes a particular type of algorithm, platforms probably are going to change to that particular format.”

It’s not as if social media companies’ hands are tied—there are steps that can be taken that wouldn’t require wholesale reform, but could still provide some relief to users looking for more control over what they see. Menczer tells me that AI algorithms should favor quality content. Companies would probably bristle at such a change, however, since this would probably cause a reduction in user engagement.

Selepak also emphasized the need for social media literacy—education on “how these platforms work, and why we see the content we see.” This may not necessarily be the responsibility of the platforms themselves, but rather “something that is taught in education or by greater regulation and requiring these platforms provide greater transparency on the part of the government,” he said.

Even though we can’t expect concrete change from companies anytime soon, Selepak encourages Gen Z users to recognize which apps give them control and in which parts of their media experience they can exert that control. “I’m not trying to be like, ‘all Gen Z should completely get off of social media,’ but the use of it and the focus of that being a platform of their spending most of their time needs to be conscious,” he said, adding that users should “spend more time on the apps that allow more intentionality.” Through following, and engaging instead of hyper-personalized feeds, he believes that users can have more control over what they see.

The risks of ignoring this issue and allowing the algorithms to consume our attention are already on full display. I have witnessed the harms of these echo chambers inflicted on my very own community three years ago. And the news is increasingly dominated by more and more reports of dangerous individuals or groups influenced by the same social media structures. Young people like myself need to know that it’s not just enough to know that echo chambers exist—we need to take deliberate actions to make sure we don’t fall into one ourselves.

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