Our Silos Leak

The term “silo” is often used in the business world as a warning against limited pools of knowledge and experience. These limited networks blind us to the rest of an organization or community, and this blindness impedes growth and understanding. When you create a silo, you stake out a very small patch of land and surround it with terribly high walls.

We all live in silos of our own making, not just in business. Who we choose to associate with, who we ignore, where we get our news, the cities we live in, the ways we advertise ourselves with brands (or lack of brands). Silos cut us off and — the thinking goes — they harm us. They create the echo chambers that many today credit for our rampant and angry partisanship.

My thinking on silos has changed over the last few years. One of the things I’m now convinced of is that the tales of our social media echo chambers is wrong. Social media puts us in contact with more people we disagree with, not fewer. Social networks and online news outlets allow those who fundamentally disagree to rub up against one another more often.

This was proven with some clever research, detailed in the amazing book EVERYBODY LIES. By looking at comments on social media feeds and in the comments section on news websites, the authors of the study found clear evidence that engagement with the other side has vastly increased. Liberals spend time watching Fox News and listening to right-leaning talk radio. Conservatives spend time on MSNBC and reading left-leaning newspapers. And then there’s Twitter.

The author of EVERYBODY LIES contrasts our current situation to an age when we were not likely to encounter ideas very dissimilar to our own. An age of living in the same town for most of our lives, around the same friends and family, in a handful of jobs and with very few media feeds. And he then poses a question for further research: Is frequent contact between tribes a source of increased (and violent) tribalism?

The conventional wisdom is that we need more discourse between disagreeing parties (fewer silos), but perhaps that’s wrong. Conventional wisdom often is. The conventional wisdom for years was that the way to overcome psychological trauma was to revisit it over and over. Experts are now warning against this path (which was probably entertaining for psychologists, and lucrative for them, but proved to be ineffective for their patients).

It turns out that revisiting trauma just keeps the wounds fresh and results in a learned feeling of helplessness. Moving on simply means moving on. It doesn’t mean you aren’t dealing with the issues by going to yoga class or the beach instead of reveling in the misery for another hour at $100 a pop. It means that there are healthier things to do with your time that bring actual results for what you hope to achieve.

Rubbing up against those we disagree with, often in counterproductive ways, is like revisiting a small trauma over and over. Wounds become more raw. This seems to be the outcome more often than anyone actually tempering their view or moderating their stance. In fact, having a viewpoint challenged often leads to entrenchment and the rationalization of untenable ideas. To protect our egos, we have to assemble evidence for a hastily-chosen stance (or a stance that comes from peers or family). Gathering this evidence from biased sources simply hardens the stance.

These aren’t mere curiosities — they have real-world impact. I know from experience. About two years ago, I started doing something that has made me happier and more productive: I started blocking people instead of engaging with them. The metric was simple: Was this someone I would walk away from in meat-space, or someone I would launch into a longer conversation with?

That meant it wasn’t always about disagreeing, but more about how people behaved. I’ve blocked quite a few people who gushed in ways that were discomforting. But mostly I find myself blocking people who fetishize guns, who use words like “libtard,” who deny climate change, and the like. And you know what? It works.

It works not only for my quality of life, it highlighted something that we don’t often consider when we argue for more engagement and more tolerance: Our silos leak. You might think it’s harmless to allow toxicity into your walled garden, but those walls are porous. Your friends and family have access to what’s in your walls. When you don’t silence someone who is spreading terribleness, you are giving them a louder voice.

Many websites have wrestled with how to manage toxic commentary. Some have simply turned off the comments sections, because it’s gotten so bad. Others created a system where people can upvote and downvote comments, which leads to accrued reputations. Perhaps the best I’ve seen is one where downvotes decrease the legibility of your comments. They become grayer and grayer until they almost disappear. People seem to think twice about their tone in these environments. And these websites contribute to overall discourse by embracing silence instead of always embracing more discourse.

That’s what blocking people on my social media feeds does: it is a gain through imposed silence. I don’t attack back, or mock, or pile on with others. I just plug a hole in my silo’s wall. Not just for my own health and happiness, but for others’ as well. Now that poisonous voice has a few thousand less vectors to zip along. The toxicity is contained. One less sneeze in the crowded plane.

The experiment is ongoing. At the same time that I’m silencing those whom I wouldn’t engage with on the street, I’m deliberately challenging my views by associating with reasonable and calm people who hold stances different from my own. I’ll read an article about robots not taking our jobs, or listen to a podcast about how technological change is stalling rather than accelerating. This leads me to believe something different over time. I have the room to grow and change because I’m not being attacked, and I’m not attacking. My world becomes both more calm and more diverse.

In my novel WOOL, I wrote a story that has made readers wary of silos, even though these silos were built to contain and to protect. The challenge in the book is to understand the outside world without letting it destroy you. This means deliberate forays and reasoned skepticism. It’s a complex idea, because of all the ways it can go wrong. I’m still not sure what I think. Did the bad guys in WOOL save the world or destroy it? Did the good guys risk far too much in their quest for greater connection? Where is the balance?

I’m still looking for answers. I’m sure most people reading this disagree and think silencing people has no effect or a terrible effect. I welcome that disagreement. If these ideas interest you, I can’t possibly recommend EVERYBODY LIES enough. It’s one of the best books I’ve picked up this year. Give it a read, and when you’re ready for a little more trauma, check out WOOL if you haven’t already. Find a quiet place with a book and enjoy the silence.

COMMENTS (11)

There is a lot that I agree with in this post. People have a hard time not taking things personally anymore, and what you said about how people will reinforce views they realize fail under close scrutiny eventually leads to their being defined by their defense of some pretty outlandish shit. It becomes who they are, and even if they know it’s a lie, it’s a lie they have forced themselves to live by allowing their egos to back them into a corner. The ability to think critically is a dying art, and changing someones mind on anything, regardless of evidence supplied (#fakenews anyone?) has devolved into unicorn rarity. I have plenty of people on my friends list that I share fundamental disagreements with, people I have consciously avoided weeding out because I live in a small community, and owing to my undying optimism, I’m hoping that their silo’s leak as well, and my influence might in time cause them to question their beliefs (I hold out hope that in that quiet 30 minutes before they fall asleep every night, when they replay their day away from any fear of having to defend their honor to the online community, part of them is slowly being won over by what I’ve said. Like I said, I’m an optimist, lol).

It also reinforces my belief that none of us live in a vacuum. Everything is connected, in millions of ways that we’ll never have the time or mental processing power to uncover. Understanding this, the only way I can look myself in the eye is to be as honest as I know how to be, as kind, and as patient. I truly believe that the difference between someone who is able to easily function in life and someone who suffers from paranoia or depression is (through no conscious choice on their part, of course) the ability to filter out all of the unsavory possibilities of their actions, or of those around them. Once you start devoting much time into what COULD happen, you start spending more and more time worrying about the exponentially larger list of life choices that are out of your control.

Again, great post. Those that are able to differentiate from the views of others and their own, and allow those views to coexist in the world, will find it really thought provoking. The rest, the closed minded and petty, will likely end up on your block list if they haven’t already.

And now I’m back to considering if I need to do a little weeding out of my own, lol.

Happy Travels, Hugh!

My esteem for you just got bumped up to 11 Chris. Hugh’s insight reveals the truth in my own experiment on this same subject. I’d blocked some incredibly vile, hypocritical and downright stupid things from close family. I’d been engaging with data, history and reason; to no avail. It affected me quite negatively to lose such profound respect for people I genuinely love. So I blocked them. I became much happier over time and began having real telephone conversations to much different effect. There’s just something about text that brings out the asshole in us all. Except you, of course. I’ve yet to see anything from you that isn’t heart warming and/or interesting, so keep being you bro.

Well stated, Hugh. You might be on to something.

I’m somewhat divided concerning this. On the one hand, I want to know what others are thinking – even those I consider too extreme or just plain wrong. On the other hand, their negativity and outright hatred to those they oppose is depressing. Thank you for a thought-provoking post. BTW, I’ve been reading SF for a very long time and I thoughly enjoyed your WOOL series. More, please.

I agree with so much of this. After the election I was completely distraught. The next few weeks were spent reading so much hatred – from comments to new hate crimes popping up because “Trumps America.” Everytime I talked to friends, all we would discuss was our fear for the future. I tried to be optimistic. I put way too much faith in the check and balances system and 6 months ago, we really had no way to be ready for any of this. I spent all this time reading and was miserable.

I decided to clean up my social media. I used facebooks unfollow feature (my favorite feature ever) and cleaned up what sites I saw in my feed. I did not need the same article from 20 different sites about the problems. I kept a few to stay informed, but most I removed. I then started following sites that would actually bring joy and interest… Good News Network, Kiva, running sites (since i love to run), etc. It def helped.

But lately I am guilty of reading some political article (or just some pop culture article) and going straight to the comments. And I know that I am scanning the comments looking for people who disagree. I want to see what they have to say – I usually think of it more as “lets see how stupid people can be…” And time passes and Im left feeling like what a waste of time that was. I dont feel better, I feel as I read these that I am slowly losing all faith in humanity. And every time I tell myself – DO NOT READ THE COMMENTS!! But, of course I dont listen. So, my feed is slowly again filling up with articles that lead to unhappiness and social misery.

And I agree because I would not seek these people out in real life. I would not want to hear these people spew hateful rhetoric, I would probably just walk away from those people. I would, and do, surround myself with people who add joy to my life. And that doesnt always have to mean we agree on everything, but we are friendly, at the very least civil to eachother.

So now, I will go read Everybody Lies. And try not to read the comments.

Scott Marmorstein

Glad I’m still a facebook friend (or is it virtual acquaintance?) We’ve never met, except by facebook and email that once or twice. I still don’t really get how facebook is supposed to work…how are we all ‘friends’ anyway? Shouldn’t it have levels of ‘connection’…My friends in every day life who live near me would be my friends, my family…well, whatever that would be–(family connection) and then ‘friends of friends-connection’ and some other clever ways to describe connection. ‘Work Friends’, and ‘Friends of Your Work Friends’. ‘Friends of your family.’ And so on…it would give it greater perspective where everyone was coming from and whether or not to block someone out of the gate by, ya know, _not_ friending them in the first place.

Orlonda F Rosenquist

Hugh, Was hoping you were giving us a peek at your soon to be released book…but no.Are you working on one, I’m not getting any younger you know. You made some good points although being a liberal my self I wouldnt watch FoxNews at any time. Thanks but no, why hear what Trump wants us to believe other than the truth? I will check out this book although the last time you recommended a book it was a bit of a disappointment, that was some time ago so I’m ready to give it another try. I’ll try the library, I’m on a fixed income and I don’t like to spend money unless I’m pretty sure its a winner. Best to you.

It is great to see this articulated so well because this topic has been a source of anxiety for me. I have always tried to be a very inclusive person, but I am starting to get the “why bother?” attitude with a lot of people. A large portion of our society seems prone to reaction instead of critical thinking. I like what you said about challenging your ideas and getting your diversity from interacting with calm and reasonable people that have opposing views. This is a great approach and catalyst for self growth. However, I am wondering how to deal with this when it comes to the big picture. The people that are not calm and reasonable are creating echo chambers of misinformation instead of silos and using this to feel comfortable about their own prejudices. This is bringing more and more people out of the woodwork. Is there anyway to address these people or do we just hope that each generation will be more open and wait for nature to take its course? I obviously don’t expect a definitive answer, but I am curious about your thoughts. Thank you for this blog and your books! I have been a reader of both for years.

Sounds like common sense to me. Or choosing the lesser evil– and hopefully as a follwup step, choosing the greater good.

Agreed, the common wisdom says that “exposure” to different ideas is broadening. That might simply be a hope that hearing a dissenting voice in the distance is better than never knowing it was there at all… and in the modern world, that notion may need recalibrating. It’s now pretty much impossible to not know the other side is there… and all too easy to hear trolls and rants that have never persuaded us anyway.

So “plugging the silo” would mean giving up pretense that the more foolish voices had anything worth hearing. (Not impossible, but reading through them all is simply not worth the odds or the toll on the soul.)

Still, it does put the onus on us to look for those saner dissenting views and actually consider.

Great post, Hugh. I also have taken to blocking and unfriending anyone who is other than basically kind, curious and respectful, those whose views or ways of expressing feel toxic to me. Yes, we have a great deal to gain from spending time with others who see the world differently; diversity begets respect and understanding beyond our own little bubble. Thanks for consistently sharing your own thoughts and questioning and discoveries on topics that matter.

Engaging with ideological opponents is vital. The trick is to choose respectful opponents. They’re always out there. Ignore those who resort to ad hominem.