When the Echo You Hear is Not Your Voice

There’s a lot of good conversation going around today about eliminating the echo chamber- the blogosphere phenomenon where one person says something and tons of others more or less repeat it back to her in a responsive post, like some geek chorus. Chris Pirillo started things off with his 10 Ways to Eliminate the Echo Chamber. Mathew Ingram, Darren Rowse and others added their thoughts.

echo chamberAvoiding the echo chamber is a blogospheric phrase than means write good, original and interesting content. It means doing more than just tossing up a link and saying “me too.” It’s the same principle that applies to old media writing- what’s interesting in print is interesting online, and vice versa.

But as many of the commentators point out, it’s hard.

It’s hard mostly because it’s just hard to write what I call the 10/90 post every day, or even every week. Additionally, a little echo is inherent in the written word. Unless you are writing a completely original thought, something inspired you to write your post. Since the person reading your post may not have read the post that inspired you, good writing skills and fairness require that you summarize and attribute your starting point.

The trick is to do it briefly, without making the summary the principal part of your post. It’s not always easy, but I try to summarize and attribute in no more than a few sentences. The first paragraph of this post is 3 sentences and 61 words long- and that might be stretching it. The important part is that, after the summary and attribution, you go on to add a new thought or perspective to the conversation- one that goes beyond restating what has already been said.

It would be a mistake, however, to take echo-avoidance too far, since doing so could lead to a failure to recognize those who laid the foundation for the discussion. It could also play into the hands of those who try to pervert the conversational nature of the blogosphere for their own purposes. It would be easy, as well as dishonest, for those who argue that links are dead to appropriate echo-avoidance to further their hidden agendas- which generally involve self-aggrandizement and control. Believe me, my children don’t fight over their favorite toys the way some of these people fight to maintain their self-proclaimed status in the blogosphere.

More importantly, links and affirmation are the way we listen to each other in the blogosphere. And for the new bloggers out there, the best way to get inbound links is to link like crazy to other good content.

The take away is that you can join existing conversations, link, summarize and attribute without creating an echo if you do it correctly. In fact, if you don’t try it, you have jumped from the echo chamber onto the island.

While I agree with much of Chris’s advice, I am troubled by his advice to stay away from your RSS feeds. For me and many others, the beauty of blogging is the distributed conversations it engenders. Don’t confuse conversation with echoes- they are not the same thing.

On the other hand, Chris’s advice to step outside your comfort zone is great advice. I can’t tell you the number of times I have made last minute edits of my posts in the name of comfort. While you need to be logical and at least somewhat consistent, the posts that make you the most uncomfortable are often the ones that generate the most conversation.

But there’s another aspect of the echo chamber that I find even more troubling- when the voice that comes back from the cave is not your voice, but that of someone else repeating what you said without attribution.

Shelley Powers has a post today about this very issue, in the context of that blogosphere country club equivalent, Foo Camp:

“I read in comments this week about how a recent attendee at Tim O’Reilly’s FOO camp was the originator of all the discussion about there not being enough women in tech conferences such as Tim’s camp. I was surprised, and yes, hurt to find out that it only takes about 6 months and 100 weblog posts or so to wipe out all I’ve written on this issue. It’s humbling to realize how easily you can be forgotten; humbling and clarifying because you realize that history in weblogging is fluid, and always being re-written; usually by the same proponents of how honest and decent this all is.”

An echo chamber is one thing, but assuming someone’s position in the debate is something else entirely. The former is not ideal. The latter is simply wrong.

Adding insult to the injury is when the assuming voice the tries to exclude the original voice from the conversation. Shelley continues:

“I also had to face this week the fact that my views are unwelcome in several weblogs and by several webloggers. It bothers me less to not be linked than to not be part of a discussion.”

It’s not gatekeeping- it’s worse.

I don’t know the specifics of the Foo Camp business because I don’t get invited either, but I have seen this sort of thing happen many times in the blogosphere. Sometimes it’s inadvertent, but sometimes it’s not.

So while I’m all about good writing and avoiding unnecessary echoes, let’s be thoughtful about it.