This isn’t real life

The internet distorts lots of things. One important thing it distorts is the perception of how popular an idea actually is.

Since the internet is segregated into niches, any one niche is likely to have ideas that are very popular within it but unpopular or unknown everywhere else. Because you are looking at one niche at a time, and because your inherent interests and inclinations and social circles mean you spend most of your time within niches that are closely related, the ideas you get exposed to seem ubiquitous even though in the real world they might hardly be a blip on the radar. In other words, the internet has a way of thickening the “bubbles” of most users. This is as true for cosmopolitan urbanites who read art blogs as it is for neoreactionary trolls using echoes to freak out Jews on Twitter.

This bubble-thickening has a detrimental effect on:

  • Avid supporters of unpopular ideas, who think themselves part of a big growing movement when they’re actually just hearing the noise of their own echo chamber;
  • Journalists, who are constantly on the lookout for things to sound alarm bells about and erroneously think this or that scary idea is on the rise (or conversely, never hear about an idea that really is on the rise);
  • Undecideds/moderates, who may wind up stuck in a bubble because they got routed there initially and, due to the echo chamber effect, never heard a steelman argument for why they should challenge it;
  • People who are not intellectually curious or who are easily frightened by ideas they are told are evil or designed to control them.
  • Lots of other classes of internet users I’m not thinking about.

All this suggests it would be useful to have a tool that automatically shows you the OVERALL popularity of whatever idea you’re being exposed to, ideally graphed over time. I haven’t thought deeply about how that would work though. Maybe use Ngram and do a simultaneous search for phrases related to competing concepts?

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