Social media ‘filter bubbles’ – where users only see news sympathetic with their own views – have been blamed for pretty much everything considered ‘wrong’ with politics, from obscuring Trump’s popularity and encouraging political polarisation to the ‘fake news’ epidemic. New publishing startup Echo Chamber Club offers to burst readers’ filter bubbles and challenge their views — and it’s doing so well that it is already planning to expand. Andrew Brightwell interviews its founder, Alice Thwaite.
The Echo Chamber Club, founded in June 2016, sets out to “help ‘liberal and progressive metropolitans’ understand different points of view for themselves.” It publishes weekly emails, each covering a subject in the news, but offering a perspective directly opposed to the liberal consensus.
Since starting in the wake of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, it has challenged liberal perceptions on Russia’s support of the Assad regime in Syria, inflation policy, Western military intervention, and the EU referendum.
By doing this, the Echo Chamber Club is turning an old journalism maxim on its head: “Know your readers and tell them what they want to hear.” Alice does the opposite, sampling liberal views to confront them head-on, giving ECC subscribers a dose of something she knows that they are very unlikely to agree with, find comforting, or at times even accept.
Readers questioning editorial choices
Speaking on the phone from Berlin, Alice tells me:
“I’ve had readers question my choices for the subjects and sources that we share in the newsletters, because it’s very difficult to read some of the views.
“At times, I’ve felt uncomfortable with it myself, but I try to remind myself and readers that we are doing this for a reason.”
Alice, who has a background working in digital media and studied philosophy at Cambridge University, explains that she hopes ECC will help provide a ‘steel-man’ strengthening of liberalism.
“There’s a sense that liberalism has been a successful, dominant strand of thought for some time and therefore hasn’t really been challenged much.
“I believe it’s important to challenge views and to have your own views tested and consequently made more robust. By doing this I’m hoping to help equip liberal thinkers for challenges to their views.”
Monitoring and algorithms
So how does Alice understand the bubble and then look to piece together a response to it?
“I’m constantly monitoring headlines, what’s trending on Facebook and Twitter, and I put all this info into a spreadsheet.
“I also have a couple of Twitter lists that I push through Nuzzel to find articles that are trending the most. This gives me a pretty clear idea of what people are talking about.”
Alice then assembles contrary opinions, seeking out right-wing journals and news outlets and curating them into a newsletter that offers readers introductions to contrary opinions and links to further reading.
The ECC is also inviting guest editors with contrary opinions to challenge her readers directly by curating their own newsletters.
The editorial process – in particular, her careful analysis of the liberal bubble – has given Alice an insight into news agendas. She says: “After the Trump election it was clear that people were screaming. Now, we seem to have latched onto this ‘fake-news’ idea. Though I do think that could be something that journalists are pushing more than the readers.”
Over 1400 readers and growing
Originally from the UK, but now living in Berlin, Alice first had the idea for the Echo Chamber Club after trying to reach beyond her own filter bubble in the months before the EU referendum in the UK.
“Doing that helped me gain some insight on how that might turn out. I was one of the only people I knew who saw it might not go as it was expected.”
This experience led to the development of the newsletter. Sharing news of its first edition on Reddit, ECC quickly gained more than 200 subscriptions. And now after six months, The Echo Chamber Club can boast more than 1,400 readers and growing.
It is also getting 43 to 44 per cent open rates, comfortably higher than industry expectations for email newsletters.
Alice says that the majority of her readers are between 25 and 34.
“Most come from UK, then America, then Germany then Sweden. They tend to be in cities – with London, Berlin and New York being the largest.”
With younger, metropolitan readers – many of whom are professionals – the Echo Chamber appears to be capturing a demographic coveted but rarely captured by traditional journalism businesses.
Making The Echo Chamber Club sustainable
And now the Echo Chamber Club is spreading its wings:
“We have just launched a series of podcasts, which will talk to key thinkers – philosophers, journalists, economists and politicians – about what their values are.”
Alice has already published three podcasts, including an interview with Institute of Ideas founder, Claire Fox.
In the next few months Alice also plans to create a members’ space, which she hopes will be a safe space to challenge and discuss liberal values.
“I just want to get subscribers up to a more critical level – and also have a bit of a think about how we can offer value to these people and ensure productive conversation.”
Having worked with other news and media start-ups, Alice is more than aware of the difficulties digital media businesses have in developing a sustainable business model.
She plans to use the members’ area and her unique audience to develop a successful income stream.
“I think the idea will be to have a ‘front-end’ product – which will be a highly curated and specialised book shop. Then I will have a members’ area which will offer specialist content.
“I’ll also start doing some high value events in this space as well. That is how it will start to fund itself.”
Andrew Brightwell is a journalist, communications consultant and editor. He was one of the first people to complete the Online Journalism MA at Birmingham City University. He’s on Twitter as @andbwell – and runs his own consulting firm, Brightwell Creative, where he blogs from time to time on journalism, the media, politics and communication.