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.