The Laboratorium (3d ser.)

A blog by James Grimmelmann

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Bubble Work

Suppose that most people live in partisan informational bubbles. Without more, what can we say about effective political tactics? I can think of four types of things to do:

  1. Mobilize your own bubble to turn out politically. You already know the kinds of arguments that will work, and making them to people generally disposed to agree will be satisfying. So this is easy and sustainable, but that also means everybody is already doing it. Maybe there will be an occasional shift in media or a new tactic that will provide a temporary boost, but for the most part this is a Red Queen’s race. Mobilization is the price of admission; if you don’t, your bubble isn’t competitive.

  2. Direct your own bubble along a better or more effective path. You already know the kinds of arguments that tend to work, which makes this almost as straightforward as mobilization. Having these kinds of debates helps you and your bubble figure out what you stand for, which is satisfying, but since you’re pushing people to change their views, there will be some resistance, which can get frustrating. In the worst case, the bubble’s self-defense mechanisms will kick in and treat these attempts as alien infection, sometimes resulting in fission into sub-bubbles. Direction is also necessary, both to develop new arguments for acquiring political power and to use it effectively once acquired.

  3. Expand your bubble by persuading people to join it. The problem here is that anyone you’re trying to recruit, except for the young, is probably already part of a bubble. So proselytizing effectively requires building a smooth onramp from their bubble to yours. That’s hard. First, the arguments that are persuasive within your own bubble are typically not as persuasive outside of it, so you need to step outside yours to learn how the other bubble thinks and talks. Second, you risk activating the other bubble’s self-defense mechanisms: who is this outsider coming in and telling us what to do? And third, you risk activating your own bubble’s self-defense mechanisms: so-and-so says she’s trying to make them more like us, but what if she’s really trying to make us more like them? So this work can have big payoffs, but it can be unpleasant and personally dangerous.

  4. Disrupt an enemy bubble by demoralizing it (the opposite of mobilization) or pushing it to make it less effective (the opposite of direction). As with expansion, this requires speaking the other bubble’s dialect – but passing for a local well enough to avoid triggering the bubble’s self-defense mechanisms requires fluency, not just proficiency. (Even harder!) On the other hand, this operational need for secrecy also reduces the risks from your own bubble; no one needs to know where you’re spending your time. So while this kind of work may be hard, in some ways it can be less personally frustrating than expansion. Disruption is never necessary, but it can be alarmingly powerful when done well.

Broadly speaking, these four types of bubble work will appeal to different personality types. Mobilization produces feelings of solidarity and belonging; direction brings the satisfaction of being right. Expansion takes empathy and patience; disruption takes a special kind of cynicism.

The application of these categories to recent political news is left as an exercise for the reader. The development of an optimal strategy is an unsolved research problem.

I’m sure there are problems with this taxonomy. But it seems to me that if you think bubbles are real (which certainly is the conventional wisdom) and you want your own bubble to win (and who doesn’t?), it’s a mistake not to be thinking about them in adversarial terms. After all, those bastards in the other bubbles will be.