A Nation Of Echo Chambers: How The Internet Closed Off The World

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Will Leitch, senior writer at Sports On Earth, culture writer for Bloomberg Politics, contributing editor at New York magazine and founder of Deadspin, is doing his yearly fill-in for Drew Magary on today's Thursday Afternoon NFL Dick Joke Jamboroo. (Here is 2011's version, and here's 2012's and here's 2013's.) Leitch has written four books. Find more of his business at his Twitter feed and his official site.

In 2012, actor Rob Schneider, famous for something or other, spoke to a California television station about AB 2109, a California bill that required parents to get a physician's approval to opt out of vaccinating their children (something no sentient physician would ever approve). I only came across this interview recently. It is amazing.

You can almost follow along with Schneider's browser history as he continues to ramble on; there's the mom message board, there's the InfoWars THINGS THEY DON'T WANT YOU TO KNOW thread, there's the blog of the doctor with the degree-by-mail who is the only one willing to tell parents the truth. You can tell Schneider spent all night preparing for this interview, jotting down the words he wanted to emphasize, "efficacy," "toxicity," "Nuremberg laws," "forced sterilization." He even ends with "people have to stand up and get educated. Know all the facts."


In this four-minute clip, I think you can encapsulate the last two years of American culture.

To believe that vaccines cause autism, that doctors are involved in a massive conspiracy to attack our children to help their pharmaceutical pals play golf, that the government sees vaccinations as a step toward forced sterilization and eventual death panels, that anyone on earth should ever wear that hat ... the only way that believing these things is possible is by talking specifically, and solely, to people who already agree with you. To believe these things is to ignore every published bit of medical research, to make up theories that require an otherworldly level of conspiracy and coordination in a country that can't even figure out HTML, to shut out every possible tidbit of contradictory evidence. That you should vaccinate your child is so plainly obvious and thoroughly documented that believing otherwise requires total disengagement with anything in the world that contradicts your narrow worldview. You have to be actively trying to get it wrong.


And tons of people still think you shouldn't vaccinate your children! Twenty percent of the country, according to a University of Chicago study, believe doctors know vaccination causes autism but force the shots on children anyway. Again: This is an impossible belief to hold. Now, your response might just be "well, those people are idiots," and I suppose that's the simplest explanation.

But I think it's more than that. I think that they are convinced they're right because they are only talking to other people who are convinced they are right. They have blocked out opposing voices — because they can. If you are an anti-vaccine activist, you can read so much "information" supporting your position that, as far as you can tell, you are right. That's what Schneider's talking about up there, that "get educated" business. Schneider doesn't see these beliefs as theories, or even as "beliefs:" He sees them as stone cold facts. On something about which he is so obviously wrong.


So here's my question: If 20 percent of the country can be so wrong on something so clearly incorrect (and harmful) as child vaccination, primarily because they can choose their evidence over your evidence ... what hope do any of us have? Because the rest of the world is helluva lot more complicated and confusing than whether or not to vaccinate your damn kid.

Chris Rock, when he was doing his big Truth Bomb press tour to promote Top Five, said something fascinating about the difference between President Bush and President Obama. He called Bush a "cable network" President; unlike Obama, he only catered to his subscribers. Rock also, astutely, points out "whoever's the next president will do what Bush did."


I'm not exactly certain that's true — I have no idea who the subscribers to, say, the Hillary Clinton cable channel are — but in the long term, there is zero doubt that he is right. You see this in every aspect of American life, from entertainment (where the only things anyone watches communally are sports, live musicals, or zombies attempting to eat the brains of thinly drawn caricatures) to politics (where the Republicans just won back the House the same way Bush beat Kerry, by appealing only to their base and not worrying about anyone else) to media (which is so fractured and desperate that it'll pump up whatever dumb Twitter shitstorm happens to be invading their feeds that afternoon, throw it on their front page, and pray; basically, outrage has become America's Assignment Desk). We are run by niche cultures right now. We've seen it from Gamergate to Sony Pictures to you name it. We don't have to build coalitions anymore; we just have to build a bigger coalition than you. We don't have to be right; we just have to be louder than the other guys. It's like that old joke about being chased by a bear.

This increased niche culture is a trademark of the web, and we used to think of it as a positive one; 20 years ago, if you didn't know any Quentin Tarantino or Woody Allen obsessives near you, you could go online and find them. (Theoretically.) The internet opened up a world that was truly revolutionary. But now, now that we're all online, and any novelty to this fact has worn off, the internet has closed that world. We now only have to interact with people who agree with us; if I use Twitter as my primary news source, as so many people do, I can carefully curate my feed to exclude anyone who disagrees with me about anything. (And if someone who slips in there who does, I can call them a horrible person.) Pauline Kael, the late film critic for the New Yorker, was once lambasted (unfairly, and inaccurately) for saying she couldn't believe Nixon was elected because she only personally knew one person who voted for him. But this is now accepted public policy. You don't have to find anyone to contradict you, if you don't want to.


This isn't just common practice now: This is how you win. The entire strategy for succeeding at anything, whether it's winning elections, selling a product or attracting visitors for your Website, revolves around pitching yourself as loudly as you can to those people on your side and turning those who disagree with you into the worst version of themselves, demonizing them into something subhuman and venal. Nuance is tossed out, even if you know a situation is desperately nuanced, in favor of quick points and splash; we've all become the New York Post.

This is simply how communication is done now. The idea of unifying anyone on anything is passé, old thinking, a waste of time. A horrible tragedy happens, and your first reaction, rather than taking a moment to mourn or quietly search for some grace and peace, is instead to start screaming and claiming that those with whom you disagree have blood on their hands. You are rewarded with this by the top slot on the news, a video that goes viral, and everyone on your side applauding you. And when you accept that's all you want to do—to turn away from the fundamental complexity at the heart of the human experience—you find you have no reason to return: After all, every time you say something loudly and strongly enough, the people who agree with you tell you how great you are. Those who disagree? Fuck the haters. Sic 'em, guys.


It can be so demoralizing, so exhausting, to watch this day after day after day. We have begun to shout at those with whom we disagree as if they are terrible drivers and we're within the safety of our own cars; they're the anonymous, faceless monsters we shower with the worst possible motives, just because they happen to be in our way when we're in a hurry. Except they can hear us. And so can everyone else.

So one tries to find hope.

I tend to find it outside, where people, you know, are. Because we drop this act during those strange, disorienting times when we find ourselves in mixed company, lo, real life. The things we do online, or when we think someone is watching, we don't do these things in the real world. In regular, everyday life, we accept all the time that those who disagree with us exist; sometimes we even like them.


They're our families, they're our friends, they're our neighbors, they're the people we open the door for at the supermarket. They're human beings, idiot, scared, just-trying-to-hang-on human beings like every single one of the rest of us. The world is uncertain and terrifying; life is hard and bewildering and unpredictable. We allow for this in our daily interactions in a way we do not in our virtual conversations. We accept human frailty, that we do not share a cerebral cortex with every other person on the planet and therefore will not always see eye-to-eye on all matters. The world is a massive place. There are currently 7.28 billion people on the planet and every single one of them is different. This is a good thing: This is humbling. This is an acceptance that we're all stupid, that we're all overwhelmed, that we're all trying, dammit.

We all have friends and family who believe things we personally find abhorrent. They do things that drive us crazy. Their faults flash brightly above their heads every day. And none of these things matter. We still find a way to love them anyway. Not everybody is just like everybody else. This is a good thing. This might be the only thing.


The Games

All games in the Jamboroo are evaluated for sheer watchability on a scale of 1 to 5 Throwgasms.

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Five Throwgasms

Lions at Packers. Whew. I swear to God, I write about four different pieces a day, every day, all year, and no single piece stresses me out more than the lead to my fill-in week for Drew at the Jamboroo every December. I have no idea why. It just wears me out. I'm already glad it's over and can just get to the football part down here. Anyway: Hi! I'm Will. I started this joint — back when "Kinja" was three Hungarian man-boys being pelted with Werther's Originals until they pedaled fast enough to reboot the Gawker server — though now I'm just the guy who pops up every once in a while with the pretentious movie reviews and the B- ratings. Don't worry, Drew will be back next week for your ALL CAPS GOODNESS; I'll be out of here soon. It's Christmas. Just be happy you're getting any free content at all. I am fairly certain I'm the only person other than LeBron James working today.


Bengals at Steelers. Like everybody else in the professional media, I wrote constantly about Stephen Colbert last week; in our backlash-to-the-backlash-before-anyone-has-even-lashed-in-the-first-place culture, by Friday, everyone was so sick of Colbert tributes they'd forgotten why they liked him in the first place. But just you wait: When David Letterman retires this May, it's going to be that times infinity times a googol. Literally every single person — even dead people! maybe even some farmyard animals! — is going to tell you about how much Letterman meant to them, how he was an inspiration to them, how their whole idea of comedy was forged by David Letterman. These pieces are already starting, so get yours in quick. No criticism from me, though: I will read every single one of these, and I'll probably write a few myself. I apologize for all of us in advance.

Panthers at Falcons. For all the talk about the travesty of an NFC South team finishing below .500 and still hosting a playoff game ... it is worth noting that whoever wins this game is almost certainly going to be favored over an 11-or-12-win Buzzsaw That Is The Arizona Cardinals team in the first round of the playoffs. The 49ers, who haven't won in more than a month, are six-point favorites over the Buzzsaw this week. But we'll get to that.

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Chargers at Chiefs. Thank you all, by the way, for taking time out from your schedule of hopping from theater to theater to see The Interview and popping in to read this. I made a big fuss out of this myself, but I'd bet now that the movie is actually showing in theaters not owned by spineless weasels, people won't bother to go see it. It makes sense that this would be the cycle:

Stage One: I don't want to watch The Interview.

Stage Two: I can't watch The Interview?

Stage Three: I must watch The Interview!

Stage Four: Oh, I can watch The Interview now?

Stage Five: I don't want to watch The Interview.

Browns at Ravens. The worst part about this NFL season, now that it's almost over: That we didn't get one last cameo appearance from Rex Grossman, who turned down the Browns' offer to join the team for this final game. I miss the Sex Cannon. I'd have liked to have been able to say goodbye one last time.

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Jaguars at Texans. Before I decided to once again spend 1,600 words sniffing my own rectum, I was originally going to start this column with a thought project: Who is the next Bill Cosby? I don't mean "who will start systematically drugging and assaulting women over a 40 year period," because we all know that's obviously going to be Jonah Hill. I mean: What's the story that media sort of glossed over at some point in last 20 years, only to have it explode on social media when the person involved attempts to promote something? After all, for all the talk about Hannibal Buress, the first time I'd seen Cosby's crimes brought up this year was Tom Scocca's "knock knock oh yeah Bill Cosby is a rapist" post back in February. That's all it takes, you know. Just a little push. So what are we going to remember that we didn't investigate next? Seriously, I'd love to hear your suggestions. I'll get a reporter right on it, unless of course I really admire the work of the person who committed all those crimes.


Rams at Seahawks. After my Buzzsaw That Is The Arizona Cardinals won that hideous Thursday night game two weeks ago, SB Nation's Matt Ufford, a Seahawks fan, taunted me on Twitter:


I've known Matt a long time — here we are flanking a nearly dead Drew Magary in 2007 — so I was eager to slap him back. But my Twitter revenge would be a dish best served cold! So I decided not to respond in the moment, instead waiting until my Buzzsaw had shocked the world Sunday night by beating Seattle and clinching home field throughout the NFC (and NFL) playoffs. I was all set to go: "@mattufford #garbageteam" would ROCK MATT'S WORLD as he watched his Seahawks fall to the mighty Buzzsaw! That would show Matt! That'll learn him to insult my favorite football franchise over social media! YOU MESS WITH THE BULL YOU GET THE HORNS.

Cardinals at 49ers. You know, I didn't end up sending any Tweets Ufford's way.

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Cowboys at Washington Football Team. And that's it! Those are all the games with playoff implications. And yet I'm still going to try to write about the rest of them. Or at least mention the matchup briefly before heading into something entirely different like I've been doing with this column up to this point.

Colts at Titans. Jack Kogod raised an important question yesterday:


This seems like a job for Mark Lisanti, but I'm sympathetic to the cause. I think I like @HofC's suggestion: "Douchebruhs." I'm surprised this assignation doesn't already exist.

Saints at Buccaneers. Hey, congratulations to Craggs, by the way! Though now I'm not sure whom to bug about the fact that Deadspin appears to have forgotten to do its Hall of Fame this year. Is this like when one of those asshole 90-year-old baseball writers leaves his ballot blank? Or is that just over now? [Ed note: We just did it. You happy?]


Eagles at Giants. Cutler on the Eagles. It has to happen. By the way, am I the only person who sees Cutler every time he looks at BoJack Horseman? I'm not sure why that connection has been made it my brain, but it has.

Bills at Patriots.

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Jets at Dolphins. You know how sometimes, when a person is exposed to something so overwhelming and staggering that the brain shuts down and can no longer function? I'm fairly certain this is what collectively happened to everyone when the videos of Rex Ryan and his wife and feet all came out. It has been four years, and I'm still not sure we've quite recovered. I mean, that is pretty much the most insane thing I've ever come across in sports. It feels like it should lead every conversation and newscast, still, to this day. "More police outrage in Missouri, but first ... REX RYAN FILMED HIS WIFE'S FOOT FETISH VIDEOS." When Rex is fired or quits on Monday, let that be his lasting memory. Let that be everyone's lasting memory.

Bears at Vikings. I'd thought this was a goodbye to games at Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium, but no: The new Minnesota Stadium isn't going to be ready until 2016. That's a super long time to build a stadium, isn't it? Two full years at a fill-in stadium is quite a lease. That's almost as long as the Rams will stay at the Edward Jones Dome, I think.


Raiders at Broncos. Whew. Last one. Uh ... Rex Ryan's wife's feet!

Pregame Song That Makes Me Want To Run Through A Goddamn Brick Wall

R.I.P., Joe Cocker. Being a rock star in 1970 must have been amazing. Living 44 years after this is just a bonus, really.


Suicide Pick Of The Week

Last week's picks of Green Bay, Buffalo and Jacksonville went 2-1, making Drew 35-13 for the year. Time again to pick three teams for your suicide pool and one thing that makes you want to commit suicide. This week's picks are Baltimore, Houston, Seattle, and what we're going to do to Cuba's coast within the next 10 years. I have no doubt that by 2024, that place will be 40 percent Applebee's, 50 percent golf course and 10 percent Dutch Masters. Also, Havana will have a December 23 bowl game, and Gonzaga will play NJIT in a post-Thanksgiving tournament. And Jay Leno will do a yearly set.

This Week In Terrifying Animal News


Fantasy Player Who Deserves To Die A Slow, Painful Death

Andrew Luck. Clearly.

Fire This Asshole!

It's a bit of an honor to get to do this section on Week 17, considering this site, and most others, will be spending all day Monday and Tuesday chronicling all the coach firings. I feel like the last person to see these guys alive.


Rex Ryan (foot fetishist)

Marc Trestman (nerd)

Mike Smith (unless they win)

Jim Harbaugh (within seconds)

Ken Whisenhunt (may bring in Max Hall)

Ron Rivera

Tom Coughlin

Dennis Allen-FIRED!!

Gus Bradley

Great Moments In Poop History

Sorry, my stomach remains too weak. I'm fairly certain I've read every word in every single Jamboroo that Drew has ever written ... other than the poop stories. I skip all of them. I'm like the guy who reads every story in the New Yorker other than the fiction. Except the exact opposite of that.


By the way: I just spent about 20 fruitless minutes trying to find the first-ever Jamboroo, I believe from 2007. The earliest I could find was this one. I know I'm the only person who cares, but searching Deadspin archives is freaking impossible.

Gametime Snack Of The Week

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As is tradition: Bagel Bites, roughly 72 percent of my meals from 1998-2001. I once fell asleep while they were in the oven and woke up the next morning with, essentially, 15 hockey pucks. I might still have them around somewhere.

Gametime Cheap Beer Of The Week

Budweiser! But just so I can show this commercial again.

Sunday Afternoon Movie Of The Week For 49ers Fans

American Sniper. I wrote about this movie already for Bloomberg Politics, but seriously, it's excellent. There's no nuance, subtlety or balance ... which, above rants aside, is sometimes kind of nice. Grierson and I are doing our top 10 movies of 2014 next week — no B- movies here! — and this will be on mine.


Gratuitous Simpsons Quote

"Don' t be alarmed, Apu. Just go about your daily routine like I'm not wearing the hat."

Enjoy the games, everyone. Thanks to Drew as always for having me. Go egg some nog.

Illustration by Jim Cooke.