An Old Yiddish Practice that Can Help You Break Out of the Social Media “Echo Chamber”

The social media echo chamber has made you lots of friends. And it’s turned you on to all sorts of amazing new things: bands, articles, books, video, and so on.

Because “If you like this, then you’ll like this!” runs in the background of everything you do online. A secret recommendation infrastructure that has created a funny unintended consequence: after years of bouncing around online in these “agreement machines”, we’ve become unpracticed in dealing with people and ideas that fall outside of our well-curated worldviews.

So, in this episode, I return to my conversation with David Leach from back in 2016, and I explore a simple concept–kibbitzing–and build a simple little exercise that can help you bust out of the social media echo chamber.

Do you want to practice this super easy way to help build community in your nieghborhood? Download the worksheet for this podcast exercise, and learn how to:

  1. map nearby third places… and
  2. talk with strangers (!)

Just enter your email address below, and the internets will automatically send you a copy of the podcast exercise worksheet!

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David Leach on Kibbitzing and “Third Places”

“When I returned to the Kibbutz, I was immediately struck by what had affected me most, having grown up in the deep suburbs of Ottawa — which was a wonderful childhood, where you could explore and feel safe and all of that. But I remember coming back from Kibbutz Shamir, where you couldn’t walk for thirty seconds without bumping into somebody and having a conversation, where there were all of these places — whether it was a sports hall, or the swimming pool, or the pub, or the dining room, or the grocery store — where you were constantly bumping into other people and getting yourself knit within the community.

“Now I had returned to Canada, and was back home at my parents’ house in suburban Ontario: I’m home, getting ready to head back to school, and during the day it’s like a neutron bomb has gone off. There’s nobody there. The kids are either in school, or they’ve been driven off to camp, or into the city. There’s no shops, or anything. And I remember walking through the neighbourhood, seeing nobody, and crossing somebody’s corner of lawn I heard this shout from behind a screen door: “GET OFF THE GRASS!” And that was my one moment of human connection, and I realized, “Oh, something’s wrong here.”

“And a lot of what’s wrong has to do with this built environment: how these neighbourhoods had been set up: your house faces backward into your yard; everything’s designed for cars to get around (and not for pedestrians).

“It was the exact opposite of what I had experienced on the Kibbutz. And what I was nostalgic for (I didn’t realize it at the time) was that human scale community, where everything was built to accommodate people walking to different places where they could be together. And they were very conscious of that [when they designed the layout of the community.]

“[For example], the dining hall could not be more than a ten minute walk from anybody’s house, because that might mean they wouldn’t come to meetings. They were also very influenced by the whole Garden City movement, and it’s notion of integrating green space and communal facilities and work spaces, so there was a hemisphere or half of the Kibbutz where you would have all of the work complexes, so one could walk to work and then walk back to lunch, and then walk over to have a swim, and bump into so and so and have a drink.

“All of this really influenced how saw North America. I saw the world through those eyes and thought “Well, why not? Why not here?” And you do see it in these ideas of New Urbanism and active transportation. But how do you impose that vision on an urban infrastructure that for fifty years has been devoted to getting cars to move around more quickly? 

“In terms of the built environment, what struck me is that people get confused between the words Kibbutz and Kibbitz. And they’re actually unrelated etymologically: “Kibbutz” means a gathering in Hebrew, and came to mean these settlements; “Kibbitz” is actually an old Yiddish word that means an annoying observer in a card game, but ultimately it has become less negative and it’s more about conversation. Anyways, the lesson that I realized, was that to be a good Kibbutznik you had to be a good Kibbitzer. And to be a good member of community, you have to build these conversational connections between your neighbours, between the people around you. And that a good built environment — whether it’s the size of a Kibbutz, ranging anywhere from eighty people to two thousand people, to even just a street or a neighbourhood — has to really accent what I described as your “K.Q.” (your “Kibbitz Quotient”), meaning the opportunities to have random encounters with strangers or friends, and just kind of stop and talk. Those are the things that build community, and strengthen community for when you have to make tough decisions, or when you have to make a difficult change. And again the Kibbutz was very, very clear about the importance of embedding this into their built environment and maintaining these spaces.

“These spaces are what sociologist Ray Oldenberg often described as the “Third Places”: the places that are not work or home, but are often more amorphous open places, where you can bump into each other, and have a drink, or get your hair cut, etc. and feel an opportunity to connect. So, I believe it’s important to create these places, and save and preserve these places, because I really feel that our automobile culture — where you can live in a box, drive around in a box, and go into another box — disconnects you from that experience. You don’t have those conversations, and I think we risk some of that with with the internet, and smart phones (though I’m a little less dystopian about that than some people are — I think there are connections and opportunity in the virtual community that can get us to reflect around community).

“Also you know think about the kind of question of scale, and that notion that “small is beautiful” and “knowing who your community is”, and so on. I heard from a number of Kibbutzniks, especially in the urban communes, that it was less important what [your neighbour’s] ideology was, or what their vision was, but who their neighbours were. [What was important was] who they were in this project, together and knowing that they cared for each other, and looked out for each other… their sense of empathy to the larger world, came out of that.

– David Leach, “The Working Together Podcast”, 2016

References, allusions and mentions implied:

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