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Leon Hornbach about bubbles and why you want to break out of them

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November 20, 2023

Swiping on an app, not to talk to your crush, but to your political counterpart: the creators of Bubble Chat loved the idea. The app challenges people to step out of their bubble. But does the app actually achieve this goal? We'll find out in a conversation with co-founder and A Lab member Leon Horbach.

1. How did the idea of challenging people politically with Bubble Chat come about?

“In the run-up to the 2006 elections, we realized that we were living in quite a bubble. That is why, in the elections in 2017 and 2021, we launched the website, which brought dissenters into contact with each other. That was a great success, with a lot of media attention and hundreds of thousands of visitors. Studies also showed that changing perspectives in this way increases sympathy and has a depolarizing effect. Despite the success, we faced two obstacles: you always had to be online with someone else at the same time and the platform was linked to the StemWijzer. So as soon as the elections were over, the supply of people also stopped. This gave us the idea of the app. The same approach, but now with the ability to have multiple conversations at the same time and when it suits you. Actually, just like a dating app.”

“We realized that we were living in quite a bubble”.

2. What feedback do you get from users?

“It's very refreshing. Confidence in people's ability to have a normal conversation has declined due to influences from social media, mainstream media, and politics. Users expect fierce disagreements, and are surprised that the discussions are more constructive than they previously thought. The interesting thing is that people find out that even though they vote for a completely different party, they still agree quite often. Research shows that we mainly have the feeling that we are polarized, but that in practice it is not so bad. By the way, this is not so good news, because it means that the degree of affective polarization (how we think about each other) is greater than the actual attitude polarization. So we often have the idea that the others differ greatly in their way of thinking, even though this is not so bad in reality.”

“Users expect heated disagreements and are surprised that the discussions are more constructive than they had previously thought.”

3. What has been the biggest challenge in developing the app?

“That was due to the successful release of the app. That is why we involved two lawyers in our team, who have set up an ambassador network. This network now consists of thirteen people affiliated with various political parties, and thus represents various political bubbles. These people all have a different perspective on society, but share the idea that it is important to connect these perspectives. These ambassadors are now bringing the concept to the attention of their supporters, so we hope to spread our message even further.”

“We aim to bring users together through communication without necessarily coming to the same opinion.”

4. Is an app really the right way to do this — shouldn't we just have a 'real' conversation?

“Of course, the app is no substitute for physical calls. Ideally, people also do this in real life, but do that, step outside your bubble. Our goal is for people to just have a conversation and think: I actually understand that person a little bit. We want to bring users together in communication without necessarily coming to the same opinion. You may disagree with each other. In fact, gladly! But with respect for each other's views. That is the essence of democracy.

5. What do you hope to achieve in the end?

“Our ultimate goal is to increase understanding of each other's opinions in order to reduce polarization. We aim to make people aware that having different opinions does not mean that you hate or distrust the other person. This message spreads easily through word of mouth, but we are facing challenges as forces such as social media reinforce polarization. More and more politicians are taking a closer look, and there are always people who benefit from division. We want to make people resilient against these kinds of negative influences.”

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