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Bursting Bubbles: A Conversation with Leon Horbach on Why You Should Want to Pop Them

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November 20, 2023

Swiping on an app, not to engage with your crush, but with your political counterpart: the creators of Bubble Chat found it a fantastic idea. The app challenges people to break out of their bubbles. But does the app succeed in achieving this goal? We discover it 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?

"Leading up to the elections in 2017, we realized that we were living in quite a bubble. That's why we launched the website whydo during the 2017 and 2021 elections, which connected people with different views. Research also showed that exchanging perspectives in this way increases sympathy and works to depolarize. The platform was a great success, with a lot of media attention and hundreds of thousands of visitors. Despite the success, we encountered two obstacles: you always had to be online at the same time as someone else, and the platform was linked to the StemWijzer. So once the elections were over, the influx of people stopped. This gave us the idea for the app. The same approach, but now with the ability to have multiple conversations at once, whenever it suits you. Just like with a dating app."

"We realized that we were living in quite a bubble."

2. What kind of feedback do users provide?

"The feedback we received so far is very refreshing. Trust in people's ability to have a normal conversation has decreased due to influences from social media, mainstream media, and politics. Users expect heated disagreements and are surprised that the discussions are more constructive than they thought beforehand. The interesting thing is that people find out that even though they vote for completely different parties, they agree with each other quite often. Research shows that we mainly feel polarized, but in practice, it's not as bad as we think. However, this isn't necessarily good news because it means that the level of affective polarization (how we think about each other) is greater than the actual attitude polarization. So, we often have the idea that others differ greatly in mindset, while in reality, this isn't the case."

"Users expect heated disagreements and are surprised that the discussions are more constructive than they thought beforehand."

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

“The biggest challenge was successfully promoting the app. That's why we involved Minke and Nienke in our team, who set up an ambassador network. This network now consists of thirteen individuals affiliated with different political parties, thus representing various political bubbles. These people all have different perspectives on society, but they share the idea that it's important to connect these perspectives. These ambassadors are now bringing the concept to the attention of their base, which we hope will further spread our message."

“We strive to bring users together through communication, without them necessarily reaching the same opinion."

4. Is an app the right way to do this – shouldn't we just talk to each other 'for real'?

"The app is certainly not a replacement for physical conversations. Ideally, people should do this in real life too, but try stepping out of your bubble in real life. Our goal is for people to just have a conversation and think: actually, I understand that person a little bit. We want to bring users together in communication, without necessarily reaching the same opinion. It's okay to disagree. We welcome it! But with respect for each other's viewpoints. That's the essence of democracy."

5. Wat hopen jullie uiteindelijk te bereiken?

"Our ultimate goal is to increase understanding of each other's opinions to reduce polarization. We aim to make people aware that having different opinions does not mean you hate or distrust the other person. This message spreads easily through word of mouth, but we face challenges because forces like social media amplify polarization. More and more politicians are taking sharper stances, and there are always people who benefit from division. We want to make people resilient against these negative influences."

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