This piece shatters some of my preconceived notions!
Riders on the Storm
By DAVID BROOKS
Published: April 19, 2010
In 2001, Cass R. Sunstein wrote an essay in The Boston Review called
“The Daily We: Is the Internet really a blessing for democracy?”
Sunstein, a professor at the University of Chicago who now serves in
the Obama administration, raised the possibility that the Internet may
be harming the public square.
In the mid-20th century, Americans got most of their news through a
few big networks and mass-market magazines. People were forced to
encounter political viewpoints different from their own. Moreover, the
mass media gave Americans shared experiences. If you met strangers in
a barbershop, you could be pretty sure you would have something in
common to talk about from watching the same TV shows.
Sunstein wondered whether the Internet was undermining all this. The
new media, he noted, allow you to personalize your newspapers so you
only see the stories that already interest you. You can visit only
those Web sites that confirm your prejudices. Instead of a public
square, we could end up with a collection of information cocoons.
Sunstein was particularly concerned about this because he has done
very important work over the years about our cognitive biases. We like
hearing evidence that confirms our suppositions. We filter out
evidence that challenges them.
Moreover, we have a natural tilt toward polarized views. People are
prone to gather in like-minded groups. Once in them, they drive each
other to even greater extremes. In his recent book “Going to
Extremes,” Sunstein shows that liberal judges get more liberal when
they are on panels with other liberals. Conservative judges get more
Sunstein’s fear was that the Internet might lead to a more ghettoized,
polarized and insular electorate. Those fears were supported by some
other studies, and they certainly matched my own experience. Every day
I seem to meet people who live in partisan ghettoes, ignorant about
the other side.
Yet new research complicates this picture. Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse
M. Shapiro, both of the University of Chicago Booth School of
Business, have measured ideological segregation on the Internet. They
took methodologies that have been used to identify racial segregation,
and they tracked how people of different political views move around
The methodology is complicated, but can be summarized through a
geographic metaphor. Think of the Fox News site as Casper, Wyo. If you
visited and shook hands with the people reading the site, you’d be
very likely to be shaking hands with a conservative. The New York
Times site, they suggest, is like Manhattan. If you shook hands with
other readers, you’d probably be shaking hands with liberals.
The study measures the people who visit sites, not the content inside.
According to the study, a person who visited only Fox News would have
more overlap with conservatives than 99 percent of Internet news
users. A person who only went to The Times’s site would have more
liberal overlap than 95 percent of users.
But the core finding is that most Internet users do not stay within
their communities. Most people spend a lot of time on a few giant
sites with politically integrated audiences, like Yahoo News.
But even when they leave these integrated sites, they often go into
areas where most visitors are not like themselves. People who spend a
lot of time on Glenn Beck’s Web site are more likely to visit The New
York Times’s Web site than average Internet users. People who spend
time on the most liberal sites are more likely to go to foxnews.com
than average Internet users. Even white supremacists and neo-Nazis
travel far and wide across the Web.
It is so easy to click over to another site that people travel widely.
And they’re not even following links most of the time; they have their
own traveling patterns.
Gentzkow and Shapiro found that the Internet is actually more
ideologically integrated than old-fashioned forms of face-to-face
association — like meeting people at work, at church or through
community groups. You’re more likely to overlap with political
opponents online than in your own neighborhood.
This study suggests that Internet users are a bunch of ideological
Jack Kerouacs. They’re not burrowing down into comforting nests.
They’re cruising far and wide looking for adventure, information,
combat and arousal. This does not mean they are not polarized. Looking
at a site says nothing about how you process it or the character of
attention you bring to it. It could be people spend a lot of time at
their home sites and then go off on forays looking for things to hate.
But it probably does mean they are not insecure and they are not
If this study is correct, the Internet will not produce a cocooned
public square, but a free-wheeling multilayered Mad Max public square.
The study also suggests that if there is increased polarization (and
there is), it’s probably not the Internet that’s causing it.
= = = = = = = = = = = =
Cybernetica Press Inc
Denmark Rising is now available at my web site
[log in to unmask]
For more information go to: www.metaphorum.org
For the Metaphorum Collaborative Working Environment (MCWE) go to: www.platformforchange.org
METAPHORUM eList Archive available at - https://listserv.heanet.ie/ucd-staffordbeer.html
Archive of CYBCOM eList available at - http://hermes.circ.gwu.edu/archives/cybcom.html