Balkinization  

Sunday, January 25, 2004

JB

Political Organization and Political Discussion on the Internet

This is a follow up to my previous post on Internet speech.

The New York Times ran a provocative article today noting the familiar claims that the Internet divides people, and prevents democratic deliberation:

The Internet became the ultimate tool for finding like minds and blocking out others long before supporters of candidates began seeking one another out on Meetup.com. With online dating sites where searches can be tailored by age and income, e-mail forums for the most narrow band of subjects, bookmarked sites and even spam filters, the Web allows users to tailor the information they consume more than any other medium. Social scientists even have a term for it: cyberbalkanization.

The article runs together two different kinds of democratic activities: One is organizing followers for a political campaign, where you want people of like minds to get together, the other is engaging in democratic discussion about public issues with people who may disagree (and disagree strongly) with you. These two activities are part of democracy, *but they are not the same activity.* Both are necessary, but it is often difficult to do both at the same time.

As the key examples of the trend toward cyberbalkanization on the Internet (I love that word, for obvious reasons) the article points to sites like Wesley Clark's website, Clark04.com, Meetup.com, and MoveOn.org. The problem with these sites, the article suggests is that people only want talk to people who think the way they do, and people who have different views are shunned.

That may well be the case, but these websites are being used for *political organizing* of like minded people, so this is to be expected. It does not prove the claim that online deliberation is rapidly becoming fractured and that "the Internet is in danger of narrowing the spectrum of debate." What it shows is that the Internet can be used for and is quite good at bringing like minded people together. And if you look at the way sites like Meetup.com and MoveOn.org are designed, you can see that they are designed for this purpose.

It certainly does not follow, however, that Internet sites do not promote discussion among people with different views, or that sites can't be designed to facilitate this purpose. I've already spoken about how weblogs facilitate exposure to a variety of sources in my previous posting. The argument the article is making is somewhat like saying that automobiles are bad for families because you can't seat more than two people in them comfortably, and then offering as your key examples sports cars. Sports cars are not designed for families; that's why we have station wagons.

The key point is that the Internet is protean. It does not have to be any particular way, and different combinations of code can facilitate different forms of democratic activity better than others. Weblogs-- in conjunction with other technologies that allow you to see who is linking to you-- are a good example of a code that is structured to promote discussion of public issues, even if the discussion is often quite heated.

At one point the article does refer to blogs, but in a misleading and potentially self-contradictory way:

Blogs - or Web journals - are also more about monologue than discussion. President Bush's re-election campaign blog, for instance, does not include a largely standard feature that most online journals have: the ability for readers to reply to the posts.

Note that in this passage the one example given of a blog is distinguished from "most online journals" on the grounds that it does not have a comments section. This sentence is quite misleading to people who don't know anything about the blogosphere. Blogs are online journals. Some blogs have comments sections, others don't. Kos and Atrios have comments sections, this blog and Instapundit do not. President Bush's campaign reelection blog is not a very good example of the form, and it is a terrible example if you want to understand how democratic discussion online occurs.

Perhaps more important, it is deeply mistaken to infer from the fact that some blogs don't have comments sections that the blogosphere is monologic. As I noted in my previous post, individual blogs link to each other and comment on each other all the time, just as they link to and comment on stories from the mass media. That is precisely what I am doing right now. The practice of linking and commenting is the most characteristic feature of democratic deliberation in the blogosphere. Comments sections help that, but they are not necessary. Tools like Site meter and Technorati allow bloggers to discover who is talking about them and responding to them and what they are saying. The claim that blogs are "more about monologue than discussion" is exploded by even a casual acquaintance with what it means to operate a weblog devoted to the discussion of political issues.

I must also note that the article quotes only people who believe that the Internet technology is bad for democratic discussion. In particular, the article highlights Cass Sunstein's arguments in Republic.com, which, as I noted in my previous post, were technologically naive. In this way, ironically, this newspaper article enacts the very thing it accuses the Internet of: listening to and presenting the views only of people who share one point of view.

Unfortunately, this article continues a meme that I have often found among progressive people-- that the Internet is bad for democracy. I think that this view is deeply mistaken. The Internet has its strengths and weaknesses, just like the traditional mass media have. The question is not whether the Internet is good or is bad for democracy. The key question is how the Internet changes the ways that democratic activities of organization, discussion, protest, and decisionmaking occur, and how the code of the Internet can be altered in different ways and different contexts to promote these different forms of democratic activity.


Comments:

Aside from the complex physical connections that make up its infrastructure, the Internet is facilitated by bi- or multi-lateral commercial contracts (e.g., peering agreements), and by technical specifications or protocols that describe how to exchange data over the network. Indeed, the Internet is essentially defined by its interconnections and routing policies.

As of December 30, 2007, 1.319 billion people use the Internet according to Internet World Stats. Writing in the Harvard International Review, philosopher N.J. Slabbert, a writer on policy issues for the Washington, D.C.–based Urban Land Institute, has asserted that the Internet is fast becoming a basic feature of global civilization, so that what has traditionally been called "civil society" is now becoming identical with information technology society as defined by Internet use. - web design company, web designer, web design india
 

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