Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Evidence of Cyberbalkanization?


This new study by Adamic and Glance suggests that liberal and conservative bloggers are not linking to each other as much as they are linking to themselves, so that as a result the liberal and conservative spheres are polarized.

Is this inconsistent with my previous arguments about the blogosphere? Yes, but only in part. There are two questions: one is whether we will find ideological polarization in the blogosphere. This study says that we will. The second is whether the blogosphere (and the Internet generally) causes or facilitates this polarization, and whether the polarization that it causes or facilitates is substantially greater or more worrisome than polarization that occurs through other mass media. On this second question, the evidence remains mixed. It is still quite possible that linking and the culture of linking creates marginally more exposure to divergent ideas than people otherwise experience in real space, and thus, that it is not a contributing cause of existing political polarization. That is to say, the Internet creates two opposite effects. One is ease of searching for and finding information that confirms what you already believe. That would facilitate and enhance polarization. The other is serendipitious exposure to information that you disagree with or that you weren't looking for. That would work in the opposite direction. The question is which effect dominates the other.

Although this study is quite worrisome, I am not yet convinced that the Internet is a major contributing cause of the polarization we see in American society today. Indeed, I believe that it still holds out the hope of breaking down ideological barriers.


I think there is a third question, related to the first two, which is: Is the state of polarization on the Internet greater or lesser than the state of polarization IRL? If there is a vast amount of polarization on the Internet, but it is equal to or less than the amount of polarization offline, then arguably whatever causal factors might be behind Internet polarization are irrelevant, because the situation is clearly no worse.

But this leads to a fourth question: Are the two states readily comparable? I.e., suppose you find that discussion on the Internet is 80% polarized (i.e., 80% of the people spend most of their time reading and commenting on things written by like-minded people); and that Real Life is 80% polarized. One could argue that the Internet, because it eliminates obstacles of demography and geography that tend to produce IRL polarization, *should* naturally have a much lower level of polarization, because everyone is being thrown together. If it is in fact roughly even, one could argue that it is *artificially high,* in the same way one can claim damages from securities fraud that keeps a stock price artificially high, even if it is comparable to the company's competitors. The source of that inflation, an Internet skeptic could argue, is the fact that once people are set loose from constraints of geography and demography, they actively replicate them online, producing additional polarization beyond that that would exist naturally.

I wonder if people see blogging more as a social event (producing and maintaining culture) or a place to transmit information. I think blogging is more about the cultivation of friendship and development of social capital than the transmission of ideas. As long as the blogosphere increases social capital I am hopeful that it will eventually result in depolarization. The cultivation of friendship enables a person to eventually bear more "risk" in exposing themselves to alien ideas.

Do you blog? There is currently a research survey out that seeks to know "why bloggers blog." The study is being performed by a graduate student at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. The survey takes less than 5 minutes to complete. Thanks for your time.

Click Here to take the survey


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