Back in 2006-2007 as I was cobbling together my senior thesis, participatory journalism was just a threat in the distant horizon, and journalism was trying its best to cover it in pig’s blood—its own iteration of “Carrie” or “Mean Girls.”
Two years later, Rocky Mountain News has crumbled. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer in print is no more. And the Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle, for all their prestige and history, are at risk of being further minced or shut down.
The concepts seem more timely than ever as Internet democracy continues to eviscerate journalism as an institution. There are many pressing issues that face Internet democracy and information, including the future of hyperlinking. There’s the age-old missive of civichood spurred by engagement with “the truth.” However, as I showered this morning, I remembered a much simpler time, when the academic gentry’s biggest objection to the net was echo chambers.
One particularly memorable lecture I attended my senior year was with Legal Scholar Cass Sunstein on the debut of his book, Republic.com 2.0. He recounted his visit to the Googleplex; one of Google’s latest ventures at the time was what he termed the “Daily Me.”
‘No one can read all the news that’s published everyday, so why not set up your page to show you the stories that best represent your interests?’ … That’s Google’s question, which Google takes to be a rhetorical question—why not?
Sunstein’s main concern with social media was polarization as we handpick what and who we want to hear from.
In a world of niches, in which people are fixed to their only Daily Me … this function of democratic processes is compromised because information won’t travel across the competing echo chambers … [My] suggestion is that to the extent that [echo chambers] happen, it’s a problem for democracy. When you talk about the multiple echo chambers, you could mean one of two things. One possibility is that people very much like Senator Obama and very much like the Chicago Bears and really like Star Wars and quite like Heroes, the TV show. So those are the things they like, and their identity revolves around those four. That wouldn’t be a correction to the problem I’m concerned with; that would be more like the multiple identities where it’s all self-reinforcing. On the other hand, if people are typically curious and are fans of Senator McCain … and listening to others who disagree with him, then I wouldn’t worry at all.
Victor Navasky, former editor of The Nation, wrote about reporting on the Clinton Administration’s policies toward Bosnia, “in The Nation, it was the human rights activists v. the noninterventionists. In National Review it was the hawks v. the isolationists.” I believed Navasky’s point was applicable to the Internet and had the following to say:
With the blogosphere growing exponentially, individuals feel they have something unique to offer. The sites found on the Internet, the links and cross-references from blogs, responses and community publishing sites may reinforce a position but also present a different angle to the issue at hand. Sunstein feared that the Left and the Right might become more insular and extreme instead of promoting the discourse critical to a true republic, but in doing so, he assumed that all the various facets of the Left or the Right are already conversing with one another when there might exist an equal lack of dialogue.
Sunstein believed affinity groups would only reinforce or provide affirmation of those actions. I asked Sunstein a less refined version of what I wrote in my project:
Although there are millions of self- or community publishing sites, the more specific the interest becomes the smaller the audience of a particular participatory site will be. If a site was devoted to liberal views grouped with sports fanaticism, sci-fi films and a specific television show, and the presumption was that interaction with like-minded individuals motivates action, the action from such a specific group would be trumped by that of a more general-interest blogger base. Such a small minority would hardly be a danger to democracy.
When I asked him how he interpreted this, I was astounded by how sparse his answer was. “No.” Two years later, to toot my own horn, I feel my interpretation is well-illustrated by the Twitterverse. Twitter has set up a structure in which Tweepers do not need to reciprocate relationships. I might follow you because you talk about interesting topics to me, but you might not return the favor. The most valuable Tweepers don’t focus on “What are you doing today;” they’re linking to interesting knowledge. I’m sure I have similar values to TED’s curator, but I hardly work in the same sphere, with the same information.
It’s been a while since I’ve looked at Sunstein’s theories, but while I feel vindicated by social media as it exists now, I also find myself looking at things I feel neither I nor Sunstein considered in forming our opinions.
My friend and I were recently discussing scalability, in which an audience’s attention is the limited resource. Scalability refers to the point at which that resource is or is not maxed out. Sunstein and I had either never considered or both assumed that the audience’s attention had already reached capacity. While my evidence is mostly anecdotal, I suspect that we’ve underestimated the amount of information people are interested in and capable of consuming before hitting information overload.