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Echo chambers: The meme that will not die

Last night, I went to the JFK Library to see a panel on the Internet and the campaign, with Matt Bai of The New York Times, Garrett Graff of Washingtonian Magazine (and Howard Dean’s first political webmaster), and Joe Trippi, who ran Dean’s campaign.

It was an interesting session not just because of the caliber of the people, but because the sight it gave of what’s been settled and what we’re still arguing about. These three astute observers — two of them straight-ahead Obama supporters, and one maintaining professional neutrality, but, c’mon, you think Bai’s going to vote for McCain?? — agree that the Internet is transformative of politics and ultimately of democracy. It’s worth pausing to remember that four years ago, we were still arguing about that. They also agree that this is overall for the good, albeit with various important doubts and reservations.

They also agree that the Internet is loosening party affiliation to the extent that in the next four or eight years we’re likely to see a viable independent presidential candidate.

But the three did not agree with one another and sometimes with themselves about whether the Net is making us more partisan (“echo chambers”) or better informed. Is it manipulated by pols throwing out chum that predictably attracts the mindless sharks or, as Trippi replied, is that more characteristic of cable news than the Net? The fact that we are so uncertain about this might indicate that it’s just too soon to tell, but I suspect it indicates that there’s something malformed in the question.

For example, last night one of the audience members expressed concern that the Net is naught but a series of echo chambers. Bai earlier had maintained that he worries that the Net is not about persuasion but about confirmation: you only read that which confirms your views. Ellen Hume of MIT’s civic media project worried from the floor that we’ve lost a unified, authoritative press, feared enough by politicians that when they’re caught in a lie (“I said thanks but no thanks”) they’ll actually stop repeating it.

These are all good points. And yet the question of whether the Net is making us better voters or not remains unsettled, including, I suspect, in the minds of each of those speaking last night. Ultimately, I think it’s unsettled not simply because we lack evidence or because the Internet revolution isn’t over yet. There are more difficult reasons this issue remains an Internet cultural Rohrschach test

1. We don’t yet know how to make intuitive sense of the open connective nature of the Net. We don’t fault our real-world discussions with friends because they’re not arguments that are based on persuasion that work themselves down to first principles. We’ve chosen our rw friends in part because of the sympathy of our views and the sympathy of our discussion styles, yet we don’t count those friendshipsas echo chambers. Online, we can engage with people before we’ve become friends with them. We thus sometimes bond based on agreement (“echo chambers”) or on disagreement strong enough us to get us to respond (“flame fests”).

2. We don’t know how to handle the new publicness of the Net. We can hear — and blog about — every nasty conversation held. Imagine you could listen in on every barroom quarrel and every fratboy gabfest. Well, now you can. We now know just how awful we are.

2a. To put the previous point differently: We make the mistake of treating the Net as if it were a medium. But it’s more like a world than a medium. Everything humans can do and say is done and said there. Want to find hate-based OCD? Got it! Want to emphasize the way in which bloggers bring skeptical intelligence to stories promulgated by the worst of the MSM? Can do! Because the Net is an open world, no examples are typical .

3. We therefore don’t really have anything to compare the Web to. Before the Web and off the Web, how much of our time was spent in persuasive rather than confirming discussions? How diverse was the nightly news compared to the “average” encounters with news on the Net? How much disagreement was allowed in watercooler discussions before people just crumpled their cups and walked away, and what is the online equivalent of watercoolers anyway?

Perhaps the persistence of the question is due to our shock at being shown who we really are. When all you can see of yourself is what the sanitized mass media show you and what you can see around you in your physical environs, the differences the Net makes visible unsettle us profoundly.

The Financial Times has a good article on the Internet’s effect on the US campaign.

It quotes me (and — what are the odds? — it begins by quoting an Obama supporter named Stacey Weinberger, who is no relation), but I want to rise on a point of personal privilege, i.e., egocentric nitpicking. The article introduces me as “Mr Dean’s internet adviser.” Later in the article, it more accurately refers to me as “a Dean adviser,” which is much closer to the truth. Jeez. I hate being perceived as a taking credit I don’t deserve, and I definitely was not the campaign’s internet adviser, as if I were the one who figured out how to do all that Internet stuff. Ha! I twice told the interviewer that Trippi and Zephyr Teachout et al. had come up with their groundbreaking Internet strategy before I ever got there, and that the title Trippi kindly gave me (“Senior Internet Adviser”) was far more grandiose than my actual role. If there’s one thing that bothers me more than getting undeserved credit, it’s being perceived as taking undeserved credit.

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