New research suggests that the internet’s echo chamber has much thicker walls than scientists previously thought. So thick, it seems, that an explosion the size of the Blogosphere can barely be detected in the real world. At best, only some faint, metallic clanging sounds can be heard outside – the eerie sound of the Pajamahadeen [UK English: Pyjamahadeen] inside the chamber, hammering away at their computer keyboards.
The research was conducted by good-news foundation the Pew Trust in the United States, and it contains some warming statistics for weblog militants.
More than a quarter of US internet users (27 per cent) had read a weblog at one time or another; 12 per cent had at least once posted a comment on a weblog. But almost two thirds (62 per cent) of net users didn’t know what a weblog is – let alone how one can be safely disarmed.
After two years of militant bluster, and in the US at least, widespread media coverage, the new research comes as a surprise. It shouldn’t. Finkelstein’s Law, coined in the aftermath of the collapse of the blog-powered Howard Dean campaign, illustrates why sound doesn’t always travel. It all depends on who’s listening.
“Eleven people of like mind talk to each other. They had the same views before, they end up with the same views after. But every single one of those eleven people says ‘I convinced 10 other people’. Then the blog-boosterism runs ‘Aha, we have 11 people who each convinced 10 other people, so that’s *110* more votes from BLOGGING! Feel the power OF THE BLOG!’ In reality, nothing changed. The choir preached to itself. But everyone got to think that they were an influencer, a kingmaker, even if just for a tiny kingdom,” observed Seth Finkelstein [our emphasis].
Which characterizes the phenomenon quite nicely. The observation that the internet is at least as likely to entrench social divisions and reinforce people’s existing prejudices has been noted for some time. But weblogs are becoming increasingly emblematic of internet discourse because they take a bad problem – one that we all knew about – and make it worse.
The online’s gift to the public domain has been the Flame War, and weblogs represent a kind of act of enclosure, or privatization, of the Flame War. Once upon a time, these brawls took place on the village common. Now people pour vitriol upon each other from the safety of their blogs. The village green has been replaced by millions of Nation States of One. It takes a very American faith in “the power of free speech”, or speech without consequences, to believe that this can only be a good thing.
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But Pew’s reports (prepared to a script written in advance that explains by exactly how much computer networks are enriching American Life), often contain surprises, if you look closely. Sometimes these surprises are questions that the researchers didn’t ask. For example, Pew has never asked how many users join computer networks in order to download pornography. A recent survey in the UK discovered that one in four Britonsacquired broadband so they could get to the filth. (It may also have discovered, as several readers suggested, that one in three British broadband users lie to surveys about why they get broadband). The absence of the question is curious, given that the movie Kinsey is currently being primed for Oscar glory. The appearance of an Internet Kinsey in the United States now would really spoil the techno utopians’ party, and the Pew Foundation prefers not to ask.
So, what surprise does this report hold? Well, it isn’t an omission as much as a convenience of taxonomy. What seems to have escaped the Pew Foundation’s attention is that its poster child for weblogging, the excellent Daily Kos political community, ceased to be a weblog a year ago.
Daily Kos owes its success to the fact that abandoned the soapbox format – and the crummy software – in favor of the venerable Scoop system, modelled on the Slash software behind Slashdot. The revamped Daily Kos allowed users to moderate stories, diaries and comments. Anonymous cowards were prohibited. Thanks to the more mature Scoop software, users felt more responsibility for their shared space, and they actually behaved with civility and good manners. While the diary function has long been a feature of Slash and Scoop-based sites, they became an organic part of the Kos front page. Stories were promoted on merit, not through the unctuous, “self congratulory humpfest” that passes for discourse in the egocentric blog world the Daily Kos left behind.
By contrast, Duncan Black (Atrios) won a deservedly loyal following for his brand of wit and it was clear that his eager following really wanted a community to coalesce, only the lousy software didn’t allow it. It’s now overrun by drive-by trollers from his political opponents, and few posts are longer than half a dozen words.
Now this might seem pedantic in the extreme, but if Daily Kos counts as blog, then so should Fark.com, The Motley Fool, and every PHP Nuke powered site with a comments section. The research exercise is meaningless.
Does any of this matter? Probably not a jot – especially to 62 per cent of US internet users, it seems.
But there may be a trickle down effect which does us all a disservice. When utopians, no matter how sincerely, wish to believe in Santa Claus (or that there’s a ‘cyberspace’ free from the problems we have in the real world), they not only gloss over very real and urgentproblems with internet technology itself; but what a useful function it really could perform, if we put it to work in a genuinely useful social context. We’ll only miss it when it’s gone.