Danny Taggart's Blogarama

A more-or-less daily dose of news, politics, techmology, and any random thoughts that pass through my head.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Filtering the blogosphere

James D. Miller argues that the blogosphere depolarizes American politics by exposing people to novel ideological intersections they otherwise would not have encountered. He points to Andrew Sullivan as an example of the cross-ideological bloggers drawing supposedly incompatible audiences. He also addresses the view that blogs polarize politics by allowing people to seek out only information which reinforces their beliefs. Miller argues that polarization will actually be reduced by efficient filtering technology which serves up only those articles which may interest you:
    An online dating service has value only if it matches you up with people you would have otherwise never have met. Similarly, a good news filter should locate material you wouldn't have ordinarily found. For example, I wouldn't be helped by a filter that tells me to check out the Becker-Posner Blog because, given my tastes and web reading habits, this blog is something I would read and find independent of the aid of any filter. In contrast, I would benefit from having a filter that informs me of an interesting article on a blog I had never heard of before.
This argument is not so convincing. Yes, filters can point you to new information that interests you, but this simply means that your values are being reinforced with new information. One could argue that inefficient filters would expose you to information you otherwise would not have considered, opening up your mind to new possibilities.

Now, I agree with Miller, but I would argue it a little differently. I would say that it is unrealistic to expect people to open their minds to new ideas if they are being force-fed information they do not find interesting or useful. This is the old mentality that it is the media's job to "educate" the masses.

Is it possible for someone to stagnate by seeking out information that validates only a very narrow vision? Yes, but this person would fare no better in a top-down information model. He would find the news boring or frustrating. I suppose this is why newspaper circulation is tanking.

But it is not necessarily true that reinforcing one's beliefs with new information leads to closed-mindedness and stagnation. This assumes that the world of ideas is indeed polar and that if people of belief #1 are not at least sometimes exposed to belief #2, they will never break out of the confines of belief #1. But the world is not polar - it is a network. New information necessarily exposes people to new angles on old ideas, new reasons for existing beliefs. Information can flow between disparate belief systems, but slowly, organically. The effects of the blogosphere network are to tie people together and act against isolation.