In his recent article in Salon, David Weinberger responds to suggestions that the blogosphere is an echo chamber: Cliques of like minds parroting each other and nodding virtually, cementing their unenlightened perpectives and ignoring different points of view. David makes two important points:
A conversation is a social group, and social groups serve many social functions. Some are debating groups. Some are places for people to show how clever they are. Some aim at political change. Very few aim at changing minds about the founding agreement, if only because it’s so hard to pull up the planks of conversation as we walk on them. The comment blog of a presidential candidate is not about changing minds, any more than is the Red Sox rooting section. It’s about forming a political movement. It binds supporters socially. It keeps their enthusiasm up. It lets them collectively work out interpretations and feelings within a group of people they trust precisely because of their shared agreement. Likewise for the right-wing sites. Likewise even for extraterrestrial-conspiracy mailing lists.
If you want to see a real echo chamber, open up your daily newspaper or turn on your TV. There you’ll find a narrow, self-reinforcing set of views. The fact that these media explicitly present themselves as a forum for objective truth, open to all ideas, makes them far more pernicious than some site designed to let people examine the 8,000 ways Hillary is a bitch or to let fans rage about how much better Spike was on “Buffy” than he’ll ever be on “Angel.” And if you want to see the apotheosis of the echo chamber — the echo echoing itself so perfectly that it comes perilously close to achieving the 60-cycle om of the empty mind — consider a president who, rather than read the newspaper, is happy to have his aides pick and choose what headlines he learns more about, because he believes them to be “objective.”
The very fact that David needs to make these points is surprising. Sometimes we get so caught up in conversations that we don’t realize what they are, why we need them, and why we engage in them so passionately.
I’ve recently been engaged in conversations about important ideas in five different media:
Face-to-face, telephony, chat, e-mail, weblogs. As the chart above (from my post last summer) shows, each has its place. I met Rob in person because he was in town, conversed with Matt by VoIP telephony because he had a lot of things he wanted to bat around, migrated from blog comments to e-mail with Kevin and Jan because I wanted to ask them something privately, and because a long two-way thread on a blog appears exclusive and unseemly. I generally repond to comments to my own blog to either thank someone for new information, or to clarify something in my article. I comment to others, similarly, to offer additional information or to ask for clarification. I believe comments are inappropriate and fruitless vehicles for heated debate. I’d make a terrible troll.
My contributions to all the discussion groups I joined were largely ignored. I don’t know if that’s because I articulated my points poorly, or made points that others in the group did not deem worthy of discussion, or because I violated some unwritten discussion group protocol by not introducing myself properly as a newbie, or, as a newbie, had the gall to introduce new subjects for discussion instead of confining myself for awhile to responses to the regular members. In a way I felt (and perhaps others did too) that I was barging into the middle of someone else’s conversation. As a newbie in those ‘rooms’, no one knew the context for what I was saying. I was a stranger, and might as well have been talking in a foreign language. And also, although in my chart above I identify chat spaces as appropriate for back-and-forth discussion, the convoluted threads within threads seem to me a most awkward way of accomplishing this. Perhaps I’m too old to understand the flow and etiquette of this medium, but I kept breaking the rules by sending private e-mails instead of posts to the whole group (all of which, unlike my posts to the group, actually did elicit a useful response). More than once I looked for IM or Skype numbers for members because I found the discussion group technology so limiting. As a discussion group member, I’m a failure.
It seems to me the reasons we converse are complex and varied, and the fact that we choose to converse mostly with like minds is that it’s easier and more personally productive than conversing with people whose worldview is antithetical to ours. Most people change their minds because new information undermines the logic that had led to their former opinion, not because someone with an opposing view effectively challenges their logic. That is why the small clique of multinationals that now dominate the non-print mainstream media are so dangerous: It’s not what they say and report that narrows our perspectives and oversimplifies our worldviews, it’s what they choose not to report. The fact that there is almost no news about what in happening in the third world outside the Mideast, and no news about the environment, or about the loss of civil liberties or the outrage of gerrymandering or a thousand other important subjects is that the mainstream media, with a competitive eye on each other to make sure no one does anything different or disruptive to get out of step and require a costly and competitive response, deems all these ‘complicated’ and ‘slowly-developing’ issues unnewsworthy. Their groupthink directly produces ours. Read Jay Rosen’s brilliant article on ‘Master Narratives‘ for more on this.
So why do we converse, using any of the tools in the chart? Let’s start from the writer’s perspective, or the perspective of the initiator of the conversation. They’re trying to do some of these things:
Organize and save our thoughts and information and stories.
Improve our language skills.
Think out loud to reach a conclusion.
Find people with similar ideas, interests or ambitions.
Sell ourselves, our ideas, our writing.
Overcome boredom, loneliness, shyness, low self-esteem.
From the reader’s perspective, or that of the respondent to the communication, they’re trying to do some of these things:
Understand something better.
Be entertained, excited, incited.
Find something interesting to talk about with others.
Find useful information and tools.
Find people with similar ideas, interests or ambitions.
Get different perspectives.
Help answer deep, personal questions.
Overcome boredom, loneliness, shyness, low self-esteem.
Conversations allow these two perspectives to blur, so that all participants can achieve any of the objectives from either of the above lists. And because they’re iterative, they allow us to at least begin to understand our own, and the other person’s, worldview and mindset, the context for what they are saying, and get past the blind spots and jargon and unstated assumptions and connotations, to reach, at last, common ground.
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