In Internet time (at least) it’s an age-old debate: Are people more open to new ideas when they get their daily news through the Internet or do they tend to use today’s historically unparalleled access just to support what they already think?
In “Riders on the Storm,” his recent column in the New York Times, well-known pundit David Brooks thundered into the fray with his own network-fueled assessment. Arguing that the “Internet is actually more ideologically integrated than old-fashioned forms of face-to-face association,” Brooks writes: “The Internet will not produce a cocooned public square, but a free-wheeling multilayered Mad Max public square.”
Holding up the post-apocalyptic gladiators of the classic action films as his ideal, Brooks is missing something important about everyday communication online. It’s not so much that individuals don’t engage different ideas, it’s that those engagements can be guided by values far more singular than the diversity they encounter. A bit like Mad Max’s 1973 Ford Falcon XB GT “Pursuit Special”, individuals navigating the Web driven by a high-octane ideology may be really good at one thing in particular: moving in a straight line.
To be fair, Brooks is actually basing his argument on new research coming out of the Business School at the University of Chicago. There, researchers Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro are presenting findings that partially contradict less optimistic assessments like that of Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Cass Sunstein. In his famous book, Republic.com 2.0, Sunstein found that individuals “filter” themselves into ideological enclaves online. Gentzkow and Shapiro’s research, on the other hand, has found that individuals do not avoid the blogs, forum posts, or video clips that contradict their ideological leanings. Instead, individuals both left and right of the political center look across the continuum at those with whom they disagree. These contradictory findings reveal, at the very least, that our understanding of the changes wrought by the Internet is more complex than the issue of who is accessing what. In fact, examples from my own research suggest that it is far more about how new ideas are understood and assessed than it is about which ideas are consumed.
Take for example, the case of fundamentalist Christians discussing their belief in the approaching Second Coming of Christ. While these individuals use the Internet to access a staggering amount of media, they do so with the primary purpose of finding information that suggests how soon (Not if!) the End Times will begin. Creating an enclave of individuals with whom they share a very a specific belief, they look toward outside news sources to provide the raw material for their internally directed ideological discussions.
Of course, you might say: “Yes! But these are just a few crackpots, and not everyday people!” In the research I present in my forthcoming book, Digital Jesus, I harness hundreds of examples that demonstrate that this could not be further from the truth. These individuals are by and large highly educated, upper-middle class, and deeply compassionate individuals who use the Internet to expand the diversity of their belief that the End is near even as they go about their otherwise quite average daily lives. The surprisingly mundane nature of these beliefs makes a bigger point.
To better understand how the Internet contributes to the personal values and political positions of real individuals out there in the world, researchers must get beyond mapping the links between blogs or tracking individual Web surfing habits. While new research challenges our simple notions of how to assess the relationship between what people think and what they do online, it also challenges us to engage in more qualitative and sustained ethnographic research with specific groups of individuals. It’s really only through such fully articulated examples that we can begin to develop a more realistic understanding not only of the diversity of ideas online, but of the diversity of ways individuals find, share, and assess ideas online. To get those examples,we have to get out of the research spaces of our own academic Thunderdomes and talk to people as they go about the daily routines that construct their virtual public squares.