islands in the bitstream
If I never hear the phrase “self-selector” or “digital commons” again, it will be too soon. But for better or worse, they embody two of the most important principles in my work.
The digital commons is the hypothetical virtual space (yes, hypothetical and virtual) in which people of different backgrounds, beliefs and political persuasions encounter each other. It is the public sphere the Internet supposedly makes possible, in which we can live out what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls our “informal public lives.” Self-selection comes up any time we talk about getting a large group of general-interest citizens together online. How do you attract the people not already inclined to join forums, engage in policy dialogue, or just visit your new web site?
Today, NYT’s Amy Harmon wrote about how self-selection online makes the digital commons unlikely to come to fruition. Instead, the article argues, “cyberbalkanization” is fragmenting the online population into boutique corners where they encounter only the people who already share their views:
Some public policy scolds warn that the Internet is in danger of narrowing the spectrum of debate even as it attracts more participants to it. The same medium that allows people to peruse a near-infinite number of news sources also lets them pinpoint the ones they want and filter out the rest.
The Internet is not a bad influence that turns foragers into “filterers.” Cyberspace has been nurtured by niches since its inception. It did not start out as a common room from which we all retreated into our self-selected corners. It’s all corners, or what Doc and Dave call a world of ends.
More importantly, it’s as much an extension of our culture as an engine of it, probably slightly more. And, last time I checked, our culture was hardly a bazaar of soap-box barkers, offering the general-interest citizen a wealth of opportunity for divergent viewpoints. No, our culture is about setting your car to remember your ass. We’re just microns away from that scene in “Minority Report” where retina-scanners tailor digital billboards to your name and purchase history. So, who’s narrowing who?
what’s to be done? boot-camps in “forced perspective?” exchange programs between the red states and the blue states?
to be continued…