I have been doing a bit of reading recently about the internet, communities and the concept of virtual communities which develop over time. The internet seems to offer an incredible ability for us to connect regardless of geographical boundaries. To find information on a broad range of topics and often to find first hand accounts of how the stories we see in the news are affecting communities around the world. To engage with people we might not otherwise ever talk to and find points of commonality as well as develop a certain level of respect for ideas we disagree with.
But I have found that the more I read other blogs, particularly political blogs, the more I appreciate my readers here. It seems that in any serious discussion, there are two basic types of comments left: “Amen” or “You’re an idiot.” There is very little meaningful or respectful discussion of any issue.
Maybe it is the nature of the blog and the internet. A million voices are shouting through the noise and the easiest way to attract a following is to market outrage. The e-newsletters I receive never merely outline an issue, provide some background and offer suggestions for organizing against an action. Mixed in with this purported goal of the newsletter are hyperbolic statements about the end of America. The end of homeschooling. The end of the family. The end of worker’s rights.
Everything is sensationalized. There is never a middle ground. There is always a call to arms. And someone like me who generally believes that most of the consequences we get ourselves so upset about were unintended consequences of an action designed for good is passed off as “blind to what is really going on.”
Speaking about the recent outrage over Prince Harry’s comments about the Taliban and an Pakistani officer, Bookworm Room (via To Love Honor and Vacuum) puts it best,
The level of anger and hysteria about everything nowadays — absolutely everything — just puts me off, especially because it leaves no room to paint with the real brush of outrage. If calling your enemy by a pejorative, or using a very low level slur in a sarcastic way to refer to someone who is obviously a comrade in arms, is exactly as horrific as using children as human shields, you’ve rendered your moral compass useless. To use an analogy only those of us over 40 understand, if you play your records at 78 rpm, they all sound like indistinguishable gibberish. We live in such a hysterical era.
Hysteria and outrage, not simple disagreement. This incident can be exchanged with so many issues going on in our culture and our government. That whole Subway thing? Sure, if you were upset about it you don’t have to eat at Subway. But the comparison to “Negroes need not apply” were a bit over the top for me. The Motrinmoms thing? I was all for baby wearing mothers to bring attention to the ads and to baby wearing in general. But in the end it reached a level of outrage which went a little beyond rational. Especially once I began to see blog posts popping up asking if Motrin’s actions were “enough” once they pulled the campaign. Even the current outrage over CPSIA. I am totally against this law, and believe that we do need to act against it. But do I believe that our elected representatives are sitting around in darkened rooms thinking up ways to kill small business and take books away from children? Hardly.
The Economist has an interesting article which Lynn of Bore Me to Tears linked in my comment box and I’ve been meaning to come back to ever since:
“We now live in a giant feedback loop,” says Mr Bishop, “hearing our own thoughts about what’s right and wrong bounced back to us by the television shows we watch, the newspapers and books we read, the blogs we visit online, the sermons we hear and the neighbourhoods we live in.” The Economist
It doesn’t seem to be about community anymore, but about isolation. The paths of communication between groups are getting narrower with the advent of the internet rather than broader, pushing us to the extremes of our political philosophies as there is a decreasing need to get along with anyone who disagrees. We are in a “giant feedback loop” as American society becomes increasingly fragmented according to religious and political views.
There is a danger in this. Studies suggest that when a group is ideologically homogeneous, its members tend to grow more extreme. Even clever, fair-minded people are not immune. Cass Sunstein and David Schkade, two academics, found that Republican-appointed judges vote more conservatively when sitting on a panel with other Republicans than when sitting with Democrats. Democratic judges become more liberal when on the bench with fellow Democrats. Ibid.
At first, I thought what I was seeing on the internet was a combination of providing a platform for extreme views to be expressed and the lower level of social inhibitions in online communication. But now I’m not so sure. As it becomes easier to associate only with those we agree with, we are pushed to the extreme. Outrage is cultivated and rewarded through attention, traffic and a following.
What could be an excellent tool for community building and crossing political and religious divides may actually be making those divisions deeper and more difficult to cross.