Online Participation Headed Towards Democratic Utopia or Civic Demise?

On Thursday, the MIT Center for Future Civic Media as part of the MIT Communications Forum and Civic Media Series hosted a talk between Yochai Benkler and Cass Sunstein, moderated by Henry Jenkins and entitled "Our World Digitized: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly."

The premise, of which I was skeptical, was to get Cass and Yochai to duke it out over whether internet participation was headed anywhere good. I was dubious of MIT staging a scholarly drama, but Benkler, Sunstein, and Jenkins have written three of the (arguably) most important recent works on the participatory internet, and for that fact alone, attendance was mandatory.

Many great arguments were articulated, all of which can be heard here.

To nutshell it, Sunstein stayed true to his books stating that pervasive individual self-selection on the internet is leading to insulation and a lack of diversity. He paraded out the tired old The Daily Me argument and the so-called echo chamber effect. He suggests that democracy itself is at risk, as it requires diverse input, the exchange of unshared knowledge, and serendipitous encounters to function effectively.

Benkler refused to outright disagree with Sunstein, but instead focused on the positive effect of empowering individuals to participate online. He argued that individuals who perceive they can influence society's agenda become more engaged in civic discourse and behave more responsibly in this context. I took this to mean that individuals who feel they can make a difference are more likely to be engaged (vs. detached), develop meaningful arguments (vs. complain), and try to make a productive difference (vs. passivity).

While I agree with Sunstein's desire for diversity and serendipity and with Benkler's excitement over individual feelings of empowerment, I was disappointed that neither questioned the tired and quaint notion of the web being nothing more than a series of echo chambers. I wonder if either looks outside their inboxes to see what's really going on. Here is where Jenkins should have jumped in and schooled them on growing participation across diverse online communities, the wildly serendipitous (if not downright chaotic) information exchange found on Twitter, and individual interest (and subsequent sharing) expanding outward across every category of long tail media and knowledge. I would go farther to argue that emerging social norms in online interactions encourage diverse information dissemenation and punish the types of insular behavior that Sunstein and Benkler seem to accept as universal.

Undoubtedly, there are specific examples where echo chambers do exist, and link analysis shows narrow patterns of interaction in, for example, select political blogs, but I would argue that the internet is just a wee bit more than link spam littering the bottom of inflammatory blog posts.

I live-twittered the event. Here are some selected Tweets
(These are not direct quotes but rather real-time paraphrasing what I took each speaker to mean. Greatness is theirs. Mistakes are mine):

  • Benkler: What happens instead of a few elite that can set the agenda, we now have 3 million who believe they can affect their society
  • Yochai suggests that traditional mass media is more polarizing (fox news, radio talk shows) than the web's perceived echo chamber effect
  • Sunstein: How much serendipity we embrace depends on what we're regularly exposed to
  • Show of hands: 3/4 of the Bartos Theater audience have edited Wikipedia
  • We need a new model for understanding human behavior that builds in imperfection to allow for the possibility of true collaboration
  • Benkler: If you feel you have the ability to influence the cultural agenda, your concerns migrate from complaints to considered positional arguments
  • Sunstein, in response to what web tools should come to be: Stimulate curiosity. Once curiosity is triggered, it is very hard to resist
  • Triggering participatory activity requires, in part, for individuals to feel their efforts are needed and wanted
  • 1st order diversity = range within our group (different people); 2nd order diversity = range across groups (different groups)
  • Sunstein: 4 probs in deliberation: amplify individual bias, polarization, early words initiate cascade, shared knowledge crowds out unshared