The Myth Of The Echo Chamber

A relatively recent book entitled by Cass Sustein, a law professor at the University of Chicago made the argument that the explosion of individual websites would harm social capital by creating technologies which filter out all viewpoints contrary to that of the user. More recently, some left wing blogs have been arguing that right-wing bloggers have created a kind of "echo-chamber" in which mutual ideologies are simply reinforced.

However, these arguments against the new wave of media technology take blogging as the only source of media. The fact remains that blogs don’t exist in their own media bubble. While some have made the audacious claim that people will be getting the majority of their news from blogs in the near future, that hyperbole doesn’t acknowledge the real power of blogging as a communications medium. Blogs exist to provide the kind of in-depth commentary and analysis that the news media doesn’t provide.

The news media, driven by the tides of waning viewership and advertising dollars have been forced to pare down much of their coverage and focus more on specialized quick information and breaking news flashes. Just take a look at the redesign of CNN’s Headline News, and how it’s designed so that one can glance at the screen at an airport with the sound turned off and get a quick overview of the day’s events.

The "blogosphere", on the other hand, is devoted to taking apart issues, expounding on obscure facts, and going beyond what is reported by the conventional media. Granted, every blogger wears their ideology on their sleeve, but that bias is presented up-front and center. The kind of silent knowtowing to corporate or political interests that is part and parcel of large media enterprises is virtually unknown in the blogosphere.

This means that blogs serve as springboards of discussion on issues that are either underreported or mis-reported by the media. Blogs act as bullshit detectors and armchair analysts, but still rely on the conventional media to provide them with fuel far more than they do on other blogs. That means that bloggers have to be watchful of the traditional media that they often so vehemently disagree with on may of the world’s issues.

The fact is, the best bloggers like Instapundit Glenn Reynolds are as media-savvy as anyone could be – because they have to. Most bloggers don’t even attempt to maintain a facade of neutrality or claim to be entirely objective. However, that does not mean that they’re not steeped in the traditional media or aren’t listening to alternative views. It merely means that they’re advancing an argument. The blogosphere rewards those who work hard, write well, and make the most cogent arguments, not over any real measure of ideological purity.

The reason why the right-wing seems to have taken to the blogosphere so quickly and so well? Part of it has to do with the fact that technological early-adopters and evangelists such as Eric S. Raymond tend to have a libertarian political outlook. Furthermore, the seeming lack of conservative representation in traditional media forces conservative and libertarians to find alternate forms of media to express their views. (Conservative thought in conventional media can be found only on shows like "Crossfire" or in specific media outlets like The Wall Street Journal or FoxNews. Few conservative ideas or thoughts end up on nightly news broadcasts or the pages of The New York Times.) The convergence of these two factors made the blogosphere an ideal medium for conservative ideas, although now many liberals and left-leaning bloggers are making themselves known.

The blogosphere is unlikely to surpass the traditional media, but it’s depth, it’s honesty, and it’s ability to supplement traditional media make it anything but a threat to social capital and political discourse. If anything, the blogosphere may be an electronic version of J.S. Mill’s marketplace of ideas, in which all citizens have a right to express their opinions, helping society as a whole come closer to truth.

One thought on “The Myth Of The Echo Chamber

  1. Needless to say, I don’t believe that blogs in-and-of themselves create the “echo chamber” effect, although they’re certainly a contributing factor. Far more important is the conservative input in other media, including talk radio, the Internet as a whole (although that’s mostly libertarianism rather than conservatism), television commentators, and various other media.

    I’m also not quite certain on that “depth and honesty” bit yet, because while blogs can serve as “bullshit detectors” (as much as any medium can for any other medium), that is valid only to the extent that they can detect each other’s bullshit, care to call each other on it, and even seperate facts from opinions in the first place.

    Remove any of these, and blogs can as easily serve as sources of disinformation as information. More so, actually, because of the tendency of bloggers to agree with each other out of a sense of community. As I said on my own site: “A bunch of bloggers passing around the same Krugman article and making the same weak arguments against it is not a debate”.

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