TCS Daily

The Depolarizing Power of the Blogosphere

By James D. Miller - January 17, 2005 12:00 AM

Professor Cass Sunstein underestimates the Blogosphere when he argues in a recent Boston Review article that the Internet will further polarize America. Previously left- and right-of-center citizens were brought together at times through watching the same network newscasts and reading identical local papers. Now, however, we can all get our news from blogs reflecting our ideological biases. But although the Blogosphere can polarize, I believe that on net it will reduce political differences among Americans.

Few conservatives will have their views of homosexuality changed by anything they read in The New York Times or see on CBS news. The liberal biases of these two mainstream media giants are odious enough to conservatives that conservatives will filter out anything these organizations say about homosexuality. But conservative readers of the Blogosphere will inevitably come across Andrew Sullivan, a gay conservative who writes on issues of homosexuality in a manner that can appeal to conservative Christians.

Americans are ideologically divided but also connected across multiple dimensions. The Internet does allow individuals to find niche blogs which cater to their particular viewpoints. But the web also has blogs which bypass traditional ideological divides. For example, although the mainstream media views politics through a Republican / Democratic lens, some of the most popular blogs take a libertarian viewpoint that, depending on the issue, could favor either party. I suspect that many Americans who had considered themselves Democratic-hating Republicans found, after visiting blogs such as Asymmetrical Information, that they really are somewhat libertarian and in fact on a few issues had more in common with the Democratic left than the Christian right.

During my very unsuccessful campaign for the Massachusetts State Senate I talked with the head of an anti-gay marriage group who was utterly mystified as to how I could be pro-life but not share his loathing of homosexuality. In his world, people who were pro-life held a consistent set of beliefs. His view, however, was pre-blog because it didn't take into account the diversity of opinions on homosexuality presented even on just "right-wing" blogs but rather reflected the main stream media's stereotype of pro-lifers.

Filters and Internet Dating

Professor Sunstein also worries that technological filters will cause us to filter out news inconsistent with our ideology and prevent us from having "unanticipated encounters" with information that might change our viewpoint. But I believe that effective filtering will do exactly the opposite of what Sunstein fears.

By reducing search costs, Internet dating is bringing America together in a way similar to how filters might someday operate. Most people find dates among their friends or friends' friends. Since most of us tend to hang out with people from similar ethnic backgrounds, many Americans date only people in their own racial and social groups. But online dating allows singles to find interesting and compatible people they would otherwise have never met and thus, I suspect, is decreasing racial dating polarization.

An Internet dating service that suggests you date your best friend's sibling would be nearly useless to you because you almost certainly know of this sibling and know if you two would be a good match. An online dating service has value only if it matches you up with people you would have otherwise never have met. Similarly, a good news filter should locate material you wouldn't have ordinarily found. For example, I wouldn't be helped by a filter that tells me to check out the Becker-Posner Blog because, given my tastes and web reading habits, this blog is something I would read and find independent of the aid of any filter. In contrast, I would benefit from having a filter that informs me of an interesting article on a blog I had never heard of before

Assume that on average I would enjoy reading fifty percent of the articles in TCS but only one percent of those in The Nation, which unlike TCS is an anti-free market magazine inconsistent with my beliefs. Absent any filters I would not find it worthwhile to read any of The Nation's articles because it wouldn't be worth my time to comb through the magazine to find the very few articles I will like. Similarly, I will at least have to start reading most of TCS's articles to find the one-half I enjoy. But a perfectly effective news filter would find me the tiny fraction of The Nation's articles that I should read and eliminate the half of TCS's I shouldn't.

The links on represent the most popular filter used in the Blogosphere. If you click regularly on Instapundit's links then a good test of how filters affect polarization is whether Instapundit causes you to read more or less diverse material.

James D. Miller writes The Game Theorist column for TCS and is the author of Game Theory at Work.


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