TCS Daily

The Blogosphere: Uniter, Divider, or Both?

By Michael Rosen - June 23, 2005 12:00 AM

It was a year ago today that I began writing for Tech Central Station and I can say without exaggeration that the experience has changed my life.

My online education, of course, stems chiefly from the generous willingness of TCS to take chances on relatively green authors, from all walks of life, who have something interesting to say, but also have day jobs. I can admit with neither embarrassment nor false modesty that my writing has improved significantly through contributing here and I'm extraordinarily grateful for the opportunity. Not many websites can coherently offer articles on technology, economics, politics, foreign policy, prisons, the environment, foreign aid, medicine, philosophy, intellectual property, law, academia, trade policy, and history -- and that was just yesterday's front page!

But my education has transcended simply writing articles. The interactions between reading and writing, between online and print, and between visual media and talk radio have crystallized for so me -- as well as for many Americans -- the paradigm shift in how we receive and process information.

In my case, visiting certain political and legal websites led me to start writing for TCS and other publications, which in turn led me to read various blogs, which then pointed me to talk radio (my personal favorites are Hugh Hewitt, Dennis Prager, and Michael Medved), which sent me back to the blogs. Apt here is the rabbinic expression: "One good deed breeds another; [but] one sin [also] breeds another" (although in this case it's sometimes unclear which half of the maxim applies).

I literally cannot get through my day without at least a cursory glace at The Corner, National Review's group blog, which provides bite-size commentary and links to everything from serious articles to time-wasting games. Through the expert devices of Real Clear Politics, I manage to read the best opinions pieces in our nation's daily newspapers without subscribing to any (well, almost any: I do subscribe to the San Diego Union-Tribune). And I would be lost without rounding out my reading with healthy doses of Andrew Sullivan, The New Republic, Slate, and even (gasp!) Salon.

Not everyone's lives have been as deeply affected by the Blogosphere as my own. For starters, there's the widely cited poll purportedly stating that 62% of Americans "have no idea what a blog is."

But this formulation -- which implies that more than half of Americans have never heard of a blog before -- is misleading. Instead, these sites misquote a January 2005 poll of the Pew Internet & American Life Project that asked respondents: "In general, would you say you have a good idea of what the term Internet 'blog' means, or are you not really sure what the term means?" 62% answered that they were uncertain of what the word means (here's a decent explanation). Such definitional uncertainty is a far cry from having no knowledge of blogs at all. In short, then, the Blogosphere is gradually but unmistakably seeping into the American consciousness.

The web's penetration of American society is not without its problems, however. Pressure from local retailers and state governments has sparked rumblings of an end to the tax "exemption" on Internet sales. Also, as TCS's Nick Schulz and Ryan Sager have amply documented, the tentacles of the free-speech-limiting McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill may soon extend into the Blogosphere. Finally, while Web-based political writing has generated alternatives to and checks on the Mainstream Media, as well as such colorful terms as the pajamahadeen, wingnuts, and moonbats, it has also tended to heighten partisan rancor and, arguably, polarization.

In a powerful article in this month's Commentary, music and arts critic Terry Teachout recounts, at length, his own experience art-blogging on his About Last Night site. The piece is also a meditation on the larger cultural and balkanizing implications of the blogging revolution, leading Teachout to observe that "the common culture of widely shared values and knowledge that once helped to unite Americans of all creeds, colors, and classes no longer exists." He notes that whereas lovers of the arts were once divided along geographic lines, they've now been sorted by the blogs according to medium and ideology.

To be sure, Teachout applauds the increased freedom and access to all sorts of media that new technology has enabled (the Long Tail effect, in other words). On balance, though, Teachout, whose own blog bridges literary, musical, and visual fields, hopes that the blogosphere's most notable characteristic will be "its unprecedented ability to bring creatures of flesh and blood closer together."

This tension seems just about right: on the one hand, the Web's elaborate smorgasbord can differentiate even the subtlest of interests; on the other, it can aggregate people, who are ordinarily divided geographically, temperamentally, and socioeconomically, around these interests. In essence, the web's most unifying traits are simultaneously its most divisive.

Of course, pretty much the same thing could be said about any content-neutral technology. The telephone (and even the telegraph) brought together individuals separated by thousands of miles, just as it erected a wall between those in the same house using the device and those standing idly by (think: when was the last time you did not interrupt a conversation with someone in your home in order to answer the phone?). Television shows -- in particular, the nightly news programs -- once united viewers across the country around a common experience while at the same time they separated fans of competing programs airing at the same time.

Yet the Internet has accelerated this aggregating-polarizing tendency so significantly that it arguably qualifies as a difference in kind, not simply in degree. I would therefore second Teachout's plea and beseech readers, writers, listeners, and the like to use the Blogosphere's astounding capabilities to build mutual understanding, or at the very least to encourage people to encounter alternate viewpoints, not merely to bolster partisan belief (although the latter has its purposes too). Fortunately, TCS has gone a long way toward fostering such an encounter and it's a privilege to be a part of it.

Michael M. Rosen, a TCS contributor, is an attorney in San Diego.


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