Blogging USA: Thinkworld vs. Shoutworld

This article originally appeared in the Shoptalk section of the Editor & Publisher online edition.

— High hopes for the watchdogs in the blogosphere during Campaign 2004 were only partly realized, as consumers strapped on their blinders and hung a fast left or right, looking for a witty putdown they might agree with.

(November 13, 2004) — Expectations were high among the legions surfing the blogosphere during 2004 election campaign. Web logs speaking from the left, right, and middle (although mostly the left and right) crowded every corner of the Net, and their explosive growth and perceived influence led both Democratic and GOP leaders to extend convention credentials to online journalists.

All of the sudden, the real world was taking bloggers seriously.

In theory, this profusion of new-media reporters, analysts, muckrakers, agitators, fact vigilantes, and opinioneers was supposed to be a collection of jacked-up watchdogs at the electoral chicken coop. Since politicians are foxes by nature, you could expect midnight raids on the henhouse, but with a yard full of quick, interconnected, and techno-savvy terriers roaming loose, the chicken population was presumed safer than ever.

It seemed to be working, too. When one candidate or another took liberties with the truth, the bloggers landed on him with both boots. Bright light was shined on the lies, engaged cyber-citizens were redirected to sources documenting the real, verifiable truth of the matter, debate ensued on thousands of public discussion boards, and from this intense and unrelenting focus on the facts a more informed electoral result was bound to emerge.

This had been the ultimate promise of the Net all along, actually. Back in the mid-1990s, when the Clinton administration was lobbying for its new National Information Infrastructure policy, Vice President Al Gore hit the road with a vision of an Internet that did just about everything short of walking the dog.

Most compelling was his promise that the Net would greatly strengthen participatory democracy; in a speech to the International Telecommunication Union, Gore went so far as to predict that this amazing new technology would usher in “a new Athenian Age of democracy.” In this view (cultivated by the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Mitch Kapor, who drove much of the administration’s thinking on the subject), the Net would link citizens to the political process in ways never before possible.

It was as if the full thrust of Jefferson’s dream had never been realized because, up until now, we had simply lacked the necessary machinery.

That was the vision, but those of us conducting postmortums on Decision 2004 can’t help noticing the disconnect between what the Net promised and what it delivered. Without belaboring the point, it’s evident that Daily Kos, Wonkette, Instapundit, and the rest of us lesser bloggers did not lead America to an essentially informed decision, at least, not in any strict sense of the word. Ironically enough, the most hotly contested election of the Information Age was apparently decided on “values.”

What Gore and Kapor (and our current blogger corps, as well) may have missed is that the key assumptions of participatory democracy have very little to do with technology.

In the “marketplace of ideas” model that gave rise to the First Amendment, rationally self-interested citizens would enter the market with an informed, more or less open mind, where they would wander from stall to stall sampling the wide array of ideas on display. Some of these wares would be premium quality, some would be second-rate, and some would probably be rotten to the core, but an educated and contemplative electorate would inherently arrive at the best decision; in the estimation of John Milton, the “truth would out.”

This isn’t how the electronic marketplace we saw in this election worked. Instead, consumers strapped on their blinders, hit the entrance at a dead sprint, hung a fast left or right, and ran like hell for the section dedicated to their political dogmas and preconceptions.

Whether you agree with the (fairly obvious) political perspective informing this analysis or not, there can be very little argument on one essential point: In this election, the Internet did far less actual informing than it did providing ammunition for people whose minds were already made up.

Therein lies the Great Lesson of 2004: Technologies can mostly be counted on not to change us or improve us but to serve that which we already are.

America is instinctively given to black/white, either/or constructions. We’re reflexively attracted to simple answers for complex questions. We’re more prone to feeling than thinking. And while we like the idea that we’re among the world’s most intelligent cultures, our entertainers and athletes can earn twice as much in a day as our teachers earn in a year. In the world of politics, the unattractive and charisma-challenged need not apply for anything more glamorous than school board.

The Jeffersonian ideal is Thinkworld: educated, thoughtful, dispassionate.

But we live in Shoutworld, where “debates” are carried by the witty put-down, which trumps the insightful policy observation every time.

Given this, there was probably never a reason to expect the blogosphere to be more or less than precisely what it turned out to be: a revved-up techno-manifestation of the culture that created it.

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