Is Blogging Really a Conversation?

7 Nov ’06

One of the mantras of Web 2.0 is that blogging is a conversation. This, of course, is because of the exchange of ideas that is said to occur between the blogger, commenters, and other bloggers. There’s no question that some conversation occurs, but one also can’t help but notice that much of that ‘conversation’ often seems to consist less of an exchange than people simply agreeing with each other. This may be a conversation, but it’s often an exceedingly one-sided affair. These kinds of conversations often suffer no disagreement or contrary opinion, and often seem more interested in shoring up pre-existing views and already-held opinions than they are in having open discussion and debate. Put another way, they’re often more in the nature of love-ins and bonding sessions than they are exchanges of ideas. We know this model well, of course – all of us do. It’s called “High School”, and it’s more about establishing one’s role in a tribe and one’s relationships with its members than it is about debate. So much so that it’s inspired some to impressive feats of creative writing to decry it’s clique-y clubbiness. They call it “social” media for a reason, after all.

So I was very interested to read John Tierney’s column in the NYT today (Times Select, but the wall is down this week) about just that phenomenon, in political discourse in the U.S. today. Tierney’s point is that in the political culture of the day debate and discussion haven’t brought America to consensus. Americans have surrounded themselves with agreement and validation of already held opinions, and debate with those of differing views seems to result (and there is research to support this) in further polarization, not in consensus:

Thanks to cable television, talk radio and the Internet, it’s easier than ever for people to have their opinions validated around the clock. As the media audiences segregate themselves ideologically, they become more extreme in their views — and more convinced than ever that they represent the sensible middle.

When conservatives have their views reinforced daily on talk radio and Sundays at their churches, they start to believe the “mainstream media” is a bunch of wacko traitors. When liberals spend their days reading lefty blogs, or working on campuses surrounded by ideological soulmates, they start convincing themselves that most “corporate media” are right wing, and that Fox News is pure propaganda.

The research is rather clever, actually. Tierney notes:

But what really happens when people discuss politics? Consider an experiment last year, when groups of Coloradans convened separately in Boulder and Colorado Springs to discuss global warming, affirmative action and civil unions for same-sex couples. Before the discussions, the people in Boulder were on average more liberal than the ones in Colorado Springs, but there were also moderates in both places whose opinions overlapped.

After the group discussions, the people in Boulder moved to the left, and those in Colorado Springs moved to the right. The researchers — David Schkade, Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie — concluded that “the major effect of deliberation was to make group members more extreme than they were before they started to talk.”

This effect hasn’t been studied much in politics, but it’s well documented in other arenas. When jurors deliberate how much to award in damages, they often end up giving more than the average juror originally thought was fair — and sometimes more than anyone in the group originally favored. The more they talk, the more they reinforce one another’s indignation.

That this phenomenon exists outside blogging is well established, that it exists inside political blogging seems self-evident now, but I also think it’s pretty plain now that it’s a defining characteristic of the ‘sphere generally. Tierney’s closing comments, which are about the political ‘sphere, seem quite apt to me: “Of course, these ideological divides are small compared with the ones in the blogosphere, which is one giant version of the Colorado experiment. You can always find a group online to affirm your brilliant opinions.”

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