Trapped in the echo chamber

The Internet makes it easy to find people we agree with. After Election Day 2004, maybe it's time to kick that habit.

Topics: 2004 Elections,

As I survey the wreckage of the lefty blogosphere Wednesday morning, it is easy to wonder: How could I, how could we, have been so wrong? How could the confidence and jubilation generated by the thriving communities at blogs like Atrios’ Eschaton and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga’s Daily Kos so thoroughly have evaporated into self-recrimination and despair? (To be sure, there have also been eloquent calls to arms.)

Like many a left-winger with broadband access, I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the past six months at such sites. I learned a lot about this country by doing so — there’s no better way to get quickly to the nitty-gritty of local politics and candidates all across the country than hearing from citizens involved. As a journalist, I’ve gotten scads of tips from the awesomely efficient early-warning system created by thousands of people coming together online. I enjoyed following the commentary on such sites during the presidential debates almost as much as I enjoyed watching John Kerry win them. And there’s no question that the lefty blogosphere proved to be an effective fundraising mechanism.

But I feel now much like a kid who ate too much Halloween candy — there’s a taste in my mouth that tells me I overdosed. I fell victim to one of the Internet’s most seductive illusions: the false reassurance of the echo chamber.

Early this year, as part of the Howard Dean campaign’s postmortem, David Weinberger wrote a piece in Salon criticizing the argument that the Internet facilitates echo chambers. Echo chambers, so the argument goes, are places where like-minded people talk to one another, nobody ever changes anyone else’s mind and true diversity of opinion is exchanged for an infinite plenitude of ideologically identical communities. The Internet, say critics, is really, really good at providing logistical support for such places.

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Weinberger’s central point is that there are good reasons to have gathering places for like-minded individuals, one of which is that people who agree on founding principles can then move on to discuss more subtle nuances that are themselves diverse — a bunch of Kerry supporters thrashing out get-out-the-vote strategies, for example.

That’s all well and good, but the problem with the argument, I think, is that it underplays how easy it is to let an Internet site of like-mindedness form a nice, soft cocoon of intellectual safety around one’s head. For weeks, I’ve gotten up in the morning, made my coffee and then armed myself for the day with arguments and anecdotes, spin and rhetoric often in large part derived from the thrust-and-parry of discourse in the lefty blogosphere. When I visited the right-wing blogosphere, it was like going to the zoo to look at exotic animals. Sometimes I admired the quality of its spin, too, but I dismissed it, secure in the armor provided by the communities of people who shared my values.

We all do this in the course of our normal daily existence, with or without the Internet. It’s part of how we survive as human beings. Even as I look with dismay at the reality of Republican gains in the Senate and the House, and the likely remaking of the Supreme Court to reflect values that I don’t share for a generation to come, I take heart that there are some 55 million people in this country who do agree with me on some fundamental issues. What I find disturbing, however, is how easy the Internet has made it not just to Google the fact that I need when I need it, but to get the mind-set I want when I want it.

I really think I need to get out more, now. Perhaps if I’d spent less time at Daily Kos and more time talking to people who live in Alabama I’d have been less surprised by the election results. And perhaps I’d be better prepared to deal with them.

Andrew Leonard
Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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