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And while there may be many good reasons to hate Facebook, an insufficient diversity of views isn’t one of them. One of the chief effects of using the site, after all, is to discover your friends’ horrifying opinions.
In political terms, that means it’s easier, not harder, to break out of those longstanding Red Team and Blue Team bubbles. It’s rare for real people’s politics to be an exact fit with the standardized boxes provided by the traditional media; Crossfire-style shows might not have much room for pro-life liberals or conservationist conservatives, but the Web does. Our political maps—not just the conventional left-right spectrum, but all the alternatives that people have proposed—can never describe the full range of our perspectives. No matter how you map our political philosophies, someone somewhere will have fused two ideas that you’ve put on opposite sides of your chart. In a world of hyperlinks, everything is adjacent to everything else. “Left” and “right” become as meaningless as “up” and “down” in outer space.
Nor is it clear that politics are the most important factor in the new filters. At the beginning of the book, Pariser tells us about two friends who searched simultaneously for “BP” during last year’s oil leak. Google gave one woman a page of links about the situation in the gulf, while the other friend received a page of investment information. “If the results were that different for these two progressive East Coast women,” Pariser writes, “imagine how different they would be for my friends and, say, an elderly Republican in Texas.” I’d be a lot more impressed if he had actually included an old Texas Republican in the experiment. Instead all he’s established is that two people with the same politics are being sorted in different ways, a result that actually cuts against the idea that we’re being autofiltered into ideological bubbles. Either that, or one of his friends did the search wrong.
Even rigid partisans like to visit the other team’s outlets. Republican and Democratic blogs scour one another for posts they can link and mock; rumbles break out in the comment threads. Last year Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro, two economists at the University of Chicago, did a formal study of the levels of ideological segregation online. Their paper, to be published in an upcoming Quarterly Journal of Economics, noted that the Net “makes it easy to consume news from multiple sources.” People who get their information from one source “tend to be light users, and their sole source tends to be one of the large relatively centrist outlets”; meanwhile, “people who visit sites like drudgereport.com or hufﬁngtonpost.com, by contrast, are heavy Internet users with a strong interest in politics. Although their political views are relatively extreme, they also tend to consume more of everything, including centrist sites and occasionally sites with conﬂicting ideology.” Not surprisingly, the scholars found “no evidence that the Internet is becoming more segregated over time.”
A decade ago, the most quoted cartoon about life online said, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Today that’s been displaced by a different cartoon, one where a man won’t come to bed because “someone is wrong on the Internet.” If we’re living in bubbles, they’re bubbles that sure like to ram into each other. And bubbles that collide are bubbles that are more likely to burst.