.: talks --> waging peace: using our powers for good
waging peace: using our powers for good
blogtalk, vienna, austria
24 may 2003
Good Morning! My name is Rebecca Blood. I am delighted to be in this beautiful country, and I'm honored to have been asked to speak at this, the first European Conference on Weblogs.
Throughout the conference, we will be hearing about the possibilities inherent in weblogs, not only in the technologies that are available, but in the communities and human connections that are created and strengthened by weblogs. But I would like to take a look at one of the hazards these communities engender--the danger of isolationism. And I hope to provide some examples of the ways in which we can use our weblogs to bring together people--and ideas--which normally would not mingle.
Throughout my talk I will be referring specifically to weblogs that are focused on politics and current events, but my cautions apply to weblogs of all kinds. Groupthink is a persistent danger for all organizations: social, political, military, scientific, and so on.
When thinking about this topic, there are two factors I'd like to consider. The first is personal expression. From their inception, weblogs have been know as platforms for opinion and creativity. Bloggers who link to articles about politics and current events present readers with their version of the day's news. Rather than relying on mass media outlets to determine the relative importance of the events of the day, bloggers can organize the news to their own liking, ranking, highlighting, and contextualizing articles according to their own critera. I have adopted Greg Ruggerio's term "participatory media" to describe this practice of actively reframing the news that is fed to us through established outlets.
Because they work on the Web, bloggers have the luxury of sifting through many more news sources than they would in any other medium. An interested blogger can find reputable accounts of national and international events from dozens or hundreds of news organizations. A motivated blogger can compare these accounts in order to piece together a more accurate depiction than any one source will provide. Weblogs point to the full range of sources, often citing another personal publisher in the same sentence as a major media columnist.
Bloggers, if they have a mandate, are determined to present a personal view of the world. No one expects them to be objective; no one expects them to present all sides of any issue; and no one expects them to be fair.
The second factor to consider is community. When I began Rebecca's Pocket, I think there were about 50 other sites that called themselves weblogs. By 2001, only two years later, there were hundreds of thousands. The weblog community had grown into a universe. Weblog clusters emerged. New blogs located themselves in a neighborhood of like-minded weblogs with their sidebar of links. It was--and is--easy to see a new weblogger's aspirations in their blogroll. With a simple list of links, newcomers declare themselves to be serious about design, passionate about politics, devoted to the arts, or enthusiastic about cooking.
Today, I estimate the weblog universe to consist of at least 500,000 active weblogs. RSS readers have made it possible to follow quite a large number of sites, but it is no longer possible to even know the names of all the weblogs, let alone read them all. Bloggers establish themselves in their corner of cyberspace and then proceed to form connections and relationships with others who have located themselves nearby. Links are exchanged. Conversations started. Friendships are formed. The Web has made it possible to connect with others who are like we are, people who are interested in the same things, doing the same kind of work, or who just see the world the way we do.
This is, without a doubt, one of the great surprises and pleasures of blogging for those who have not previously spent much time online. Through our weblogs we can make human connections.
These two factors have combined to create an incredibly interesting, vital media ecosystem. Bloggers state their opinions. Other bloggers respond. Often readers get into the action, sending email or adding their 2-cents worth in the weblog's commenting system. People often describe the weblog era as a revolution in personal publishing, but there has never been, perhaps, such an age of debate.
So what's the problem?
Well, the problem is two-fold. People agree most readily with the things they already believe, and everyone has only 24 hours in a day. Because of these two factors, weblogs are too often enclosed in echo-chambers of their own making.
In the book 'Data Smog', David Shenk says: 'Birds of a feather flock virtually together' and this is certainly true of weblogs. He goes on to say: 'The problem... is that people are tuning in and becoming informed--but they're tuning into niche media and they're acquiring specialized knowledge. As our information supply increases, our common discourse and shared understanding decrease. Technically, we possess an unprecedented amount of information; however, what is commonly known has dwindled to a smaller and smaller percentage every year. This should be a sobering realization for a democratic nation, a society that must share information in order to remain a union.'
Let me add that it's not just specialized knowledge that we are accessing. It's news and opinion about current events. The Web has given us the ability to retrieve news accounts from around the world. It used to be that most people got their news from just a few sources. This limited access meant that most of us were evaluating events from a common pool of information about the world, or at least a pool that was common to the people around us. But Web users can choose to get their news from wherever they like. And factual accounts of the same events quite often differ substantially in their wording, emphasis, and in the conclusions they draw. We now have the ability to choose from among news accounts until we find one that we feel gets it right.
Now, I don't advocate returning to the pre-Web world of local newspapers. But there are consequences to the wide access we have gained.
Democracy depends on groups of people coming to terms with one another, and devising solutions that will address the needs of most, if not all, of its citizens. Even a system like mine, in the United States, where majority rules, cannot afford to completely ignore the needs of anyone not in the winning party. Democracies simply cannot function unless citizens and policy-makers can talk to one another and achieve some sort of common ground in addressing the issues of the day.
However, when people can choose their news and information from an unlimited variety of sources, they usually will choose sources that confirm their pre-existing biases. According to theFolklorist.com, confirmation bias is 'a tendency on the part of human beings to seek support or confirmation for their beliefs.' It makes sense, if you think about it. The only basis we have in evaluating any source of information is the set of information--including opinions--that we have already decided is true. Very few people will be inclined to choose primary sources of information that consistently put forth ideas that just seem wrong.
This isn't deliberate malice. It's a simple matter of choosing, from the available sources, those that seem most accurate, and those that seem most accurate will always be those that most closely reflect one's own view of the world. So while the Web, in theory, makes it possible to explore many more points of view than ever before, in practice, few people actually do this to the extent that they can.
Why does this happen? One answer is simply, time. Although the Internet stretches further than any of us can reach, we are all given only 24 hours in a day. Each of us, even bloggers, has an attention economy. We divide our hours between the things we have to do, the things we want to do, and sleep. Most of us reserve our Web time for the subjects that interest us the most. And most of us find that the people with whom we most agree, make the most sense.
I have found webloggers to be intensely interested in reading intelligent, thoughtful examinations of the issues of the day. But what qualifies as intelligent and thoughtful? In the summer of 2001, I began to notice that my usual round of weblogs had become rather boring. As I clicked through from weblog to weblog, I found a wonderful array of articles and opinion pieces--all of which reflected the same set of underlying assumptions. Oh, some of these articles disagreed with each other. But all of them were founded on the same basic worldview.
After the September 11 attacks, a new cluster of weblogs formed, the warbloggers. They were, as a rule, obsessed with the US 'war on terror', and most of them advocated a strong military response to the events of that day. The echo chamber effect in that group was even more pronounced that it was in the group of my liberal favorites. As the war progressed, the din in each cluster became louder and louder. In each cluster, weblogs linked to articles that reflected their own way of thinking, highlighting sections that were especially astute. In each cluster, weblogs linked to articles they disagreed with, vilifying them, ridiculing them, or just declaring them to be wrong. And in each cluster, weblog linked to like-minded weblog, congratulating each other on the wisdom and insight found in their own corner of the Web.
The problem was, nobody was talking to each other. Entering either cluster, a reader would find dozens of links to other weblogs, all of which reflected the same point of view. Wandering through either cluster, one quickly came to the conclusion that there was a consensus opinion, that a majority of Americans fully supported the war in Afghanistan--or conversely, that the majority was on the verge of impeaching the President. Confronted with accusations of 'stifling dissent', these weblog clusters were quick to point out the vigorous discussions that occurred among their members. What they didn't see is that these debates were most often about minutia--not about the fundamental aspects of their worldviews.
I have no doubt that weblogs can encourage involvement and real discussion. But the conventions of the same form can be used to shut ourselves off from opposing points of view. When this happens, existing rifts just widen. The danger of groupthink is this: An environment that creates the illusion that everyone else agrees with you destroys the need to investigate further.
Now, my purpose here is not to criticize anyone's weblog. Each of us will always write about the subjects that are of interest to us. Each of us is likely to put forth our opinions on our blogs, and to link to the articles that seem to us to get it right. And each of us has a very limited amount of time each day to try to find out the truth, and to work out what we think is right.
But I would like to tell you about two sites that are fighting this exclusionary trend. In fact, these two sites have been designed specifically to foster dialogue between groups of people who maintain differing points of view.
Nearly a year old, Slugger O'Toole is 'a news and research portal, looking at various strands of political aspects of life in Northern Ireland.' Its readership has grown from 83 readers a day in July of last year to about 1000 today. Links are posted by creator Mick Fealty, and readers discuss items in the comment threads. Mick makes it a point to link to articles that represent the full range of different viewpoints, and he reserves the right to edit abusive comments from posts, rather than deleting the entire entry, in order to preserve all the points that are made by participants. In email, Mick told me:
'It's important to understand that though Catholics and protestants often live in the same streets and towns, their schooling and general social life, not to mention their choice of newspaper is substantially segregated. The result is that there is little shared understanding. Even minor events are separately interpreted. One of the first things Slugger O'Toole has attempted to do is to put substantial interpretations from both sides into a common inclusive pool, so that each side is exposed even to the extremes of the other.'
I asked if he had witnessed members changing their views as a result of their participation on the site. He answered, 'There have been no conversions as such. But there have been some journeys. Mostly in civility. We have seen a growth in tolerance between people who were very short with each other when they first met.'
Dialog Now was created by India-born Rashmi Sinha in the aftermath of the December 2001 standoff between India and Pakistan. Seeing that face-to-face communication was no longer possible between people in these countries, Rashmi created her website in order to keep them talking. Her rules are simple: state your opinion--then listen. Be civil. Break the rules, and you're booted off the site.
Rashmi explained to me just how complicated things can be: 'India and Pakistan are not the only two 'groups' on DialogNow. Each of the two groups has subgroups: there are hawks from both sides, moderates and peaceniks from both sides. Moreover, there are pro-current Government, and anti-current Government viewpoints on both sides. Religion provides another dimension of difference. Therefore, while superficially DialogNow is about India and Pakistan, it is really about a far more complex and messy reality.'
She went on: 'The co-existence of all these constituencies within the same space dilutes, to some extent, the straight 'us versus them' version of reality. Thus Pakistanis have a chance to appreciate that there are strong differences within Indians, and vice versa. I suspect, that this is probably what has the most impact: seeing the other side not as a monolithic group with an opposing viewpoints, but as individuals and sub-groups with their own interests and viewpoints.'
Rashmi herself has been affected. She told me: 'After talking regularly with people from Pakistan for more than a year, it is difficult for me to discuss 'Pakistani viewpoint', because I know that there are people within that country who strongly disagree with each other.'
Both Slugger O'Toole and DialogNow serve to filter news about a specific topic to an interested audience, but more importantly, they are getting ideas--ideas from all sides--out into the open and in front of everyone who cares to read. When you log onto either site, you can be assured that you will be met with people who care passionately about the same issues, but who come at those issues from completely different points of view. People who visit these sites have made a conscious decision not to shut themselves off from opposing viewpoints, but to share in the contentious, messy, uncomfortable business of engaging with other human beings.
Now, not all of us have time to create weblogs like these. Most of us have enough to do just to update our own sites. But we can work to find other writers, both within the community of weblogs and without, who are concerned about the same things we are. We can make it a point not to rely on those who think like we do--but to find those who think about the same things from another angle. It can take time. Breaking out of our usual round of sources can take a substantial time investment. And there is little that is less comfortable than challenging our own assumptions and beliefs.
The weblog form itself encourages spontaneous blurts. But there are people from all backgrounds on weblogs and beyond, composing carefully considered opinions every day. And that, I think, can be our mandate. To spend a little bit of our weblog time in trying to understand the truth of those who see the same events, differently; in trying to illuminate the inexplicable human beings that surround us.
In my book I say: 'In the twenty-first century, the world demands that we broaden our view, not narrow it further. We have in the weblog an unprecedented tool with which to share ideas and understand other worldviews, but this opportunity is squandered when we deliberately shield ourselves from differing points of view.... The insightful weblogger has an opportunity to elucidate and navigate the unknown for his readers instead of pulling the gate shut behind them. The webloggers have always been Web travelers. Let us bring home thoughtful stories of little-understood cultures, especially when that culture belongs to the man next door.'
citation: Blood, Rebecca. "Waging Peace." Blogtalk. Vienna, Austria. 24 May 2003. accessed from Rebecca's Pocket 08 January 2006. <http://www.rebeccablood.net/talks/waging_peace.html">