Information overload

Warning: rambling, poorly-organized thoughts follow.
I enjoy discussion and speculation about the blogosphere’s influence on the Old Media, and so I read with interest this exchange between Jeff Jarvis and the NYT’s Bill Keller (via Andrew Sullivan). Searching about the web will reveal a great many other conversations taking place about the same general topic.
There are a lot of issues behind the “blogs vs. Old Media” question. Are blogs going to break down and rebuild in their own image the way we receive and interpret news and information? Will blogs force a reform of Old Media practices and attitudes and then settle comfortably into peaceful co-existence with a reformed media establishment? Or are blogs just a flash in the pan, the refuge of embittered hacks who mistake the nitpicking of legitimate news stories with meaningful journalism?
More importantly, I think the questions boil down to this: who will act as the information gatekeepers of the next century? Do we want a trained and professional cadre that we trust to filter news and information for us responsibly? Or do we want everyone to have equal access to all available information, and place on individuals the burden of filtering that information down to a meaningful, comprehensible digest?
One fact that has been slowly dawning on me over the last year is that the latter method–having access to a vast amount of information and trying to filter it down into something I can understand and to which I can respond–is a truly daunting task. I want raw, “unprocessed” news and information to be freely available so that I can form my own ideas based upon them; I dislike the idea of getting my information pre-filtered and pre-packaged via a newspaper, radio station, or news network. So at first glance, the internet and the blogosphere seem like a dream come true: so much information, so many opinions, so much data, all free to compete for my attention in an equal-opportunity ocean of ideas!
That sounds good to me. But while I like this system better than the alternative, I’m not convinced that it leads to a more informed populace at all, despite the easy access we now have to the same pool of facts and information from which the Old Media draws its stories. Faced with a million different points of view and information aggregators, people simply choose the ones that support viewpoints they already hold. With all the ideas floating around the web, you’d think that we’d all be more open than ever to other points of view and opposing opinions; but the reality is that our new ability to choose our own information sources actually makes it easier than ever to avoid exposure to ideas we don’t like. We choose what we believe, and then we choose information channels that confirm those views. To use a political example: If you’re a liberal, you probably read mostly liberal blogs and news that reinforce your beliefs, and you find it difficult to understand how anyone could possibly be a conservative. My own diet of mostly conservative information confirms my own conservative beliefs, and makes me feel the same way about liberals.
The sheer vastness of information out there is simply impossible to interpret without applying filters, and the vastness of the internet makes it easier than ever to find a filter that conforms exactly to your wishes. And the vastness of information means it’s easier than ever to find backing for your ideas, no matter how reasonable or crazy there are. Have an opinion about abortion, gun control, or the president? Give me five minutes with Google and I guarantee I can produce convincing-sounding data that argues exactly the opposite.
How exactly have we benefited from this vast openness of information?
Don’t get me wrong. Given a choice between having my news spoon-fed to me by a massive, biased, elitist, yellow-journalist news bureaucracy or picking my own news sources from a vast pool of equal contenders, I’ll go with the latter option without hesitation. But there are days that I wonder: are we actually tapping into a vast and unbiased information universe? Or faced with more information than we can possibly comprehend, do we just pick and choose the things that confirm what we already believe?

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4 Comments

  1. Ed Heil says:

    “Faced with a million different points of view and information aggregators, people simply choose the ones that support viewpoints they already hold. With all the ideas floating around the web, you’d think that we’d all be more open than ever to other points of view and opposing opinions; but the reality is that our new ability to choose our own information sources actually makes it easier than ever to avoid exposure to ideas we don’t like. We choose what we believe, and then we choose information channels that confirm those views. To use a political example: If you’re a liberal, you probably read mostly liberal blogs and news that reinforce your beliefs, and you find it difficult to understand how anyone could possibly be a conservative. My own diet of mostly conservative information confirms my own conservative beliefs, and makes me feel the same way about liberals”
    I’m pretty sure I’ve read about a study that disconfirmed this — that showed that people who got their news via the Internet and read a lot of blogs tended to be *better* informed about opposing viewpoints than people who didn’t.
    I couldn’t point you to it though.
    I don’t read a whole lot of news or politics oriented blogs anymore, but when I did, I remember that “liberal bloggers” who were dedicated to their task tended to keep their fingers on the pulse of the conservative blogs, and report on what they were saying (and try to debunk it).
    In such a context, of course, they would actually *link* to the original articles, so if you were interested you could actually *see* the opposing point of view unfiltered. Even if you didn’t click through, the knowledge that you could instantly check up on them constrained them to represent the opposing viewpoint with reasonable accuracy.
    So it seems there’s less to worry about with the “echo chamber effect” than one might think.

  2. jrau says:

    Thanks for commenting, Ed. You’re right, and I’m definitely exaggerating the seriousness of the echo chamber effect. But there’s something disconcerting about seeing polar opposite ideas presented on different blogs, each backed with seemingly credibly data. I can point to one blog with undeniable evidence that (for instance) things in Iraq are going very poorly. I can then point you to another blog with equally undeniable evidence that things in Iraq are going very well. Who do I believe? Assuming that neither source strikes me as particularly more reliable than the other, I guess I just choose the option that sounds better to me personally…
    Ah well. I don’t mean to focus on the negative here. Maybe I’m just frustrated at the prospect of actually having to deal myself with all the shades of gray out there. Know what I mean?

  3. kim says:

    I adore the fact that blogs are so inherently and openly partisan. I’ve heard a number of complaints from people who think that the Old Media’s overemphasis on providing a balanced story will often lead to distortions and lazy reporting (e.g., relying on he said-she said stories, where they report what the president says and then what the Democratic leader says, and then let those quotes stand as the whole story rather than, say, fact-checking either party’s statement for accuracy). Blogs make no pretense at objectivity and are perfectly free to call things as they see them – I find it very refreshing.
    I’ve also found in my own experience that reading blogs by people I don’t agree with (and I try to do so regularly) is fascinating. When the rare blogger can reason and write well – even on topics where I disagree with them – I definitely come to a better understanding of their perspective, even if I am not swayed by their arguments. And you can come up with better arguments to support your own viewpoint if you understand what the opposition actually believes rather than inventing a strawman.

  4. michele says:

    Speaking for myself, I have a hard time trying to sort out all the competing information sources on the internet. For one thing, I don’t believe there is such a thing as unbiased news reporting–by the time news appears on the internet, it has already been filtered through many people and their inherent biases. Even news written by the eyewitnesses to events is influenced by the way their culture and past experiences affect they way they see things; and by their choice of which aspects of the event to write about (because no one person can know everything about any event, or write every single thing they know), and the way they write it.
    A lot of these biases are unconscious and indeed necessary; there is no such thing as a tabula rasa, we need a way to understand things before we can understand them. While this “way” is not entirely out of our control, we cannot become entirely free of this context either. The best we can do is try to be aware of our biases and change those that we determine are wrong, but we can only understand this context by which we understand in terms of that same context.
    It’s weird for me to be defending the Mainstream Media since I’ve paid it very little attention over the last few years, but it does have advantages. An inherent part of the journalistic profession is to try to ferret out one’s own and one’s sources biases, and account for them when reporting as close to the truth of the story as possible. The M.M. is very much under the public eye, and thus there are consequences when the journalist fails to do this; the whole Dan Rather debacle proves rather than disproves this point.
    Not only the truth of the reporters’ stories, but the reporters themselves are very much subject to public scrutiny. I know who Dan Rather is and what he’s like, and hence I know what kind of bias would tend to show up in his stories. Not so with bloggers. Except for the most famous ones, I don’t know who these people are or anything about them. There’s no particular reason for me to believe they’re even telling the truth as they understand it, there’s no consequences if they simply make stuff up. They aren’t professionally trained to recognize and try to eliminate bias as part of their job; thus I don’t know what their biases are or to what extent they are aware of their own biases and are trying to account for them.
    I too enjoy the internet and feel that it gets me closer to the truth, but not because it is telling “the truth” without liberal bias. I take every purported “fact” I hear on the internet with several hefty grains of salt. Since bias is inescapable in any type of news reporting, the value of the internet is getting all those biases out there and in dialogue; and through this dialectical process between different opinions we get closer to the truth.
    If I read two diametrically opposed opinions on Iraq, both backed up with “facts,” for example, I really don’t know any more about what’s going on in Iraq; who knows if what they are saying is the truth, or is put in correct perspective, or what else is going on that might affect the significance of this “fact.” I might hear a thing or two that hasn’t gotten reported in the M.M., and if they’re indeed true that’s interesting. But the real value is knowing that there are at least two entirely different ways of viewing the topic of Iraq, held by two people who appear to be knowledgable about the subject. I can then evaluate these *opinions*, if not the facts, based on my own knowledge, values, and so forth. Neither view might be “true,” but the process of understanding and evaluating these views helps me recognize my own biases, and hones my ability to understand and to recognize bias and fallacy in others’ arguments.

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