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?