One of the fundamental flaws of the otherwise essential and democratising service of internet blogs and similar sites, despite their propensity to often attract characters with little or no intention of constructive debate, is that they are still too rigid in their inception.
In almost every example, the blog works thus – an author will post a comment, article or feature expressing a set of facts1 and, often, opinions related to those facts. This is then taken by the audience of readers who then judge the article against their own, if any, knowledge and opinions of the matter at hand. Many will then feel compelled to provide their own comment, which either directly addresses the author’s thoughts or chooses to simply offer an independent thought pertaining to the topic2. Comments then results in comments on comments and so on, creating debate.
Here begins the problem. Only a small percentage of readers will actually contribute, somewhat due to the cultural stigma of socially interacting online. This is something of an oddity given the hundreds of millions of online gamers and billions of participants in online social networking, but the trends clearly indicate a more proxy based future of socialising so are perhaps second in concern to the mere lack of interest in informed debate. Some participants offer a high level of intellectual discourse but all too few and usually only in matters they directly relate to or have some expertise in. Most offer a largely emotional response, often diminished in value with spurious information. The remainder is either incomprehensible, irrelevant or worse3.
The overall picture emerges as a largely disparate collection of comments, only in pockets relating to one another in an identifiable thread of debate. This is immediately therefore not a highly academic forum4, disengaging those who might offer valuable ideas, and neither does it have the sensationalized ramblings of celebrity and popular culture, disengaging the greater majority of the internet population.
Primarily, we cannot be over-concerned with the reality that currently the internet’s most utilized function is the sharing of media5, social networking and direct communications. Intellectual coercion into more meaningful pursuits is futile but the fact remains the internet does offer the perfect medium for what could be the right kind of forum.
I emphasize this because beyond the discussed structural dilemma exists probably the more damaging factor to the health of the more engaged online community. This is the problem of polarization and the ‘echo chamber’. Ultimately, the author of an article, or the collective of authors responsible for the body of work that creates a larger informative website, have an ideology. This may even be an inadvertent ideology, but one that nonetheless will be applied in spite of all efforts towards objectivity, because of the disconnect between the audience and the author(s). Once the article is published it is in the hands, or minds rather, of that audience and subject to their interpretations and bias, and so inevitably an ethos is established or imposed.
This ethos is completely integral to the fate of the website, due to the unfortunate fact that as much in real life as online, any issue worth discussing6 results in tribalism. Quite opposed to the optimistic view that literally removing one’s person from a diatribe should result in more measured and dispassionate exchanges, it has resulted in the abuse of unaccountability. This is not to say that all debate should be without passion. But it is well known that the worst abusers7 try to provoke something well beyond passion, often succeeding in degenerating the entire debate into a trading of insults and personal attacks. Tribalism is fairly self-explanatory – readers and contributors gravitate towards one part of the ideological spectrum and camp out there. This is partially understandable as challenging debate is precisely that – challenging. It is actually quite difficult and I think respectable to be able enter a debate and concede to losing, even if that loss is only internally registered.
Incidentally, it should not be shameful but admirable to openly admit defeat and an overturning of ones preconceived notions, but we’re not all saints and neither do we all believe that such a gracious act is that at all. Neither are our opponents always gracious in victory. But the reality is that often when confronted with views that oppose ours, we become more defensive and irrational. Part of the definition of enlightened debate is the ability to be objective and appreciate the value in an alternative theory, rejecting only those ideas that can logically and rationally be rejected while preventing emotional positions from rejecting the logical and rational.
However, the fairly vast quantity of sites where a ‘netizen8‘ can go to affirm their own beliefs, unchallenged by opposing views, makes it far too easy to avoid the debate. This is the echo-chamber. The same ideas bouncing back and forth amongst the same collective, unfiltered by dissenting opinion, and establishing those often skewed ideas as fact, is incalculably harmful to broader discourse. Not only is the health of that specific echo-chamber poor, but the internet has long been the propagator of great disinformation due to those without understanding of the unreliable nature of online information, lifting those ideas into the real world. It’s an irony therefore that the troll is probably one of the most mobile of netizens as they search around for the echo-chambers where a bit of prodding and poking will induce the best reactions.
Relatively termed moderate news organisations seem to offer the most reasoned forums, borne mainly out of their moderation. The information presented and it’s interpretations are neutral enough not to incite debate as such but more a string of either toothless or opinion based comments. But the usual rules apply, in that there will be a few informed and relevant comments and the usual amount of nonsense. The news, though, is still the news in it’s traditional capacity however improved in accessibility and breadth and depth of coverage. It serves it’s function as the deliverer of informations that should in fact be free of opinion and interpretation with the exception of discussing the permutations of ongoing stories. Understandably in building a comprehensive picture of a story, a news organisation might discuss with partisan actors the situation, which could influence a viewers position. But I believe the primary mandate of news is the mere dissemination of pure, unadulterated information. To inform the debate.
This is why I believe the blog is completely essential. In the United Kingdom it is more a convenience that we can go online and enter a debate without having to walk out of the front door, pick up the phone or otherwise directly interact with fellow man, but elsewhere in the world it is I think nothing short of lifesaving. It goes without saying that the gathering of free-thinking people for the discussion of ideas is something that often results in persecutions of all variety, be they insipid or outright murderous. But either in the UK or my hence invented “Tyrannistan9” it is true that blog offers a comparatively safe place for debate, if we assume the blog could be used to it’s full and proper potential.
I don’t have a solution as such, but at least I have an idea as to how the blog can be improved in general. The previously mentioned rigidity can be resolved to some extent, by improving the role of the author of the blog and in doing so improving the health of the debate. The first step is to offer more than the facts and interpretation or opinion. In a community so rife with opinions, the author should do more to expose their own evolution of thought so as to situate themselves in essence amongst the audience.
An idea can be formed when one receives a piece of information. For the sake of illustration let’s describe an opulent young princeling caught on camera in acts somewhat less than discretionary10. It is not unfair to assume that in the first instance, you will not be exposed to every potential element of information regarding this story and so your initial reaction will be based on your pre-existing position regarding all factors of the story, including one’s emotional positions. That is to say the initial reaction should not be regarded as valid. Hopefully an individual would then not be content with their incomplete understanding of things and would seek to better inform themselves. Being not omniscience, and all sources of information themselves not being omniscient, we can only go so far in this aim. But I think there is an acceptable state of being informed that falls short of all-knowing which fully permits the individual to form a more complete idea that can be shared and discussed. The evolution of the idea is still not finished however as we are rarely capable of total objectivity, and the final stage of an idea remains as one still influenced by emotion. This is also entirely acceptable I believe. The emotional aspect is nothing less than the sum of all thoughts and experiences that compose a person’s character and is utterly essential in the theatre of unique ideas.
There should be a great deal more transparency in this evolution. An author should have no qualms in admitting that their ideas are based on all of these things:
The initial, emotional, partially informed view.
The view as it looks when all available information is considered.
And the final view, where we allow our emotional aspect back in.
So in terms of our example:
The young prince has been caught in an embarrassing situation, which seems irresponsible of him given his position and likely to cause some outrage and debate. Some will criticise and others will support him. His past has been tarnished by other public indiscretions although these incidents also speak to an unhealthy public appetite for meaningless scandal and the media’s willingness to indulge it. More recently he has been successfully adopting the responsibilities of his position to public acclaim.
The young prince was on a holiday with friends, away from civic duties and active military service, at a private function. The images taken were candid and in the middle of what could be described as a risqué but entirely recreational game involving the removal of clothes. The photos were leaked, presumably by someone who the prince had placed implicit trust in by socially letting his guard down.
The situation is obviously difficult for the prince. As a young man he should be fully entitled to the experiences of a young man, and as a soldier he is fully entitled to rest and relaxation. The leak of the photos taken at a private party was a crass, immoral act, taking advantage of the fame of someone trying to enjoy themselves and causing hysteria and distracting many from more important issues. The prince was doing nothing illegal. But it remains that he is a public figure of great interest, with responsibilities, including those of a role model, that are only due to increase. It seems he can either choose to be servile to his institutionally desired image, and austere, or choose to act as he pleases with full appreciation that the public will take voracious interest in his activities, potentially to the detriment of his image and thus to the future responsibilities handed to him.
Which eventuality becomes true seems entirely down to his choice of actions and what he wants for his future. I do not believe the public has a right to any knowledge of a person beyond that which is directly relevant to their public office, although the definition of ‘directly relevant’ is open to debate. The whole affair leads me to conclude that the prince is a normal11 young man in an abnormal situation that he has not fully learned to manage and that there is a poor shortage of decency in many with regards to how they feed, and are fed by, the tabloid press. Tabloid journalism is itself largely a vapid and wasteful pursuit, that qualifies more as cruel entertainment than any kind of informative service.
Now clearly this form of presenting information and sustaining a debate around it is nothing close to genuinely objective. One could even say that I provide a visceral enough commentary that falls on one side of the issue to the extent that I could expect condemnations of my critique and heavily dissenting views. But rather than simply an honest portrayal of my thoughts on the matter as they were at the time of writing, I as the author should then feel responsible to the debate I have created, and should remain engaged. It is not enough to only write and sit back.
The author should respond to opinions and further information provided by the audience, discuss with them the ongoing issue and most importantly be willing to change their stance. By going through process of detailing the evolution of thought, which includes all of the evidence possessed to arrive at the conclusion, there is nothing to say that a good argument or countering piece of evidence shouldn’t change the conclusion. Implementing these methods I believe would go a long way towards distancing the debate from the echo-chamber. If the authors own beliefs are rationally fluid then there can be no accusation of partisanship and the audience who participate in any given debate are heavily influenced by the tone of the author12.
This may seem like an overbearing commitment for the author whose lot is the ever changing state of current affairs but clearly no debate lasts forever as eventually all will be said and reasonable conclusions drawn. The positives in this approach would be significant however as participants would feel far more engaged than as they are now, trading comments amongst themselves. The author in assuming a more moderating role could also take some control over who participates. Crucial to this is not censoring opposing views but merely those who offer no views and only grief to people truly looking for an informed conversation.
One could only hope that in making these changes, the number of people willing to participate would increase, creating a healthy and dynamic sphere of online debate.
1 Word “facts” used with appreciation for the deluge of misinformation present across the breadth of published materials.
2 Unless contributor is an infamous ‘troll’, scourge of enlightened debate and those with soft skins, previously mentioned as those with no interest in constructive debate.
3 See “trolls”
4 The brief is almost exclusively addressing news, current affairs or other relatively ‘high brow’ sites.
5 See “pornography” and “Youtube”
6 And comically all too often, perhaps even predominately, issues completely devoid of any worth or merit.
7 This will be the last footnote regarding trolls, and the term will be used henceforth. If you were still under any doubt as to what the troll is, a good description might read – “A spineless coward without sufficient meaning in their own life to prevent them from scouring the internet for people susceptible to being baited into outrage and despair by calculated attempts to do just that.” For example, extolling the virtues of an undeniable hero such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Martin Luther King Day might elicit a troll to respond (and my sincere apologies, as this entirely created example will offend), “That faggot nigger, should have strung him up when we had the chance.” Of course, a troll would probably not use accurate spelling or grammar, and though besides the point that the comment is essentially inhuman, speaks to a broadly held suspicion that the troll is, on average, a slavering moron.
8 Portmanteau of ‘internet’ and ‘citizen’, a rather apt word for those who do a little more than check their email periodically.
9 Open debate: What does the nature of the name of my invented nation say about my inherent prejudices as a “Westerner”?
10 Apologies for detailing such an banal incident lacking any genuine public interest, unless you consider foul gossip and innuendo as important to the public interest. It just happens to be topical and easy to parse.
11 In spite of the “royalty” issue.
12 Which applies not only to their points of contention or agreement, but to their overall conduct. Author participation in the ensuing debate can also guide this.