Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Combatting the echo chamber: a challenge

By the standards of the Truth Laid Bear's Canadian blogs community, I have a "midlist" blog with a pretty average-sized readership. It fluctuates somewhat, of course, with less traffic in the summer and more during an election or when I write something that gets linked around a bit. But for the most part, the audience for Canadian political commentary just isn't all that big, and even the bloggers at the top of that list have to be satisfied with a few hundred hits per day.

I've been aware that things look a little different south of the border--I mean, I've heard Markos Moulitsas on the radio talking about how his Daily Kos gets between five hundred thousand and a million hits a day. But last week, when my post about the cultural implications of George Bush massaging German Chancellor Angela Merkel got linked by an A-list American blog at the same time that blog got linked by the Washington Post, I had my first brush with the kind of traffic that some of those folks get on a regular basis. (It's more or less back to normal by now, although I'm still getting dozens of hits per day from all the google traffic--I'm apparently in the top five hits on "Bush groping," and number one for "president bush touching woman.")

Now, I admit that my first reaction was to be pretty excited--after all, if we bloggers didn't care about being read, we'd be writing our screeds in our personal diaries and hiding them under our pillows. It didn't take long, though, for the excitement to give way to a sort of irritation. I like to think that I've written at least a handful of decent posts over the couple of years I've been doing this, but I slap something up there with the words "george bush" and "groping" in it, and I've suddenly made the big time? All at once I had a lot of sympathy for Just Society's observation that when you write "Michael Ignatieff" or "Warren Kinsella" in your post, you get a lot more traffic than when you write about things that actually matter to you. More frustrating even than that was the fact that most of my visitors were from the U.S., and pretty much none of them stuck around to read anything else. And apart from making a few snarky remarks to my friends about that annoying tendency Americans have of ignoring anything that's not about them, there wasn't really anything I could do about it.

Picking on the Americans isn't really the point in this case, anyway, because the whole damn blogosphere is like this. The mainstream media has leveled a lot of criticism at us bloggers in the last couple of years, and among the most apropos is that we're nothing but an echo chamber. Let's try an experiment: Raise your hand if you regularly read a blog written by someone with someone with a very different political perspective from your own. Keep it raised if there's more than one. Keep it raised if you also regularly read at least one blog written by someone who lives in another country. Keep it raised if that country is not the United States. Is there anyone left with their hand still raised? I'm betting pretty few. And when it comes to political and cultural blogs, this is a particularly damning assessment because it means that we're using the full power of the Internet not to expand our horizons, but to narrow them. When all we do is listen to our own opinions magnified a dozen times in others, then this is precisely the sort of behaviour that entrenches our unconscious confirmation bias (hat-tip to Andrew and Jim Elve) beyond repair.

I've written in the past about the importance of resisting the Balkanization of the blogosphere, and over time, I've tried to put my money where my mouth is. My blogroll (visible on the front page) contains not only fellow NDPers, but non-partisans and partisans of various other stripes, and not just fellow Canadians and Americans, but bloggers from several parts of the world. With this post, I'd like to challenge everybody who reads this to do the same. If all bloggers saw to it that we could keep our hands raised in my little experiment above, then we might not change the world, but we'd at least think a lot more interesting thoughts and have a lot more interesting conversations. Human nature makes it awfully easy for bloggers to Balkanize, but luckily for us, the nature of the Internet makes it just as easy to resist that tendency if we so choose.

17 comments:

LeoPetr said...

I am guilty of hit-and-running too. Sometimes I check if the victim has a habit of making interesting posts. Usually, they do not. Even when they do, I pass if they are too prolific.

Reading blogs written by people with very different political opinions is an exercise in agony. This is not a job. I have neither the time nor the energy to write a rebuttal every time they have the inclination to post a new entry that repeats what they have already said many times. I respect those who do take on the challenge.

I do not read any overseas political blogs. Politics tends to be local in many respects. Conversely, culture, technology, and personal matters tend to transcend borders. There is a number of British, Scandinavian, Continental European, and Israeli blogs that I read in that regard.

Good luck.:)

Andrew said...

"Let's try an experiment: Raise your hand if you regularly read a blog written by someone with someone with a very different political perspective from your own. Keep it raised if there's more than one. Keep it raised if you also regularly read at least one blog written by someone who lives in another country. Keep it raised if that country is not the United States. Is there anyone left with their hand still raised?"

Woot! I pass! :P You almost got me on the last bit, but I squeak through with a pair of asian blogs (one is a food blog!).

My breakdown for political blogs on my reading list is: 27 right, 16 left, and 27 that defy classification.

---

LeoPetr,

You wrote:

"Reading blogs written by people with very different political opinions is an exercise in agony."

I have a hard time understanding this statement. If find it more painful to see the same partisan point that I agree with hammered away at 20 times that I do reading a different point of view.

Maybe I'm just an oddball, but even though I think bloggers like Greg Bester (Sinister Thoughts) or Declan (Crawl Across the Ocean), to randomly name a pair, are wrong more often than they are right, I still keep visiting precisely because it is fascinating to see how people who do not agree with you tackle an issue. I think you learn more listening to your political opponents than you'll even learn by keeping your head firmly in the echo chamber.

"I have neither the time nor the energy to write a rebuttal every time they have the inclination to post a new entry that repeats what they have already said many times."

Don't treat it like a job then. There's no need to try to refute something a partisan of the opposite stripe says every single time... and it would probably be like beating your head against a wall repeatedly any how. ;)

Candice said...

Your post really made me think about my blog reading habits, so I tried my own experiment. I randomly clicked on a blog with a right-wing slant, and decided to read every post on the main page.

And I couldn't do it. I made it through 4 posts before I gave myself a headache from slapping my forehead over and over again. I honestly wasn't even sure it wasn't a satire blog.

Get rid of the CBC because it has a socialist Harper-hating left-wing agenda of propoganda? (and consequently leave all our news sources to conglomerant big business who apparently have no agenda themselves?)

Don't support a three-meals-a-day program for children living in poverty because their welfare-parents are sex-crazed and will have tons of babies once they are released from their burden of feeding their families? Don't support it because their parents will spend less money on food, and have more money to spend on tattoo's and gold tooth caps?

Maybe I just happened to click on a blog with a *very extreme* conservative view that does not represent the majority. But still. I don't want to read blogs that make me sick to my stomach. If anyone can point me towards a conservative blog that actually reflects the majority of conservatives, I would very much appreciate it.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Leons,

If you really believe that "reading blogs written by people with very different political opinions is an exercise in agony," then I suspect you haven't looked very hard. Sure, there are way too many Conservatives out there who dismiss the entire left as "moonbats," and way too many Liberals out there who are only interested in becoming the "natural governing party" again--but there are many who don't fit those bills, too. I'd refer you to my blogroll for my personal choices, but I'm sure there are more where they came from. And the point of my challenge isn't learning how to write better rebuttals, it's to listen, and maybe learn something about what makes other kinds of people tick. Like Andrew says, nothing forces people to argue with everything they disagree with.

As for politics being local, well, it's a lot more so when we don't bother looking outside our borders. How are we to know whether some other culture has already addressed an issue relevant to us if we don't bother finding out what goes on in other countries? The best blogs are often a much more accessible entry point into the way other cultures think about politics than newspapers or magazines, as well. Cheaper, too.

Think about it, anyway. :-)

Andrew,

I figured if anybody would pass, it would be you. :-)

Ironically, I actually find that the blogs that "defy classification" are the ones I like best. I'm not sure what that says about me--perhaps that I'm more interested in reading good, well-reasoned writing than I am in reading stuff I agree with.

Candice,

Oh, I won't read blogs like that, either. If I want a dose of extremism, it's going to be my brand of extremism, and I make no apologies for that. :-)

What I try to look for in right-wing blogs are conservatives who present right-wing perspectives in ways that go beyond "duh, this is the only sensible way to think, and anybody who disagrees with me is stooopid." This doesn't necessarily mean they're any less right-wing, just that they're more willing to admit that sometimes, another side can have a point. My personal favourites are Bound By Gravity and Political Staples, but I'm sure there are others.

As for whether they represent the majority, I really don't know, but they certainly represent a segment of Canadian society that I otherwise don't have a lot of contact with. And it's good for me to seek that out.

Deanna said...

Hmmmm...

Bound by Gravity, Political Staples, BPoC, and Let it Bleed, before he Let it Die. And I keep meaning to read Candace's blog more often than just when someone links to it.

Of course, Andrew and Greg and Dazzlin' Dino are not extremists by any stretch, and they say plenty I agree with. I don't know if I could stomach constantly reading blogs that never say anything that I don't fundamentally disagree with. (Hopefully everyone followed that statement despite all those negative qualifiers.)

But I like your What I'm Reading blog list, IP; because of that list I added a number of bloggers to my favourites.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Deanna,

Ah, yes. Let's have a moment of silence for Let It Bleed, hey? That was definitely one of the good ones.

And I know what you mean about meaning to read Candace's blog. I think I cope better with Ontario Conservatives than with Alberta Conservatives, but really that's my own prejudice talking, because she, too, is one of the thoughtful ones. (We're talking about Waking Up On Planet X, for the curious.)

Radical Centrist said...

I had my own brush with fame when Andrew Coyne linked to one of my entries. I was wondering why i was getting so many comments on a post that was a couple of weeks old.

However, i disagree with your comment about if bloggers didn't care about being read, we'd write in real diaries. I wouldn't, and i honestly don't really care if people read my blog. It's a hobby. My main project is the website that hosts the blog, canadian-politics.com. I'd rather people participate in the forum on my site to be honest - commenting on blogs is ridiculous since you can't have proper debate. Doesn't anyone do forums anymore?

I don't read any blogs from other countries (except on LJ). I simply don't care about US politics enough to read US stuff, i don't even read Canadian blog entries that deal with US stuff (unless it's something that has a direct impact on Canada). Burnout from being the only Canadian on too many US-dominated discussion forums, i think. I don't read that many blogs in general and am more interested in quality than whether or not i agree with their positions on things. I read very few uber-partisan ones because i don't like party politics and incessant party cheerleading is annoying. I don't have a lot of time to sit around reading blogs anyway, so i'm not interested in having a long list of "regulars". I scan thru blogrolls such as progressive bloggers and click on the ones that sound interesting. If i find myself going back to them regularly, i'll add them as a separate feed. And interesting doesn't mean i agree with them - it means they're interesting. :)

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

RC,

I stand corrected on the "caring about being read" generalization. Just for myself, though, I do care about being read--my main reason for doing this is to spout off, of course, but an important secondary reason is getting to interact with people about the things I've written about. I love my friends, but most of the time they don't have all that much to say about the kinds of political topics that cross my mind, and besides, a new perspective is always good.

I'm not as interested in participating in forums because it's harder to set them up for RSS feeds, and I like that, suboptimal as blog comments are in many ways. I've been meaning to tell you, though, that I'd have been commenting up a storm on your blog if I didn't have to register first. You said you were going to take that safeguard off, but every post I read of yours still says "You must be logged in to post a comment." I don't know if it's a glitch or what.

As for a non-Canadian perspective, might I suggest trying a UK blog? It's a thought, anyway.

Radical Centrist said...

I thought i had fixed the comment thing so anyone could comment without registering, but apparently the changes didn't stick. I've reset it again - so please try next time a post catches your interest. If it still doesn't work, drop me an email at canadianpolitics at gmail dot com and i'll try to figure out what the bug is.

As a side note, i hate those text capcha things blogger makes you type. I get all dyslexic looking at those things. :)

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

RC,

Will do!

Matt said...

It's interesting what sitemeter and other similar sites tell you about your readership, and how your site can get bumped up the rankings on google. My equivalent to your hits from "president bush touching woman" seems to be "married homosexual" which has earned me hits from Iran and Malaysia, among other places. Alas, it's not indicative of a broader global readership trend, as those readers have yet to return!

Toronto Tory said...

I haven't been posting lately - and the majority of my current hits come from google searches for "katie holmes herpes" and "hot french news anchor".

It's actually quite amusing, in a way.

Meaghan Walker-Williams said...

I read blogs from all sides of the political spectrum, from about 5 different countries than Canada the US and Britain.

This helps to keep one's finger on the pulse of how the rest of the world looks at issues of the day.

I also have discovered over the years that I tend to learn more from people I disagree with, than people whom I agree with.

Also, being as Canada has a population that is roughly 60+% of Canada is left-of-center, It is extremely helpful to me, overall when I try to analyze domestic politics to see what people from the left-of-center are concerned about.

And no, I don't spend a lot of my time banging my head against my keyboard. I simply read to find out what people are interested in, even if I may disagree with their conclusions, I generally can find common ground with most people.

Poverty for instance, is not a "left-wing" issue. As somebody who studies economics, "poverty", "quality and standards of life" and trying to solve such problems that create poverty, or that create a larger problem of dependency (which I don't think anybody wants) are problems that any thoughtful human being should consider...

Like I said, just because one may disagree with the conclusions that other people have reached about how to solve such issues, doesn't mean that one needs to be angered by people who have come to such positions.

Lastly, as a libertarian, I don't see much actual "conservativism" in many of Stephen Harper or the "Conservative Party of Canada's" policies.

So there really isn't a whole lot to distinguish the so called left from the right blogs, except in so far as the right cheerlead for the CPC, and the left don't.

John said...

Thanks for the link.

I find reading most liberal/progressive blogs (which match my viewoints) to be tedious beyond belief. I think, though, the that the balkanized blogosphere is part of an overall problem with "narrowcasting" news - it's quite easy for someone to spend lots of time reading news of all types (not just blogs) and never encounter a challenging viewoint, which is why I wrote the post you linked to.

Have you thought about how commenting policies affect this? I'm thinking of one local Houston blog that requires your to create a login and password to comment; many people (including me) just won't do that. So if you read the blog and comments you get a sense of an incredible uniformity of opinion - the classic echo chamber. Given that they bill themselves as being "a conversation" about local matters, it can make you think that things are rather different politically than they really are.

John said...

Whoops, typed my URL wrong in the ID info - need more coffee! Corrected on this comment.

Anonymous said...

One reason I am not watching contrary blogs is that I've decided to cut down on my blog reading for time considerations and have thus culled my political blog subscriptions down to five: CalgaryGrit, Ian Welsh, Idealistic Pragmatist, Molly Saves the Day, and Rick Mercer. Spending too much time on the internet is bad for me, as it cuts into my work and reading.

The last blog written by someone with a very different opinion I remember unsubscribing from was the Bacon-Eating Atheist Jew. I liked his anti-religion posts, but the torrent of stuff about Muslims wanting to turn everyone into "dhimmi slaves" and conquer the world got tiring.

I just don't see Islam as presenting a credible long term threat to the West -- as oil continues running out, Islamic terrorism will go the way of Anarchist bomb-throwers. Jane Muslim doesn't give a damn about "dhimmi" crap. Obsession with non-events is pointless. I got the gist of it and moved on.

LeoPetr said...

It was I!