I agree with Cass Sunstein that "general interest intermediaries" are
essential for a well-functioning democracy. But I am not convinced that
the dangers of Internet personalization and group polarization are quite
as real as he suggests. At the fringes, certainly, the Internet will
encourage extremism and intolerance, as the militia and white supremacist
movements demonstrate. But these groups existed before the Internet,
and were perfectly capable of using "old" media (including face-to-face
contacts and social networks, which have always been among their most
effective techniques) to recruit new members and reinforce extremist
views. In order to determine whether the Internet is corroding the public
sphere and producing a more fragmented speech market, we must look beyond
the actions of fringe groups and examine the media consumption practices
of more typical citizens.
How do most people use the new media? Consider the most popular Internet
sites: Yahoo.com, AOL.com, and MSN.com.1 All
three reached more than 45 percent of the Internet audience in March
2001. Each site offers a search engine, links to various types of news
stories, chat room/message board services, and a hefty amount of banner
advertising. In many ways, these sites function precisely like
the general interest intermediaries that Sunstein thinks are so important.
That is, they provide unanticipated encounters as well as common experiences.
Indeed, Sunstein's description of newspapers and magazines could apply
equally well to Yahoo, which is filled with articles, information, and
services that most readers would not have selected in advance. While
they may not read all of the articles, many users will likely read at
least some of them, and browse some of the message boards. Moreover,
because the reach of these general interest portal sites is so deep,
they are likely to be capturing the attention of many of the same people
who set up personalized profiles on Sonicnet.com and Broadcast.com.
Here, too, there is little difference from the older media, where, for
example, the same people who subscribed to specialized magazines also
tended to read Newsweek or the New York Times. The dangers
of personalization, then, appear to be somewhat overstated.
What about group polarization? Again, consider the typical user, who
spends about ten hours with the Internet each month, with an average
session of about thirty minutes. This amount of usage leaves plenty
of time for watching television, reading, going to work, talking with
friends and family, shopping, and wandering in public places. Any one
of these activities holds the possibility of unanticipated encounters,
alternative viewpoints, disagreements, and arguments. In a heterogeneous
society, the judicious use of new communication technologies is simply
not enough to escape different points of view, except perhaps for those
marginal individuals who have already taken active steps to barricade
themselves from society.
Even though I am less concerned than Sunstein about the dangers of
unlimited personalization, fragmentation, and polarization, I still
share his sense of caution about the Internet. I am mostly worried about
what is going to happen to the "deliberative enclaves" that Sunstein
describes. These public forums are a crucial part of any democracy,
because they nurture arguments and viewpoints that tend to get ignored
in larger pubic spheres. In my own research, I have examined the history
of the African-American press, an example of a minority public sphere
organized through mass media. By developing alternative interpretations
of public events and nurturing arguments that would eventually be used
in larger public forums, the black press has played an important role
in the history of American democracy. But the black press has not fared
well in the face of new technologies. The advent of television was much
worse for black newspapers like the Chicago Defender than it
was for "mainstream" papers like the New York Times. My fear
is that Internet technology will hurt deliberative enclaves such as
the black press in much the same way.
New communication technologies are worse for deliberative enclaves
than for general interest intermediaries in two ways.
First, deliberative enclaves have a much more tenuous financial existence,
because their alternative viewpoints make them less attractive to advertisers.
With fewer revenue sources, these kinds of public forums find it harder
to respond to the presence of new media. African-American newspapers
have, for example, been much slower to set up web sites; most
of them, in fact, have yet to do so.
Second, new technologies often help to create closer links between
the largest public spheres, at the expense of alternative media. Journalists
for the major newspapers and television networks already share wire
services, sources, and, increasingly, employers. The development of
the Internet does not change this trend. After all, where do the stories
on Yahoo come from? The problem is that as mainstream media become integrated
with popular Internet portal sites the deliberative enclaves become
further insulated from the larger speech community. When you can read
Associated Press stories right off your AOL home page, how much energy
are you going to spend searching out alternative media?
Because of the dangers that new media present to deliberative enclaves,
I agree completely with Sunstein's suggestion about links, hyperlinks,
and public sidewalks. There is no reason why the hyperlinks on Yahoo
have to be connected only to mainstream media sources. They could also
provide links to alternative sites, like the recently established BlackPressUSA.com,
a joint Web presence of African-American newspapers. If large portal
sites and other general interest intermediaries decided to include these
enclave sites in their repertoire of hyperlinks, the result would be
a much more vibrant and inclusive public dialogue. For this to happen,
of course, Internet content providers would need to begin thinking more
about democracy. Sunstein's article would be a good place for them to
Ronald N. Jacobs is assistant professor of sociology SUNY–Albany.
His most recent book is Race,
Media, and the Crisis of Civil Society: From Watts to Rodney King.
Return to the forum on democracy
and the internet, with Cass Sunstein and responses.
1 Internet usage data are from studies published
in April 2001 by two marketing firms: PC Data Online and Nielsen-Netratings,
Inc. Both reports are published online, at the following URL addresses: