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Three Paradoxes of the Internet Age

Submitted by on November 7, 2009 – 11:20 am3 Comments

Cross-posted in its entirety from a series I just finished on Radar:

In the circles that I travel the Internet is often breathlessly embraced as the herald of all things good; the bringer of increased choice, personal empowerment, social harmony…and the list goes on.  And yet, as with any powerful technology,  the truth of its consequences eludes such a singular and happy narrative.

Here are three paradoxes of the Internet Age.  I would love to see  readers point out others.

One:  More access to information doesn’t bring people together, often it isolates us.

Elizabeth Kolbert has a piece in this week’s New Yorker reviewing Cass Sunstein’s new book,  “On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done.”  In the review she lays out the concept of “group polarization”

People’s tendency to become more extreme after speaking with like-minded others has become known as “group polarization,” and it has been documented in dozens of other experiments. In one, feminists who spoke with other feminists became more adamant in their feminism. In a second, opponents of same-sex marriage became even more opposed to the idea, while proponents shifted further in favor. In a third, doves who were grouped with other doves became more dovish still.

The Internet is becoming a vast petri dish for the group polarization phenomena.   As Sunstein puts it “The most striking power provided by emerging technologies,” is the “growing power of consumers to ‘filter’ what they see.”

(Thanks to Jim Stogdill for surfacing this link via email)

Two: Individual perception of increased choice can occur while the overall choice pool is getting smaller

This gem from Whimsley makes the point – with extensive statistical modeling supporting the argument – that our algorithm-obsessed, long tail merchants are actually depleting the overall choice pool despite the fact that as individuals we may be experiencing a sense of more choice through recommendations engines…

Online merchants such as Amazon, iTunes and Netflix may stock more items than your local book, CD, or video store, but they are no friend to “niche culture”. Internet sharing mechanisms such as YouTube and Google PageRank, which distil the clicks of millions of people into recommendations, may also be promoting an online monoculture. Even word of mouth recommendations such as blogging links may exert a homogenizing pressure and lead to an online culture that is less democratic and less equitable, than offline culture.

In short, the long tail has gangrene at its extremity – the niche.  More disarming is the conclusion that it isn’t just the output of our recommendation algorithms that is leading to what the author calls “monopoly populism”and the end of niche culture:

“The recommender “system” could be anything that tends to build on its own popularity, including word of mouth…Our online experiences are heavily correlated, and we end up with monopoly populism…A “niche”, remember, is a protected and hidden recess or cranny, not just another row in a big database. Ecological niches need protection from the surrounding harsh environment if they are to thrive. Simply putting lots of music into a single online iTunes store is no recipe for a broad, niche-friendly culture.

Three: The myth of personal empowerment takes root amidst a massive loss of personal control.

Social technologies are cloaked in a rhetoric of liberation (customers are in control, the internet fosters democracy, social technologies propagate truth etc.) that tend to obscure the fact that never before have we handed so much personal information over in exchange for so little in return.  As we move from the “web of information” to the “web of people” (aka the Social Web) the output of all of this social participation is massive dossiers on individual behavior (your social network profiles, photos, location, status updates, searches etc.) and social activity.  This loss of control over personal information is on a collision course with the law of unintended consequences:  MIT’s Project Gaydar can spot your sexual preference by your social ties, Facebook checks are occurring customs and every quiz you take on Facebook delivers a shocking amount of personally identifiable information to third parties.   Amidst this barrage of good news for how much power we wield in the transaction of commerce one has to wonder if we are giving away something quite precious in the bargain.

What are other paradoxes of the Internet Age?  What did I get wrong above?

3 Comments »

  • A Kemp says:

    The recently released Pew Center study on Internet seems to contradict your point number one: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/18–Soc

    The bottom line is that the Internet is “This Pew Internet Personal Networks and Community survey finds that Americans are not as isolated as has been previously reported. People’s use of the mobile phone and the internet is associated with larger and more diverse discussion networks. And, when we examine people’s full personal network – their strong and weak ties – internet use in general and use of social networking services such as Facebook in particular are associated with more diverse social networks.”

  • joshuamross says:

    Thanks for the comment and link:
    I have only read the summary but I think the concept of Group Polarization I mention in my post could easiy co-exist with the findings in these studies that show that people are not as socially isolated as previously thought. Group Polarization doesn't mean that you are isolated per se – but that you cluster around like minded people and in the process become more ideologically extreme.
    Lastly – if it wasn't clear (and this is a point that Radar commenters made to the original post) I am lobbying for a balanced consideration of the consequences of a networked society. I am not making the claim that the Internet is all one thing (freedom, diversity etc.) or another (isolating, panoptical etc.). I am making the point that as a powerful communications technology it holds the potential for both. Generally I think we are exposed to the positive side far more often than being asked to consider how we build in structural protections for privacy, anonymous civic action and the right to control our personal data.

  • joshuamross says:

    Thanks for the comment and link:
    I have only read the summary but I think the concept of Group Polarization I mention in my post could easiy co-exist with the findings in these studies that show that people are not as socially isolated as previously thought. Group Polarization doesn't mean that you are isolated per se – but that you cluster around like minded people and in the process become more ideologically extreme.
    Lastly – if it wasn't clear (and this is a point that Radar commenters made to the original post) I am lobbying for a balanced consideration of the consequences of a networked society. I am not making the claim that the Internet is all one thing (freedom, diversity etc.) or another (isolating, panoptical etc.). I am making the point that as a powerful communications technology it holds the potential for both. Generally I think we are exposed to the positive side far more often than being asked to consider how we build in structural protections for privacy, anonymous civic action and the right to control our personal data.

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