Imagining the Internet Project

  Responses in reaction to the following statement were assembled from a select group of 1,286 Internet stakeholders in the fall 2004 Pew Internet & American Life Predictions Survey. The survey allowed respondents to select from the choices "agree," "disagree" or "I challenge" the predictive statement. Some respondents chose to expand on their answer by writing an explanation of their position; many did not. Some respondents chose to identify themselves with their answer; many did not. We share some - not all - of the responses here. Workplaces of respondents whose reactions are listed below are attributed here only for the purpose of indicating a level of internet expertise; the statements reflect personal viewpoints and do not represent their companies' or government agencies' policies or positions. Some answers have been edited in order to share more respondents' replies. Below is a selection of the many carefully considered responses to the following statement.
 
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Prediction on politics
By 2014, most people will use the internet in a way that filters out information that challenges their viewpoints on political and social issues. This will further polarize political discourse and make it difficult or impossible to develop meaningful consensus on public problems.

Compiled reactions from the 1,286 respondents:
  32% of internet experts agreed
  37% disagreed
  13% challenged the prediction
  18% did not respond


Because the internet is such a gift economy, we'll continue to follow links from our friends. But we'll also develop meaningful shared spaces for discussion, and we'll be able to see one another there in the form of avatars. Both will happen. Consensus will be both easier and harder. Visualization of information will be the key development in the next ten years, and it may help consensus emerge. But groups will be tighter. - Susan Crawford, policy fellow with the Center for Democracy & Technology and the Yale Law School Information Society Project

Thank heavens for cross-cutting cleavages! Yes people may spend more time networking with fellow Republicans/Democrats/environmentalists/fundamentalist Christians. But they'll also spend more time networking with fellow Red Sox fans/Labrador owners/amateur carpenters/Edith Wharton fans. And anyone who has ever been part of an online community knows how hard it is to prevent off-topic threads and discussion. Politics will always pop up in for a that are organized around trans-partisan lines, so it may be that there are MORE opportunities for bridging as well as bonding online. - Alexandra Samuel, Harvard University/Cairns Project (New York Law School)

I suspect that people will be able to effectively filter the information they are exposed to, but I also think that people today are capable of selectively perceiving the information they are presented. I suspect that the move toward polarization will be accompanied (and counterbalanced) by new forms of public deliberation and exchange. - A. Halavais, State University of New York at Buffalo

It is not the Internet that drives polarization of the electorate. Rather, polarization stems from the inability to find common ground when values differ. Polarization in American society will continue; the Internet will serve to abet this tendency. - Jorge Reina Schement, Penn State University

The first part of the prediction has been established long before today - selective perception. At the start of the 20th century, competing newspapers had an acknowledged labor or a business or a political point of view and it was typical for people to buy the paper that reinforced their viewpoint. Nothing new here. Make it "impossible" to develop consensus? Doubtful. Compromise will survive. - Benjamin M. Compaine, editor of "The Digital Divide: Facing a Crisis or Creating a Myth?" and coauthor of "Who Owns the Media?"

What is "meaningful consensus"? Did we ever have a "meaningful consensus" at any point during the 19th century, when there was no internet to speak of? - Fred Hapgood, Output Ltd.

I think there is enough diversity and leakiness in conversations and personal networks that alternative viewpoints will still be realized. - Barry Wellman, University of Toronto

Well, we already have that (polarized discourse) today, don't we? - Bill Eager, internet expert

The only countervailing influence would be for major publications to make it difficult to receive totally customized feeds. That is, in order to receive the New York Times editorial page webfeed, a person would need to receive both David Brooks and Paul Krugman - all or nothing. We are already seeing the effects of polarization on cable TV viewership. During the Democratic convention, CNN viewership was up; during the Republican convention, Fox viewership was up. As the blogosphere grows, it will be possible to insulate oneself almost completely from opposing viewpoints. I would ideally like to see a voluntary "pairing" of opposing online publications that would encourage people to expose themselves to alternative - even abhorrent - viewpoints. How possible is that? - Lois Ambash, Metaforix Inc.

This is the way most people run their lives, Internet or no Internet. The Internet makes it just as easy to get a quick overview of the political landscape from all viewpoints as it does to filter out opposing views. If you prefer to have your thinking go unchallenged, you'll choose the Internet in the latter manner; if you seek to widen discourse, you'll use it to keep tabs on multiple viewpoints. - Rose Vines, freelance tech journalist, Australian PC User and Sydney Morning Herald

There will be so much information that people will deal with it by filtering. It will be possible to get whatever viewpoint is desired, and it will be favored. - Ted Eytan, MD, Group Health Cooperative

Means of integrating mass media communications will evolve to make sure we keep a good mix of materials. If you don't want to know the news you don't read the paper or watch TV - for some this will be true online as well. But there will always be those who want to lead and together build consensus for dealing with the problems of the day. Just because we have the Internet, it doesn't mean we will lose the silent masses out there. - Liz Rykert, Metastrategies Inc.

This might be true for some, but many are using and will use the Internet as an easy and harmless way to explore differing points of view. Listservs and online chat provide opportunities to interact and see "conventional wisdom" challenged. With newspapers publishing online, there will be greater accessibility to opinion and greater opportunity to interact with opinion writers. It is difficult to come to the conclusion that the Internet will polarize political discourse to the extent suggested. - Ezra Miller, Ibex Consulting

If the right new services emerge, this won't turn out to be the case. And I have faith that the right services will emerge. - Gordon Strause, Judy?s Book

People welcome controlled dissent - they want to know that there is another perspective out there, and many pursue the opportunity to challenge that perspective. Technology and the internet are a facilitator for that. - Brian Reich, internet strategist for Mindshare Interactive and editor of the political blog campaignwebreview.com

Economic, social and political developments, certainly in the UK suggest the opposite. Individuals are becoming less partisan and less certain in their views. Therefore, we may have citizens with a miss-mash of views. What might be changing (and not just because of technology) is the very nature of politics. - Nigel Jackson, Bournemouth University, UK

Frankly, I think people like a good fight over these issues. They can filter out these viewpoints now, and they don't. I am not afraid of this. - Arlene Morgan, Columbia School of Journalism

To some degree this is already happening and the divisiveness of this election is proof that Cass Sunstein is at least partially right. But as I have argued in the Boston Review, I think he is underestimating the range of different kinds of affiliations people have and the degree to which social, cultural, and recreational connections may be more important to them than political alliances. The result is that many alternative perspectives will get through such filters because they will be part of other kinds of conversations people are holding. - Harry Jenkins, MIT

I disagree with the "polarizing" statement. One of the major benefits of the Internet is access to a variety of different points of view and sources of information. I think this will continue to be a benefit of online communication. - Gary Kreps, George Mason University

As internet users increasingly set filters and personalize, there will be a backlash fueling the rise in services and sites devoted to pure serendipity. Many people will gravitate away from detailed personalization in favor of the pleasure of not knowing what's next. Those who read a daily newspaper even though the same content is on the internet for free often do so because they enjoy not knowing what's on the next page. Editors will rise in importance, as people realize that too much personalization and individual search stifles creativity and curiosity. At the broadest level, there are exactly two ways to use and deploy content on the Web. Most organizations put too much effort on one just way: "Answer my question." While not spending enough energy on the other: "Tell me something." Too often the content that's deployed on sites helps visitors solve only half of their needs. The more obvious way to conceive of Web site navigational design is to help users answer a question. To illustrate this concept, consider one of the Web's best-known sites, Google, which in its purest form exists only to answer questions. With a site or content product organized only around answering questions, users must already know what they want before proceeding. But people also need services or sites to tell them something. Contrast Google with another famous site, Drudge Report. It doesn?t answer questions at all; rather, it tells visitors stuff they didn't think to ask. Organizations will build sites to encourage serendipity and browsing. - David M. Scott, Fresh Spot Marketing and EContent Magazine

If people just want to hear their own point of view, they don't need to pay for an Internet connection - they can just listen to themselves and their likeminded friends at no cost. - Elliot Chabot, senior systems analyst, House Information Resources (U.S. House of Representatives)

Increased communication is unlikely to produce narrower communication. Even those groups against the mainstream generally discuss it, if only to denounce it. More information will always be only a click way. - William Stewart, LivingInternet.com

This is basically the main finding of my dissertation, so I'd have to take about 300 pages, the conclusion of which can be found here: http://www.nutball.com/dissertation/mains/Conclusion.html. - Christine Boese, cyberculture researcher/CNN Headline News

The Internet, as is true of cable or satellite TV and print publications will continue to include a mix of the highly specific and the more general. People will still have broader views available to them in the media they consume. - John B. Mahaffie, Leading Futurists LLC

Technology doesn't polarize people; personal, professional, and organizational conduct polarizes people. The Internet will not substantially affect the trend of hyper-hysteria already at work today in politics. If anything, the Internet will continue to provide alternative voices and outlets that allows for a greater dissemination of ideas beyond the increasingly radical and liberal mass media. I think the lack of visionary leadership and personal character is more responsible for our nation to find meaningful consensus. No technology can cause or change that. - Daniel Weiss, media analyst, Focus on the Family

In fact, although we like to read information from people who agree with us, the Internet makes it even easier for us to seek out and read opposing views. - Mike Weisman, Reclaim the Media

It will be easier to learn about and understand issues from different points of view, which will enable people to make informed decisions about political and social issues. This prediction also has the misconception that we ''develop meaningful consensus on public problems'' today. People WILL choose when they want to filter out dissenting opinions and when they want to understand other viewpoints. - Lyle Kantrovich, usability expert, Cargill/blogger

By 2014 people will acquire, through interactive technologies, the ability to filter most information they are exposed to, not just that which arrives through Internet means. I'm not sure this on its own will change anything. There is little difference in the societal outcome in filtering by choice and being restricted from exposure certain types of information by mass media ownership concentration. It returns to the notion that there are two types of information consumers - those who actively seek it, and those who are passively subjected to it. Consensus building has more to do with promoting societal principles of participation and the ideas that diversity of opinion, critical thinking, and open discussion are essential things to a healthy Democracy. Those who learn that filtering is the best way to get along will filter more effectively through interactive choice. Those who learn that health, both mental and societal, comes from open discourse and respect for a diversity of opinion, will use the Internet as they do now, as a tool to seek information that in some instances can also be used enable dialogue. - Sam Punnett, FAD Research

The 'Net should have the opposite affect on ''most people.'' Sure, crazy folk will find crazy folk. But the masses will use the 'Net for their first news and will go to trusted sites for affirmation and/or information that they seek. The level of political discourse should rise in proportion to the penetration of the 'Net and the availability of trusted sources. - B. Keith Fulton, Verizon Communications

I can't see how this would be possible ... the Internet is the ultimate free-speech printing press. - Graham Lovelace, Lovelacemedia Ltd., UK

People will be increasingly exposed to alternate viewpoints. My personal experience is that people are engaging in constructive, spirited dialogue far more now that ever before as a result of the Internet. Plus we are better informed and can check our facts quickly and easily. - Peter W. Van Ness, Van Ness Group

People do this already, in print media and television. Liberals don't watch Fox News. Overlap in the subscriber lists of the American Spectator and [insert liberal rag here] are small. Reasoned discourse will continue to flow, but it won't make headlines, any more than it does now. Net result: no real increase in polarization traceable to the Internet specifically. - Mike O'Brien, The Aerospace Corporation

If current trends continue, then fragmentation of the public sphere is one of the biggest challenges that a democratic polity must face. - Albrecht Hofheinz, University of Oslo

People will turn to the Internet and be led like sheep on how and what to think. - Tom Egelhoff, smalltownmarketing.com

People filter all the time. Fox News vs. the BBC. Deleting some e-mail, reading other messages. This is just another channel that enables filtering. AND exposing oneself to broader views. Depends who's doing it. - Rebecca Lieb, Jupitermedia

It's already happening when people buying one book on Amazon are given suggestions as to what also to buy and the subjects are always related. Similarly, websites and blogs attract like-minded people and rarely link out to sites/blogs with a different viewpoint. - Bornali Halder, World Development Movement

I believe people truly seek accurate information, from whatever source. Filters will play a role, but most will want as much information from all viewpoints as possible. - Ted Christensen, Arizona Board of Regents

Many people will still check out ''mainstream'' media, and many will still ignore it and/or interpret it eccentrically. But that's always been the case. Centralized media (like the big three TV networks) probably provided more of an illusion of society-wide consensus to people near the center of power than they did the real thing. The only thing that may change is that people inside the beltway believed that Walter Cronkite represented the majority or the center, whereas they're now realizing that Dan Rather is just another guy with a point of view. - Tom Streeter, University of Vermont

And the following are from predictors who chose to remain anonymous: [Workplaces of respondents whose reactions are listed below include USA Today, Global Village, Microsoft, Internet2, Disney, Future of Music Coalition, MoveOn.org, Michigan State University, Harvard University, University of Illinois at Chicago, Fordham University School of Law, Integrated Media Association, National Center for Technology and Law, Proteus Foundation, Discern LLC, Indiana University, Northwestern University, University of East Anglia, MIT Media Lab, IBM, Education Development Center, Avenue A/Razorfish, Progressive Policy Institute, AT&T, Gartner, Yankelovich, General Motors Corporation, Centers for Disease Control, FCC, Congressional Management Foundation and others.]

I still think there is a good chance that the center will hold. People have a lot in common with each other.

Are you kidding? The internet is the greatest thing that has ever happened to expand the number of voices that need to be heard.

I don't know if it makes it impossible but it has contributed greatly to the phenomenon of the divided nation.

A subclass that spans political and ideological divides may arise, one that encourages people to question what they're being told.

I believe that people realize - or will realize - that diversity is needed for a good decision making process. I think the notion that consensus, or common good, is the goal will give way to enlightened self-interest. That is all that can be expected, it also is all that is needed. The polarization is independent of the internet.

I believe the internet will allow for exactly the opposite - less censorship and more diverse range of information sharing.

Filtering happens in the print world and it happens in the internet world. Even if technology makes it easier ... I do not think increased use of filtering will polarize discourse.

The internet will amplify existing tendencies for both expansive and narrow viewpoints. The way we reach consensus will need to adapt.

I may be an optimist, but I do observe that people of various convictions actually seek information. There are zealots, but they are not a majority.

People tend to consume the media - whether the Web or print or TV - that agrees with their personal point of view. I don't believe you can attribute the Web's filtering capabilities as the cause. When you choose any information, you filter.

I do expect polarization to be increased by the expansion of more narrowly defined/targeted information flows.

People prefer to operate in their cultural comfort zone ingrained from a very young age.

People will lose the ability or desire to consider the potential validity of another point of view. The outcomes of this could destroy the ability of any democracy to function. Democracy demands a certain respect for the loyal opposition.

Most people will not understand the bias and filtering capabilities of technology and will not be able to affirmatively choose filters. Information will still be filter, but more likely in ways that are surreptitious and insidious.

Here the problem is with "most people." "Most people" do filter information to reduce the quantity of information that challenges them and increases the flow of information that supports their world view. But I do not see that the Internet will exacerbate this trend.

I hope not and in fact believe just the opposite.

Human nature as it is, people are likely to use the technology to do this. Whether the second sentence comes true or not depends upon what other discourse takes place in their lives - television, the workplace, etc. I am not too concerned about this possibility.

The large center of people are not polarized highly in their politics and are open to different perspectives. Polarized people of the right and left, though, are likely to become more polarized.

People already do this with other media - what books and newspapers they read, the radio shows they listen to, the television shows they watch. The Internet is no different.

Most people do not use even the most basic filters! Most people do not belong to what we Brits call the chattering classes, but to the working classes and the working classes derive their information from well-established channels, which set a definite bias, but do not create extreme opinions.

I'm a progressive politically, but I wound up reading the Instapundit (pro-war) blog every day, and supported the war. The net lets you believe what you want to believe, and have it reinforced by fellow believers.

Information overload, and invasion of the personal desktop, occurs more and more and yes, I believe we will filter. Every spam message, troll on a listserv, and commercial message invades our personal computer space. I think we will fight to have that back using whatever filtering we can. Will we cut out political and social discussion? How many people listen to them now? Those who filter now, will filter then. I don't see that debate will be any more or less polarized that before. It may just be more visible on Internet discussions.

The second proposition doesn't necessarily follow from the first. I suspect that exposure to challenging views, as in the current mass media that tend to exaggerate them, has a polarizing effect. Ignorance could engender tolerance, conversely. I agree with the first statement, however.

I think most people will know more about different points of view than they did in 1994.

In the U.S. we will have more enlightened individuals - those who will have grown up using the Internet and being able to better discern truth from fiction, political rhetoric from fact.

I think by 2014, citizens will use the Internet to investigate issues on their own, leading perhaps to a unified base of facts on which to formulate their own judgments.

Sunstein is wrong! Online discussion is not as polarised as what Wilhelm, Davis, etc. made out (see Stromer-Galley, Wright, etc.). What is needed is efficient online mediation - see Hansard Society, etc.

I would like to think that the opposite will happen - that because information is so easy to get and accessing information becomes more private (the neighbors won't see you buying alternative press at the local shops) that people could actually access more diverse opinions. This probably won't happen. But I think that email might help, because people are often sending friends and family links to articles and information that the recipient would not necessarily seek out on their own.

This is always a popular prediction, but I don't see that happening any more than it does now (a) because I'm not sure most people are so terribly frightened of views that differ from there, and (b) actually filtering in information on the basis of content is very difficult, especially if people set out to subvert said filtering.

I agree with the first sentence. However, I think that television, and to a lesser extent print publications, will continue to play a major role in shaping consensus, as will social institutions such as clubs, political parties, and churches.

Currently, people watch programs or read publications that meet their viewpoint but they are still aware of opposing issues. I don't think this dynamic will change.

Highly unlikely, in part because most Internet users won't be sophisticated and/or interested enough to set their preferences so narrowly.

There will be freedom of speech on the Internet that cannot be suppressed in a free country. Alternative sources of information, web bloggers, Instant Messaging devices and other Internet tools are too numerous to censor.

Unfortunately, it does seem that people are signing up for ''email alerts'' and such from media that reflect their own biases. However, the general media (cable stations, newspapers, etc.) is also moving to putting a stake in the ground that pegs them publicly to a specifically ''right'' or ''left,'' liberal or conservative, orientation to reporting. Internet filters just exaggerate the effect of this.

This is the way we have always used newspapers, television and radio, and mass media generally. Do we think the Internet is in some way different, or that its network effects amplify the problem?

Think this could but might not necessarily happen. We're already seeing fragmenting and segmenting in media usage and the way media is sold and distributed. Combined with there just being so much info out there, and ease of connecting with like-minded people, can see many people finding it easiest to read or participate what interests them, while tuning out of what doesn't.

As the trends predicted by both George Orwell in 1984 and A. Huxley in "Brave New World" and Herbert Marcuse in "One-Dimensional Man" continue to emerge, people will increasingly get sanitized propaganda-cum-news. Again, this is a function of social relations, not technology.

People will increasingly encounter more diverse views by using the Internet.

This accepts the western bipolar view of the world, where issues are divided between the resolutions A or Not A. But of course, that is not the way the world works. Issues are dynamic and interrelated. Resolutions are complex. Shifts in small paradigms follow chaos theory and result in dramatic shifts in resolutions and situations. So great will the information exchange become that isolationism will be all but impossible. Why, some nit may ask a survey limited to predictions about the future, and get back answers about Karl Marx, Plato and theories of society and alienation.

A lot of people probably will, but I have enough faith in the American people to believe that they will want to occasionally encounter different viewpoints. I also think that since people use the Internet based on their personal interests - which may or may not include political and social issues - they will encounter different viewpoints in the course of their Internet use, even if they are filtering according to their interests. In other words, I don't think people's interests always fall along political lines.

 

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