Thursday, May 3, 2012

Bigger Sources, Smaller Minds

I’m sure this is old news to internet experts and I’m not the first person to see this, but this is a big revelation to me.

The internet is a paradox. It’s an open forum creating close-minded people.

The internet is a wide-open cosmopolitan place where you can find virtually anything you can imagine. On any particular subject, you can find literally millions of opinions. You can explore all over the world and never quite get to the bottom of anything, because there is always something new to investigate. It is the epitome of diversity, flux, and multiple viewpoints. You could explore the web 24/7/365.2522 and still barely scratch the surface of all the new things you can discover for yourself. Theoretically, the internet was going to make us all more informed, more rounded, more open to new ideas.

In reality, however, many people who spend hours online actually behave in the opposite way. They scan the web and discover only the information and opinions that reinforce their pre-existing ideas. Their time online has made them even more Manichaean in their worldview, more absolutely convinced that they are completely right. The chaos of the internet for them translates into an absolute certainty about the truth as they see it. Very often, once you find an online forum you like, you stop exploring. There are more potential news sources than ever before, but just like the days when newspapers were king, most people get their news from only one or two sources. The internet gets bigger every day, but the number of sites each person visits stays fairly stagnant. (I’m guilty of that myself.)

Consider the nature of the language people use online. How often does anyone on a blog or in a tweet say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” or "I can't quite make up my mind about that" or express any sort of intellectual nuance about reality? Rarely, partly because this is virtually impossible on Twitter. It takes up too many characters to say “on the one hand, I can see it this way, but on the other hand, I can see....” For many people, the internet is not really a place to explore but a place to get as fast and as limited an amount of information as possible. A multiple-paragraph review of a restaurant will just not do. Tell me how many stars and give me a few pithy quotes. Hopefully the first few comments on the list are accurate, because that’s all I’m reading before I eat there!

The internet provides virtually unlimited room to write whatever you want. You will not run out of paper or ink on your blog. Writing 100,000 words costs you the same as writing 10 words, essentially. The sky's the limit in terms of how richly you want to express yourself. The result, though, in reality? A long paragraph becomes "tl;dr." Tweets get shorter and shorter, without any room for even punctuation anymore. Turns out the internet doesn't really contribute to verbal diarrhea after all. The nightmare scenario of people blathering on hasn't really happened (well, except on my blog.) Quite the opposite. Perhaps that's the silver lining. I can dismiss you much more quickly now because I don't have to scroll down very far to get to the next person.

Maybe the internet stimulates a kind of intellectual agoraphobia. The incredible chaotic mess that is the internet frightens people into finding safe little cubby holes where they can soothe themselves by talking to like-minded people and consoling themselves by trolling people who disagree. I’ve been in countless online discussions in which I really am trying to understand another person’s point of view and really am conscious that I could be wrong about what I’m saying, but the other person only reads what he has already decided is the case. It’s odd that such a wide-open, anything-goes place like the internet has bred fundamentalist-level paranoia about other people.

Despite absolutely clear evidence that you really don’t know anything about the people you encounter online, you will see people online draw the most incredible conclusions about you based on a few lines of text. Despite the clear reality that the internet is full of illusions, fluid identities, and the benefits and dangers of anonymity, many people are absolutely certain that if I write a particular sentence then that is clear evidence that my motivations are obviously x, y, and z and the narrative of my entire life story is clear for all to see.

The illusion that the internet makes people more informed has apparently convinced many people that the more time they spend online the more they know, so the more certain they can be about their opinions. I spend hours on the internet every day, I have only found material that confirms my assumptions, so therefore I am an excellent judge of people who disagree with me.

The internet is a great place to experiment and wrestle with ideas and language. In a practical sense, that’s the only reliable part when you’re speaking with strangers about a subject. Really, all you have to go on is the material in front of you. What did this person say, and what kind of statement is that? Is this statement true or not?

The least reliable, most speculative part of internet discussions is the internal, personal side, the part that focuses on the real identity of the person writing. And yet, a lot of people head straight for the personal territory. They are the most certain about the places they really have the least evidence about, like what motivates another writer, what the other writer believes, what they are ignorant about, etc. If my ideas are too complicated and they disagree with yours, it’s so much easier just to say that I’m ignoring the real issue, which is ___, or that I am clearly just another one of those ____s.

Maybe this is another psychological reaction to the big, scary internet. If I had to open my mind to the possibility that I was wrong about something, then who knows where that will stop? If I can’t put everyone online into just a few simple categories, then my head might explode from the complexity of the information. Perhaps if I can’t instantly analyze other people, then that may mean that I don’t really know myself all that well, either. If my sense of purpose has been based on an illusion, then what will be my sense of purpose after that? How could life have any meaning when I don’t get to see the world as angels versus demons anymore?

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