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Posts Tagged ‘e-democracy

The Tumblr Echo Chamber

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Because of the complicated, multi-networked structure of the Internet, the concept of Freedom of Speech has been put under a microscope. We now conceptualize that freedom differently in a democratic society, simply because of the amount of information available and space in which to share that information.  What is important to understand when talking about Freedom of Speech in the network is that there needs to be parameters set to protect it, but more importantly it needs to be understood as a connector in and of itself.

Let’s first look at what freedom means online.  In his book “Republic 2.0”, Cass Sunstein claims “Freedom should not always be identified with ‘choices.’ Of course free societies usually   respect free choices. But sometimes choices reflect, and can in fact produce, a lack of freedom. But perhaps the argument is rooted in something else: a general hostility to any form of government regulation (Sunstein 153).” One of the primary uses of the Internet space is the spreading of ideas and information, and blogging has become a contributor of this spread, especially with regards to the political landscape.  Blogging provides a platform for individuals to say whatever they want, free of government censorship or corporate media influences.  They amass followers, support grassroots political efforts, and pick fights with the opposition while enjoying virtually no intrusion or censorship. Every voice can be heard, every idea fleshed out, and the consumer has the freedom to access and participate in all sides of the dialogue, all at once.

Now that we have this kind of freedom of expression, it is a natural reaction for us to want to protect it, fight desperately against interference or any form of regulation. What this does, however is open up the floodgates of access to all information. And once the floodgates open, it is extremely difficult for the public to decide on a filtering system for unwanted, unnecessary or damaging information.  Sunstein argues that filtering the system limits sharing of information and compromises freedom “For citizens of the republic, freedom requires exposure to a diverse set of topics and opinions” but he also acknowledges the echo chamber phenomenon that persists, in part to the overwhelming amount of information.

My personal echo chamber is the micro-blogging platform Tumblr.  Tumblr allows users to post text, images, videos, links, quotes and audio to their tumbl-blog and they can follow other Tumblr users, share messages, chat, and re-post content.  The user has a dashboard where they conduct communication and view the tumbl-blog posts of all the other users they follow. This type of blogging platform is designed to promote ease of use and connectivity within the community, and it works quite effectively distributing information. I can track how my posts move across the Tumblr community and the more followers I have, the more my voice is shared with the community, the more social capital and influence I build.

This is what makes Tumblr so appealing, the community of ideas is already set in place and the individual just has to start contributing. The Tumblr community has set up a fund for Japan relief, has organized social cause movements, distributes news in immediate time, and provides support to members. But there is an inevitable opposite to all this social and community good, sharing, happy fuzzy bunny stuff.

The Tumblr community, like most online communities has an echelon of posters who dominate the collective voice of the community. Because of their social weight, it is easier for them to set the tone of the group as a whole.  Tumblr is also open to all types of contributors, which means that voices from corporations, news organizations, fringe groups, individuals, everyone is sharing all the time. Sunstein says “These shared experiences provide a kind of social glue, facilitating efforts to solve fellow citizens, and sometimes helping ensure responsiveness to genuine problems and needs, even helping identify them as such (117).” But the individual has a choice in which blogs they follow. This filtering creates an echo chamber effect that Sunstein discusses at length. The people I follow on my personal Tumblr are people that are like me. They, for the most part share my ethics, interests, even political leanings and I purposely filter out Tumblr’s who don’t. In some ways, the people I communicate with on the platform are simply a reflection me.

And maybe this is the fear Sunstein talks about his book. He reiterates his concern about our new concept of freedom and how it actually causes group polarization, “But freedom properly understood consists not simply in the satisfaction of whatever preferences people have, but also in the chance to have preferences and beliefs formed under decent conditions – in the ability to have preferences formed after exposure to a sufficient amount of information and also to an appropriately wide and diverse range of options (45).” The danger is everywhere. It confronts you every time you join a conversation, read information, participate. And confronting the natural tendency to filter the amount of information your exposed to on a daily, hourly basis is exhausting.

Most people in the network don’t take the time to listen outside of their personal echo chambers, which is the real danger we face. So, will I open up my Tumblr following to different points of view? Will I start following Fox News’ Tumblr to balance NPR’s or The Atlantic’s Tumblr? I’ll have to think about that one.


Written by HiuHiMedia

April 20, 2011 at 11:06 am

Posted in Social Media

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A Cyborg Civilization

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How we define the technology effects of the Internet is a highly debated topic, not just its present form, but what it will look like in the future.

In order to formulate a concept of what the Internet looks like and how it effects the civil society, we must see it first as not a “thing”, an object of manipulation, or a stand-alone institution, but as a “decentralized communication system – a network of networks (Poster 261).” In Cyberdemocracy, Mark Poster goes on to say “The way to define technology effects is to build the Internet, to set in place a series of relations which constitute an electronic geography (261).” If we frame the Internet in geographic terms, it is easier to see how networks of individuals move about, connect, disconnect on top of a surface area; the surface area merely provides a space.

So now that we understand perfectly what the Internet is in relation to technology, what do we do in it?  How do we as citizens of the digital world act in a the digital world?

But we do not understand perfectly. In fact, we have a difficult time understanding it at all, especially with regards to democracy. Part of the difficulty is that the Internet allows the individual to create new identities, separate from those in real life. In fact, the Internet doesn’t just allow for morphing identities, it promotes it through the variety of communication interactions we are free to explore.

Poster likes to frame this identity morphing as a kind of cyborg identity “because the internet inscribes the new social figure of the cyborg and institutes a communicative practice of self-constitution, the political as we have known it is reconfigured” 269.” We are cyborgs because we maintain our individual selves in the physical space, but in the Internet space we have the ability to take that identity and construct a new identity depending on the interactions we have with others within the digital space; half man, half machine.

The problem with defining individuals as cyborgs in our shiny, newly defined Internet space is that we then have to ask the question of authority. In Gary Hall’s article “Hypercyberdemocracy”, he poses the question, not of who controls, but rather “is control a good term to use in relation to digital culture?” This is mind-blowing, in the sense that the Internet space allows us to reformat our collective wiring on the role of democracy. Is it necessary, is it good, is it even possible?  And if it is not good, what takes it’s place?

Both Poster and Hall intentionally leaves the question unanswered, pointing out the need to look at democracy and politics from a post-modern perspective; democracy will be shaped by what comes after the Internet explosion, but by what came before as well. This goes back to our primary question of how do we cyborgs participate in the digital space?

One answer is to look to the past, specifically focusing on civil societies with a high degree of citizen participation. Modern political theorists often assume that if participation of the average citizen within a democratic system is active, than the democracy will be ultimately healthy and productive, reaching out to all its members and reflecting their voice.

In “The Dubious Link” by Ariel Armony, this assumption is questioned, and proven false by providing examples of Weimar Germany and race politics in the U.S. Southern States. “I argue that civil society may or may not lead to democracy because what matters is the context in which people associate, not because association is inherently or universally positive for democracy (Armory 2).” The two examples Armory provides demonstrates how the social networking of individuals can lead to oppression, conflict, and the crumbling of a society, just as easily as it can support a utopian democracy. Associations and a high degree of social capital can be weapons to use for good or evil, a scary thought when we attempt to look into the future.

The internet provides us unlimited space for networking and communicating with others who have similar interests and concerns. We are now continuously connected cyborgs, operating in the Internet, where the possibilities for redefining our civil society and creation of social capital are vast, but what kind of communication is happening?

Understanding historical context, that this can be both beneficial in defining a new age of politics and detrimental to the very foundations of society is critical. We may not be able to control what happens in the digital civil society, but we must continue to ask the questions and be vigilant in observing communication and connections happening all around us.

Written by HiuHiMedia

February 16, 2011 at 7:23 am

Posted in Politics

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E-Democracy Now!

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Reading Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Massage” was a revelation to me, a revelation for the new digital age written in 1961.  The significant idea in McLuhan’s argument is that society is crippled because  of the “attempt to do a job demanded by the new environment with the tools of the old (McLuhan 94)”. In essence, we must shift our systems, institutions, perception of life and relationships to fit the new Mass Age.  McLuhan admits that there will be tension and dissension-based fear during this transition process, but he sees a Techno-Utopia is possible.

When I consider the possibility of complete integration via mass connectivity, I think of the legal implications. This may be because my dad’s a judge, but there has to be a foundation of legislation and protections put in place in order for democracy to thrive. During the last election I got involved in the grass-roots movements and I believed in the power of social change through small efforts. I signed up for tweets, Facebook updates, I even took to the streets and caucused, all in an effort to have my voice heard and to hear the voices of others. This was a great debut into the political landscape, but I will admit that I got frustrated by peoples’ fear of us crazy generation Y-ers and our activist, hands-on spirit.

Despite the frustration and the verbal threat or two I received, I came away believing that democracy and the digital, mass age are a perfect match. McCluhan commented on this shift, “A new form of politics is emerging and in ways we haven’t yet noticed. The living room has become a voting booth. Participation via television in Freedom Marches, in war, revolution, pollution, and other events is changing everything (McLuhan 22)”. Together they can facilitate full participation and real-time, meaningful exchanges of information and ideas, without the heavy hand of powerful wheelers and dealers.

Brazil is planting the seeds. In 2006 the Brazilian government implemented a social media component to their democratic process. The original system was participatory democracy with mandatory voting responsibility. Community based citizen committees were designated to meet and vote on legislation that best supported their community’s needs. By adding web-based interactions via email and wiki-type platforms,the face-to-face meetings shifted to online forums, giving the opportunity for better, faster, more accessible communication.

The results of the e-democracy efforts show an overwhelming increase in participation, “Overall online civic engagement dwarfed traditional offline participatory budgeting and accounted for a sevenfold increase in votes cast over the prior year when no online component was present (Ferenstein)” but the best advantage of their new system, in my opinion, has been that the poorest areas of Brazil are now some of the most represented. One would think the opposite would be true, due to the lack of computer literacy among poorer demographics, which gives hope that technology can extend beyond the lines that typically separate voting groups.

Of course there are disadvantages; primarily the mire of legal jargon that goes into bills, public hesitancy of anything new-fangled, and constant concern over the safety of technology but the possibility is there and it threatens those in power. To have the power to make real decisions about government funding and political office given to the people through web-based communication could mean major shifts in the U.S. political system. It would also mean a huge shift in those who are represented. It could even mean a shift in our perceptions of what it means to be an active citizen, a member of the global community.

“Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act – the way we perceive the world. When these ratios change, men change (McLuhan 41)”.


Topics for discussion:

  • How do you think McLuhan would see this attempt at e-democracy?
  • Are there any other implications to consider when giving that much power to people?
  • Do you think it’s possible for the U.S. to adopt a similar system of democracy?

FYI: if you’d like to hear the audio version of Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Massage” check it out here

Written by HiuHiMedia

September 15, 2010 at 4:09 am

Posted in Politics

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