David Weinberger
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The efficiency of partisan news

31 March 2013

When the Federal Communications Commission or the U.S. Supreme Court issues a ruling that has me befuddled, as they usually do, I go straight to my partisan pals online to find out what I should think about it. I know I'm not supposed to, but I'm tired of feeling guilty about it. I'm doing the rational thing. It's our idea of understanding that's messed up.

I know that it's supposed to be wrong to go to sites whose politics I basically agree with: I'm getting reconfirmed in beliefs that I instead should be challenging. It's classic echo chamber behavior. On the other hand, if I want to understand a new finding in evolutionary biology, I'm not going to go to a creationist site, and if I want to talk about directorial choices in Joss Whedon's latest movie, I'm not going to go a site that hates everything he's ever done. Oh, I might go afterward to see what Those Folks are thinking, but to understand something, I'm going to go first to people with whom I basically agree.

A queasy feeling

I think one reason I've felt so conflicted about this is that when I think about it, I think about the big partisan sites. So, if I go to DailyKos.com—a left-wing site—then to be consistent I have to say that I feel fine about right-wingers going to Fox News. I've tried to get rid of the squirmy feeling that causes me, by thinking that Fox and DailyKos are not truly equivalent, because  Kos acknowledges facts that are unpleasant for their beliefs, and because Kos allows lots and lots of community participation. But I probably see it that way because I agree with Kos, and a Foxian might say the same sorts of things. It's an uncomfortable position.

I finally realized that I am using the wrong sort of sites for my example. I do feel queasy about recommending that people get news interpreted for them by going to sites that operate in the broadcast mode, presenting you with an uncommented flow of information. But I have no bad feelings whatsoever about taking my questions about the news to my social networks, which are all comments all the time.

The thread's value

Because I'm old, much of social networking occurs on mailing lists. Some of the lists are topic-based, and contain people who broadly agree, but who disagree about most of the particulars; that's what conversations are for. So, if there's a new policy coming from the FCC, there will be a general discussion about what it means, how it applies and whether it's good or bad for our interests. All the comments either add to or disagree with a previous comment, except for the occasional "+1" thumbs-upping. That's how conversation works. The thread has value and is interesting only if it presents multiple points of view on the topic, even though those points of view generally share some core values and interests.

Understanding is incremental

Would it be helpful to hear from people who radically disagree with our little circle? Sure, at some point. I need to have my more fundamental views challenged. At some point. But not when I'm trying to find out about this or that piece of news. If we take understanding as a tool used for a purpose, it becomes a wildly inefficient tool—a hammer that's all handle—if we have to go back to first principles in order to understand anything. Understanding is an efficient tool because it's incremental. If the question is what to make of some new FCC spectrum ruling, then the question is not whether a wildly open Internet is a good thing and not whether the best way to achieve this is by increasing competition. Those are fine questions for another morning, but if I have to ask those questions every time I hear something about the FCC, then understanding has failed at its job.

So, I don't feel bad about consulting my social network for help understanding the news.

And now for the caveats and weasel words: My social networks may not be typical; yours may vary. Some types of news need more fundamental challenge than others. Reliance exclusively on social networks for news may put you into an impenetrable "filter bubble." So, yes, there are risks, but every act of interpretation is risky.