The Web Is What We Make It

The latest issue of Journal of Information Technology & Politics (Volume 9, Issue 3, 2012, pages 279-297) features an interesting article by Travis Kriplean and others: Facilitating Diverse Political Engagement with the Living Voters Guide (requires registration/payment).


Unlike 20th-century mass media, the Internet requires self-selection of content by its very nature. This has raised the normative concern that users may opt to encounter only political information and perspectives that accord with their pre-existing views. This study examines the different ways that voters appropriated a new, purpose-built online engagement platform to engage with a wide variety of political opinions and arguments. In a system aimed at helping Washington state citizens make their 2010 election decisions, we find that users take significant advantage of three key opportunities to engage with political diversity: accessing, considering, and producing arguments on both sides of various policy proposals. Notably, engagement with each of these forms of participation drops off as the required level of commitment increases. We conclude by discussing the implications of these results as well as directions for future research.

The Living Voters Guide was used during the 2010 and 2011 elections in Washington State and is still available online.

This part in the article’s conclusion really resonated with me (emphasis mine):

This research speaks to broader debates about the implications of the Internet for politics. Some scholars hold that the Internet has one overarching effect on or use for politics (e.g., Gladwell, 2010; Hindman, 2009; Kerbel, 2009; Margolis & Resnick, 2000), downplaying the fact that it can support a wide variety of political interactions. These perspectives tightly circumscribe our imagination about the scope of online politics by focusing on popular applications such as social networking sites at the expense of alternative technologies. Our work emphasizes that the Web is what we make it, and while its potential has limits, its most prominent sites do not exhaust them. The fact that deliberation tends not to flourish spontaneously online should not lead us to conclude that online deliberation is a lost cause; rather, it should (among other things) prompt us to design effective outlets for diversity-friendly publics.

I couldn’t agree more! There’s still plenty of room to come up with better, bolder solutions for online dialogue and deliberation that engage people on their own terms. In fact, while considerable progress has been made over the past decade or so, I’d argue that we’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s possible.

The next few years could be quite exciting. Let’s build this!

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