Monthly Archives: January 2004


There’s a lively discussion of “cyberbalkanization” on the Deliberative Democracy Consortium’s blog. The discussion was prompted by a New York Times article last Sunday that claimed that people use the Internet to sort themselves into small, homogeneous groups and to filter out views that don’t interest or please them. I’ve pasted my comment below, but I recommend the full discussion:

For my money, the best theoretical account of cyberbalkanization is still a 1996 paper by Marshall van Alstyne and Erik Brynjolfsson. They predict that the Internet will help people who are so inclined to increase the range and diversity of their information and contacts. They also predict that the Internet will allow people to “filter” out unwelcome ideas or contacts and to form narrow, exclusive groups. So the technology will not determine the outcome; people’s motives will. And clearly, people have various motives. Some prefer diverse ideas and serendipitous encounters; others want to shun people who are different and simply confirm their own prejudices.

I am fairly pessimistic about the cyberbalkanization problem, not because of the technology, but because of cultural trends in the US. Niche marketing has become highly sophisticated and has divided us into small groups. There’s more money to be made through niche programs than by creating diverse forums for discussion. Meanwhile, people have developed consumerist attitudes towards news, looking for “news products” that are tailored to their private needs. And broad-based organizations have mostly shrunk since the 1950s. In this context, the Internet looks like a means to more balkanization. In a different context, such as contemporary Saudi Arabia, it may have a much more positive impact.

jury duty

I was in the pool for jury duty today, although I was not selected for a panel. (This happens like clockwork every two years.) I used to want to be selected, because I study deliberation, and a jury is the paradigm of a deliberative body. Now I quietly hope that my number won’t come up; I feel I have too much to do at work–perhaps an indication that I’m putting too low a priority on civic duty. Anyway, they never seem to want me.

Waiting in the pool is, however, a nice chance to observe a random selection of my fellow Washingtonians. I have noticed, for example, that African Americans are much more likely than Whites to see someone else in the jury pool whom they already know. (The Black community is more stable, and residents are more likely to have gone to local schools.) Also, a striking percentage of jurors name someone in their family who serves in law enforcement. This is probably a DC phenomenon: we have numerous layers of police, prisons, and federal law-enforcement agencies here.

While in the courthouse, I helped my CIRCLE colleagues put out a press release on youth voting in New Hampshire. In Iowa, youth turnout quadrupled compared to 2004. In New Hampshire, it’s hard to say what happened to turnout. There was no contested Republican primary, so New Hampshire Independents who might usually vote in the GOP primary voted in the Democratic contest. Voting by all age groups increased in the Democratic primary, but this seems meaningless. Furthermore, the under-30’s did not increase their share of the vote, as they had in Iowa. I wonder whether youth turnout was lower in New Hampshire than in Iowa because some young Dean supporters became disillusioned during the last week. Dean came first among the under-30s in New Hampshire, but some of his young fans may have stayed home.

online organizations

I’ve been asked to write an article on how young political activists use the Internet. After an introduction about the political potential of the “commons,” I turn to various types of online youth activity. One short section concerns online political organizations. Comments would be welcome. I’m planning to say:

Political, ideological, and civic organizations have formed largely or entirely online, representing virtually all ideologies, identities, and agendas. Their organizational structures also vary greatly, but compared to offline groups, they are more likely to have anonymous or pseudonymous members. Anonymity has the advantage of allowing candor, which is especially beneficial for members of stigmatized groups (such as the only gay adolescent in a small community). It also allows people to experiment with novel identities. However, anonymity may have the disadvantage of making relationships relatively superficial and may permit behavior that is disruptive to the group itself. If members can adopt fictitious identities, then they can change their identities as soon as anyone threatens to expel or socially ostracize them.

Compared to offline groups, online ones tend to be easier to “exit” but harder to change by exercising “voice” (Hirschman), because there is no method of democratic decision-making that one can influence. Because exit is easy, groups tend not to discipline their own members by demanding contributions or particular forms of behavior in return for membership. Again compared to offline groups, online ones tend to be “thin” rather than “thick” (Bimber, p. 148). In a classic “thick” group, such as a family and ethnic group, members are committed to the survival and flourishing of the collectivity; but its purposes are changeable and subject to debate. In a “thin” group, members enter having some purpose, and view membership as instrumental to that goal. Although many online groups are “thin,” unstructured, and easy to exit, this is not true of massive, multiplayer games, whose participants invest considerable time in developing fictional characters. Often, they become highly committed to the flourishing of the game community as an end in itself.

However, most games are not political. Political or civic groups more typically allow members to visit a website, contribute money, and/or elect to receive email messages. A prominent example is, a liberal organization in the United States that claims 2.3 million members as of January 2004. MoveOn was formed to oppose the impeachment of President Clinton, but now tackles issues that its members choose by voting. It has raised and spent millions of dollars to influence US policy. No information is available about the median age of MoveOn members or staff, but it has been described as an “an inter-generational grouping heavily peopled by young voters, something that most political constituencies lack” (Schechter, 2004).

explaining politics to the very young

We’ve got kids (one 4 and one 14), and sometimes it’s hard to explain the primary campaign to them. I’ve come up with the following key, which may come in handy for others who face the same predicament:

John Kerry = Pooh

Dick Gephardt = Rabbit

Al Sharpton = Gopher

Howard Dean = Tigger

Wesley Clark = Owl

John Edwards = Piglet

Joe Lieberman = Eeyore

Carol Mosely Braun = Kanga

Dennis Kucinich = Little Roo

George W. Bush = A Heffalump

Dick Cheney = A Woozle

Christopher Robin = The American People