“Politics and the Internet, Medium of Maximum Individual Choice”

I’m speaking tomorrow at the Library of Congress. The venue is the Federal Library and Information Center Committee (FLICC), and the conference is on “Social Computing and the Process of Governance.” I anticipate that most of the discussion will concern technologies that the government should deploy to serve citizens better. I will talk about the citizen’s side of the equation. In order to use any sort of technology voluntarily, a person needs skills, motivations, and confidence (as well as sheer access). People have the motivation to use online government services, for instance, to renew their driver’s licenses. They benefit by saving time for a task that is required. But using the Internet to contribute to the public debate, to organize fellow citizens, or to address social problems–that takes a high level of motivation and skill that does not come naturally.

Of course, that problem is not new to the Internet. It also takes motivation, skill, and confidence to organize a face-to-face meeting. But I think the situation is especially challenging in the age of the Internet–not because of the net itself, but because of the trend it represents. The trend is toward maximum individual choice, and therefore maximum individual responsibility for taking any civic or political action.

Jump back to the mid-twentieth century, when about 35 percent of jobs are unionized, more than 30 percent of the population identifies “strongly” with one party (and party identification remains remarkably stable for individuals over their lifetimes), most people attend a place of worship regularly, many Americans belong to associations with ethnic, religious, or local-community flavors, most people read a metropolitan daily newspaper, and (by the 1960s), a majority of Americans watch the network news on one of three TV channels most nights.

It’s a hierarchical world. Civic participation is a duty, not a choice or a way to express personal preferences based on your own opinions. You join a union because you need a job, and perhaps because your father already has a union card. You join and support a party because of your regional and ethnic identity and family tradition. The same is true for the Knights of Columbus or the NAACP. You have some choice among newspapers and broadcast news channels, but there’s nothing else on TV except news at 6 pm. Newspapers also represent a larger share of print media than they do today; there’s no People Magazine.

Partly because citizens have relatively little choice, the people–mainly men–who run these institutions have a lot of leverage. Some groups are completely excluded: no women in the Jaycees; no Blacks in many unions or in the Southern Democratic Party. And there can be a long period of apprenticeship/hazing for young members.

On the other hand, all these institutions need their members’ support. It is possible, for example, to vote for the other party, to move to another church, or to change the channel at 6 pm. You can certainly decide not to show up at the Rotary Club meeting or go door-to-door for the party. Therefore, there is a kind of contract between the institutions and their members. Trust in unions, associations, religious congregations, parties, and the press is very high, as recorded in surveys.

These institutions have an incentive to give their members civic identities–to get them to vote, give money, lobby, protest, or at least follow the news. Such participation increases these organizations’ power and market share. They have a special interest in recruiting new members, which means that they devote attention to youth and provide “civic education” (broadly defined). They also give their own members a built-in audience for public speech. If you write for the church newsletter, send a letter to the newspaper editor, or give a speech at the union hall, there are people to listen–people with similar interests and a similar context.

I will show graphs depicting very serious declines in all these forms of membership. Those trends are by no means simply bad news. They reveal a dramatic increase in choice. You now have one hundred channels to watch at 6 pm (most of which avoid news altogether). You can join a wide array of national and international associations with very specific purposes and flavors. You can express spirituality in many ways, and certainly pick among many religious congregations–some highly political, some completely devoid of politics.

Schools also reflect this shift to choice, as mid-sized high schools with coherent–mandatory–curricula have given way, first, to large shopping-mall high schools with lots of tracking, and then to an array of small, “themed” charter schools. Choice is the byword because students who are allowed to choose are thought to be more motivated and engaged.

The advantages are pluralism and leverage for individuals versus their own voluntary associations. Because members can exit easily, leaders must improve their customer service. But there are also disadvantages. For people who have no civic or political identity to start with, it’s very easy to avoid news, political ideas, and political or civic discussions. The major institutions can’t put resources into developing active citizens–let alone require their members to participate in politics. Instead, today’s political parties are collections of entrepreneurial candidates who depend mainly on rich donors and communicate to likely voters via broadcast television; many churches put on entertaining shows in huge suburban arenas; and local organizations are giving way to trade and professional associations. As ordinary people have gained leverage over the groups they choose to join, they have lost leverage over massive institutions such as the government and the mass media.

The Internet epitomizes all these trends, with its enormous array of choice, easy exit, and low sense of obligation. It is a powerful tool for people who have civic or political commitments, which is why civic uses of the Internet correlate positively with face-to-face civic work. But it cannot develop civic identities in people who start off without civic or political interests and beliefs.

The Internet provides an enormous audience–billions of eyeballs, in theory. But it’s also a competitive marketplace for attention, in which a few sites draw disproportionate traffic. The old, face-to-face associations gave members ready-made audiences who would be interested in their views because their fates were tied together. For most Internet users, the audience is limited to a few “friends.” Opportunities for using a public voice have actually shrunk.