How is the internet changing shared experiences? What happens when people are walled off from each other more than they were before? This post explores how the internet is contributing to fewer shared experiences, and how this can occasionally be in conflict with democratic ideals.

A new iron triangle

Sunstein posits:

Interest groups, echo chambers, and conceptions of identity reinforce each other, creating a new kind of iron triangle. Interest groups use social media to promote their preferred view of the world as well as create or fortify conceptions of identity. The echo chambers increase the authority of those groups at the same time that they entrench those conceptions.

The older “iron triangle” was the relationship between Congress, bureaucracy, and interest groups.

This is a powerful idea that I have not had enough time to reflect on, but it immediately stood out to me when reading. This isn’t a replacement for the traditional iron triangles (indeed, this has nothing to do with policy), but it does point to three systems with interlocking relationships.

Online information

More and more people get all of their information from the internet. This is increasingly dangerous, Sunstein writes.

His view on this is interesting because it rejects most the arguments of the “echo chambers are ruining democracy” crowd, but reaches the same conclusion.

In Sunstein’s view,

  • it is not necessary for people to get all their news online (and they don’t)
  • people are not always in echo chambers online
  • not every social media platform creates echo chambers
  • many people still seek out different opinions online

And yet:

When technology makes it easy for people to wall themselves off from others, there are serious risks for the people involved and society as a whole.

I agree.

Social glue and shared experiences

What happens when people aren’t walled off from each other? They have more shared experiences, even when the people themselves are diverse.

According to Sunstein, for a long time Israel had a single channel of TV available. It meant that almost everyone was watching almost everything on that channel. This is obviously not a hallmark of a free society, but it had some surprising positive consequences. “The shared experience of viewing often made for conversation across ideological lines.”

That’s not to say the policy was a good one. Rather, the lesson here is that the shared experience was democratically valuable.

Information has a special property: when any one of us learns something, other people, and perhaps many other people, might end up benefiting from what we have learned.

He connects this to the US. When there were only three TV networks, the majority of the population was watching them. The nightly news and popular TV shows were close to shared experiences.

This is decreasingly true. As long as viewer choice increases, it’s likely that otherwise diverse people will share fewer events.

One more time: this is far from an unambiguously bad thing. On balance, it is almost certainly good.

That doesn’t stop us from considering its negative consequences, though.

The “consumer sovereignty” of making your own choices w.r.t. what information and media you consume is fundamentally at odds with one of the core elements of republicanism (lowercase-R), “political sovereignty.” Underlying it is a requirement to govern by discussion, to listen to each other respectfully, to have shared experiences, and to understand public problems.

That’s the core point, here, I think. That the ideals upon which modern media is founded are occasionally (not always! in fact, not even usually!) in conflict with the ideals upon which democracy itself is founded.

How do we design around them? How do we respect consumer choice while remedying the negative externalities produced by this choice?

When individuals do not design their communications universe on their own, they will be exposed to a great deal of material from which they may not benefit as individuals, but from which they may be able to help many others.

Instead of the binary “the internet does / does not polarize,” Sunstein accepts that this question has no answer, and instead focuses on the consequences of a “well, sometimes / a little bit” answer. This conversation helped me to question the internet in a new way.