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Posted by on Feb 8, 2009 in Media | 6 comments

Has The Internet Made America “Ruder And Cruder”?

Right Wing News’ John Hawkins, writing on Pajamas Media’s website, notes something that many of us who’ve followed politics and discussion have noted — and he hits the nail squarely on the head:

1. The internet has opened more opportunities for greater political discussion.

2. The Internet has made people ruder than ever and made American political discourse uglier — a trend you can certainly experience by listening or watching any number of radio or cable talk shows where yelling, anger, rage, stereotypical comments and broad brush demonization are considered virtues since they make for good radio and TV. Blogs have become less “citizen journalism” than “citizen op-eds” or “cyberspace print talk radio” shows so the same trend is here.

Here’s part of his must-read:

American society as a whole, and politics in particular, has become considerably ruder, cruder, and more paranoid than it used to be. Many factors have contributed to this latest round of cultural degeneration, but I think the Internet deserves to get more than a smidgen of the blame — and that’s a heck of a thing to say for a guy who is on the net incessantly because he makes a living as a professional blogger.

So why has the Internet so uniquely contributed to the deterioration of our society?

Well, you have individuals from all over the world who can talk anonymously to people with whom they have no personal connection, and they can say absolutely anything without fear of being punched in the nose. Put another way, the Internet takes away all the factors that keep people from saying the rude things that they may be thinking, but wouldn’t blurt out if they were face to face with another human being. On a more sinister note, the Internet allows misfits, sexual deviants, and sociopaths to form communities outside the mainstream where they can reinforce each others’ values. Instead of being a weirdo or loner that society may be able to cajole back towards normalcy through negative social reinforcement, everyone from pedophiles and conspiracy theorists to hackers and “I did it for the lulz” trolls can meet up with hundreds of like-minded souls on the net who tell them what they’re doing isn’t abnormal; to the contrary, it’s great!

That sort of compartmentalization is one of the reasons politics has become so ferociously partisan.

And then he notes something I’ve pointed out that also applies to entertainment:

On the Internet, people have broken up into small, like-minded groups where they have minimal contact with people who disagree with them. As a result, there is little pressure to show respect for the opinions of people who see the world differently — since those people are, for the most part, not present. It means that facts that run contrary to their ideology will tend to be viewed with suspicion at best and will be totally ignored at worst, thereby creating groupthink on a titanic scale.

Many people who start out blogging run into this problem: if they’re don’t sound like a lot of the others on the right or left, they simply will not get links from some blogs on the right or the left.

But several factors are at work here. Two of the main ones:

*The vulgarization of America. It’s considered cool and edgy to be rude and name call. Demonization gets attention. Just as the journalists of the increasingly outmoded and endangered newspapers scrambled to get that big story packed with facts and sensational revelations that would pitchfork them into the front pages — where they could get attention-grabbing front page clips to show to other newspapers to advance themselves and get better jobs — websites, broadcast outlets and blogs want that SCREAMING POST that creates buzz and gets quoted or linked by all and sundry. Today, news consumers like to visit a website or watch a show that they will already agree with (“He’s REALLY smart and brilliant! He agrees with ME!!”).

*Narrowcasting as a way of 21st century life. Entertainment at the turn of the 20th century was more broad based. Long vaudeville bills meant to appeal to all ages were the rage. Radio and movies helped kill vaudeville, but the idea still was to appeal to broad audiences. TV helped kill radio but even in the 60s there were shows such as the old Ed Sullivan Show and others aimed at getting the whole family to watch a program that had widespread appeal. But by the late 60s the Baby Boomers made one of their negative contributions towards American life (I am a Baby Boomer): rejection of some of the entertainment forms and styles enjoyed by their parents…and so America edged towards the era of narrow casting.

One highly symbolic year was 1970…the year of the so-called “rural purge” when CBS axed a bunch of well-rated TV shows for being too rural and having older audiences as a new priority called “demographics” came into play.

But the real revolution towards narrowcasting came with the advent of America being wired for cable TV — and the Internet.

Suddenly the goal was to attract small, specific groups.

And the trend could be seen in how ideas and information was delivered, too…

As Hawkins says, it has spawned the age of appealing to increasingly smaller groups — where someone can find something that fits their narrow taste or their exact belief.

This, along with a preponderance of short blog posts, pithy opinion, and quick videos, has helped to produce a “bumper sticker” mentality that is negatively impacting the decision-making capabilities of our body politic. Back in 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas had a series of famous debates in which both men spoke for an hour and a half each. Today, only 10% of people on the net will even watch an entertaining five-minute video all the way through. That’s problematic for our society because there are quite a few issues that simply cannot be adequately boiled down to a single slogan or sentence.

Here’s the thing about all these issues: many people act as if there is a clear delineation between “real life” and the “Internet,” but that’s simply not so.

There’s a lot more — so read it all.

Even single slogans or sentences could be constructive — Hollywood has used “high concept” honorably (and dishonorably) for years — but more often than not, in radio, cable and Internet politics today short sentences either involve demonization, or assertions of certainty. Conventional wisdom lasts only as long as a blog post or the latest news development..with old conventional wisdoms buried quickly and quietly, in the hope that no one will notice they’re dead.

What does this trend mean?

With the popularity of Twitter and text messaging, shorter and shorter concepts are more and more popular. And the trend has not been towards a more civil, intelligent balanced discussion.

Just think about where we are in 2009 and where we seem to be heading.

Then think about 2020.

Or is that too painful to imagine?

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