I was out of my usual haunts recently to speak at a young adults’ fellowship in what we call around here “The Cities.” Some of the conversation there had to do with SharperIron and, afterward, discussion with a few lingerers went to a familiar point. One young man observed that the trouble with Internet discussions goes beyond questions of the use of technology. The medium itself is a problem. It is inherently hostile to leadership because it erases distinctions and puts everyone on the same level.
A result, he said, is that “bad conversation crowds out good conversation.” A related thought from someone in the group was that so much of the dynamic of persuasive speaking and writing relates to who is saying it and not simply what is being said, and the Internet forum medium tends to neutralize the who factor.
These are thoughtful critiques of the medium and worthy of prolonged attention. I want to make a small down payment here toward that prolonged attention.
The big question seems to be this: Is the easy-access discussion technology of the Internet (more precisely, the World Wide Web) inherently prone to an unhelpful or wrongful leveling effect?
I’m aware that many quickly react to that question in the negative. “Of course it doesn’t! Only elitists think that giving everyone even footing in a discussion is a bad thing.” But I’m sympathetic to views of the alleged elitists. It’s not immediately obvious to me that it’s a good idea to take a random sampling of a population, put them in an auditorium, give them all microphones and announce that the goal of the session is, say, to develop a good policy for peace in the Middle East. If the group consists of a hundred people, there might be two or three at most who could be expected to have the knowledge of history, politics, government and foreign policy to supply high quality ideas. (If peace in the Middle East doesn’t work for you, try brain surgery or rocket science.)