Internet: the Great Leveler? Part 2

keyboardRead Part 1.

When Internet discussions take the form of posting frenzies in which people at all levels of knowledge and character have an equal voice, the result is rarely that the most knowledgeable and good are the most heard. In these cases, control of the conversation is leveled, and much of the ethos of the participants is leveled as well.

Critics of the medium rightly complain that little good can come of having those who know nothing speak as much as, or more than, those who are well-informed. I believe they’re also right that little good comes of giving people who have never done anything the same kind of authoritative voice as persons of true stature and achievement.

But is this leveling tendency inherent in the medium, as some allege? Does this leveling tendency look as important when we observe what is not leveled? How is the leveling tendency affected by changes in how people implement the technology? And how does the discussion technology of the Web really compare to older mediums such as the printed page or the face to face conversation?

What is not leveled

If a couple of PhDs and two dozen eighth graders join an Internet discussion on some topic they all care about (but which the PhDs actually know about) control of the conversation is dispersed equally among them all. Since the kids are more numerous and quicker at the keyboard, they’ll dominate the conversation, and since they know little about the subject, ignorant opinion will dominate as well.

Or will it?

In this scenario, it appears that the expertise of the PhDs is lowered while the ignorance of the eighth graders is lifted. And, measured solely in terms of the quantity (and probably sheer emotional muscle) of the posts, that’s true. But what if we measure the discussion more comprehensively?

Critics of the Internet discussion medium tend to focus on the conversational qualities of the medium—the spontaneous, short-term features. But if we add in some other features of the medium, our evaluation changes in important ways.

First, though a discussion on the Web is often fast moving, spontaneous and sloppy, like conversation, it is also written down and preserved, like the printed page. The result is that if we’re going to accurately judge the discussion’s effect, we have to consider the long-term as well as the short-term.

Second, though a particular discussion may include a large number of individuals who have never interacted before, many Web discussions occur at sites where lots of the same individuals post repeatedly. Though a post by “xyz123” in a hot and contentious discussion may seem completely anonymous (and empty of ethos), many posts by “xyz123” over time begin to reveal the mind and character behind them. So, once again, considering the long-term as well as the short-term clarifies for us what is being leveled in these discussions and what is not.

Even in discussions where the ignorant mock the claims of the well informed and out-post them ten to one, the participant who is well informed and possessed of good character and sound judgment can quietly post something brilliant. In the short term, his post seems lost in the tsunami of foolishness. But in the long run, his patience, and the clarity and soundness of his arguments, may rise above that tide. His formal ethos is leveled (nobody knows or cares that he has a position of leadership or some kind of credential), but not his moral and intellectual ethos.

It is possible to have an Internet discussion in which both conversational control and formal ethos are leveled (or even inverted), yet persuasive power in the long term is not. This is why, even on the unregulated Internet where just about anybody can say just about anything, some sources rise above others in popularity among particular constituencies. Over time, insightful bloggers become better known and more desired by people who value that insight.

The impotence of posting frenzies

The discontinuity between conversational-control and formal ethos on one hand and real, long-term influence on the other is substantial even on those occasions where mindless herd instinct seems to hold sway. Consider what the typical posting frenzy is usually about. In almost every case, it concerns a highly controversial person or issue that just about everyone already has a firm position about. A tidal wave of posting occurs only if a large number of people (a) have already made up their minds and (b) are passionate enough about their views to want to express them vigorously in public. And how many of these people ever change their minds during such a discussion?

Similarly, if large numbers of posters have already made up their minds, so have the majority of the silent readers who are not posting. It’s likely that in a comment tsunami, the discussion has little or no impact on the vast majority of people who participate or read. A mob mentality kicks in but usually only results in more posting—not more influence on the undecided.

As for those whose minds are not already made up, these are usually not the kind of readers who form their opinions based on who yells loudest or what view is being posted the most. They are “in the middle” precisely because they take their time and reflect before drawing conclusions. For these, it’s the quiet, sensible post—seemingly lost in the deluge—that really grabs their attention and, potentially, influences their thinking.

The observation that “bad conversation crowds out good conversation” is true. But Internet discussions are not exactly conversation. They are part conversation and part composition.

Leveling and implementation

Does the leveling tendency of the Internet discussion medium change significantly based on how the technology is implemented? I believe it does.

Previously, I compared Internet discussions to gathering a random group of people in an auditorium, giving them all microphones and announcing that the conference goal is to produce a solution to conflict in the Middle East. The likely combination of chaos and ignorance makes a positive outcome pretty unlikely.

But is this analogy really what Internet discussions are like? Only in varying degrees. First, the group that participates in a discussion on the Web is never completely random. Participants are at least drawn by a common interest in the subject. So, to adjust our analogy, the conference on peace in the Middle East would be widely promoted to draw those who have an interest in that subject. Though interest does not equal expertise, we’re safe to suppose that the knowledge level of the interested is higher than the knowledge level of a random set of participants.

Second, participants can be filtered further by standards higher than mere interest in the subject. Here at SI, for example, participants in discussions must register. They’re asked to give us their real names, and they agree to a doctrinal standard and a set of rules of conduct. So the analogy has to be tweaked yet again. Now attendees to the peace conference must agree to a written set of foreign policy principles and some guidelines for behavior at the event.

The Internet discussion medium lends itself to measures that shape both who participates and how they participate. What does this mean for the leveling effect? It means that participates may be more truly level to begin with and that their interaction can be influenced to encourage deference where deference is due.

Web discussion vs. printed page vs. face to face

The Internet discussion medium suffers some disadvantages when compared to the printed page or the face to face conversation. In the case of the latter, people with average levels of empathy usually moderate both tone and substance in order to try to make the conversation more pleasant. And much more communicative information is exchanged through body language.

But in this respect, the Internet discussion compares well to the printed page. Letters, pamphlets, articles and books also tend to insulate the writer both from readers and from ideological opponents. There were no Internet discussion wars in the early years of the printing press, but there certainly were (and still are) pamphlet wars and open-letter wars.

But the Internet discussion also lacks some of the strengths of printed material. Since there is very little publishing cost, there is no need for publishing houses that must seek a return on their investment by rejecting the work they believe is inferior. And the emotional intensity of discussion often results in less of the kind of thoughtful and organized work that normally characterizes paper and ink writing.

To be sure, the part-conversation, part-publishing hybrid that is the Internet discussion involves some trade-offs compared to other mediums. I am not persuaded that it is inherently inferior to those alternatives.

[node:bio/aaron-blumer body]

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There are 6 Comments

Jason's picture

Excellent post. These are things I've intended to think through more carefully for years now. You've given a helpful outline of the issues involved. Thanks.

R Glenny's picture

I'll reserve judgment until I hear from some PhDs.

Richard Glenny

Brenda T's picture

on the unregulated Internet where just about anybody can say just about anything,

Blogs have some sort of moderation (some more than others) so that even though it might look like the field is leveled or participants may feel like they are on a level playing field, they really are not. Certainly there are some blogs that do not moderate at all and anything goes, but those are not in the majority. Even news sites that allow comments, have certain rules to follow.

In thinking about blogs and moderators in general (not any specific blog) it seems that the amount of leveling is determined more by the moderation than the participants. During a non-blog debate, a moderator makes sure both sides are equally represented and have equal time and opportunity to make their statements while also enforcing decorum. In a classroom where discussions develop, the teacher acts as moderator although it is usually understood where the teacher stands on the issue. In debates, a good moderator does not reveal where he/she stands on the particular issue at hand.

It seems like the tricky thing for anyone who has a blog or moderates a blog is to discern when something is a discussion or a debate so that they know how to direct it or if/when to insert their own opinions. A lot of that depends on the purpose of that particular blog.

Getting back to the example in both essays, even though the 8th graders out-number or out-type the Ph.D.s there is some sort of moderation of the comments that could and perhaps should take place either by that particular blog administrator or appointed moderators. Since the leveling factor has more to do with how the technology is used rather than the technology itself, perhaps, Aaron, you have made a good argument for competent, discerning moderation of blogs.

The frustration seems to be for some that they perceive the internet as "the great leveler" but then when comments are "moderated" or the salient comments are out-numbered by the inane we want to cry "foul" because of this idea that the internet is a leveler and therefore a fair playing field for all. But, like we all heard as kids and now tell our kids "Life isn't fair" -- including the internet.

drwayman's picture

Aaron - I appreciated that you allowed me to discuss (although peripherally) some of my thoughts in the previous blog.

This post seemed to end abruptly. Do you have a part 3 coming?

You make a couple of statements that I would like to comment on:

1) "I believe they’re also right that little good comes of giving people who have never done anything the same kind of authoritative voice as persons of true stature and achievement." Who is "they?" and who determines who "have never done anything" and "persons of true stature and achievement" is?

(This is an aside as you are not talking about the church but IMHO the church should be a leveler, degrees and education are not as relevant in a church. A SS teacher with a HS education may be a much better SS teacher than a SS teacher with a PhD. The gifts and fruit of the Spirit are not a respecter of education or lack thereof)

2) "But in the long run, his patience, and the clarity and soundness of his arguments, may rise above that tide." This statement to me seems to support leveling. With a long-term focus, the ones with clarity and soundness in their arguments will prevail, regardless of education and degrees. Hence, the PhD can be leveled with an 8th grader if one can get past the tsunami and sift thru the arguments. The WWW provides the opportunity and access for those individuals who can present clarity and soundness of arguments when in the past, these individuals would never even made it to the discussion.

Thanks for such a couple (maybe three) interesting posts Smile

Pedid por la paz de Jerusalén.

Aaron Blumer's picture


I did kind of suddenly just quit writing that one, didn't I? Blame it on fatigue.... and it was getting long.

I don't know if I'll do a part 3, but probably something sort of like that eventually. I know I'll continue to think about these things and that's sure to result in something I want to share eventually.

On your two numbered points: (1) Who is "they"? Well, I don't remember who all I've heard this from, though one was a young theologian I mentioned in part 1. I have also seen it in writing. At the time, I wasn't planning to write on the subject, so... not sure where.
To the extent that I agree with them, "they" is me. I do believe one of the tragic losses of western culture in the last century or so is the loss of appreciation for certain kinds of inequality. That is, in the clash between what I'll call the French version of democratic society and the conservative/federalist version, the ideas of the French radicals have slowly come to dominate. One result is a pretty strong and deep antipathy toward the idea that some ought to lead and many ought to follow. (Despite people's disbelief, this happens anyway... it just doesn't happen as well as it would if people would embrace reality. We used to have a phrase, "your betters"--now nobody believes they have any "betters.")

Is the church a leveler? In some ways yes and in some, no. Gal. tells us all are one in Christ. Yet many passages assign unique responsibilities to people gifted and called to them. Those gifted and called for these roles are superior--with respect to those roles--to those who are not, and the body functions best when everybody recognizes that. 1Cor.12... we are not all eyes hands or feet.

Who determines who the people of real stature and achievement are? Well, I look at it this way: Who decides how many whiskers it takes to make a "beard"? Nobody. And yet there are such things as beards. Though nobody has the job of identifying who the achievers are, people of good judgment usually know a person of stature and accomplishment when they encounter one.
It's hard to define precisely, but, to me, "accomplishment" has a whole lot to do with things like sacrifice, risk and adversity being overcome by things like courage, fortitude, endurance--in the advancing of truth, beauty and goodness (I'm in the mood for threes I guess). And the value of what has been produced has a whole lot to do with the scope and endurance of its impact over time.

(2) "'But in the long run, his patience, and the clarity and soundness of his arguments, may rise above that tide.' This statement to me seems to support leveling."

Well, not really. The point there is that there's a kind of leveling that is not happening. The one who has these qualities and arguments "rises"... he is no longer "level." But this can happen even if his credentials etc. are ignored. Theoretically, yes, an 8th grader could be the one who responds with patience, clarity and sound arguments--and has the real influence. Ignoring for the moment how unlikely that is, it's possible, because the opportunity to do that is level. It's just that the % of eight graders with the character, maturity and knowledge to manage something like that vs. PhDs approaches zero (the potential decreases as the weightiness of the topic increases)

That segues to Brenda's post..
. what I'm encouraging folks to see is that we're wrong to measure what point of view/attitude is "winning" in a discussion by the number of posts or intensity of them. The most intense/numerous may be the victors but not necessariliy.
In the case of posting frenzies, in the short run, they can inflame passions and rouse people to action, but their power tends to die as suddenly as it began. So the "winners" end up being the ones who said things that endure.
(You might say that for the one who posted thoughtfully amid the ranting, it was a tactical defeat but a strategic victory.)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

drwayman's picture

Aaron - I see from your response that I wasn't clear in a few areas:

1) I believe that the church is a leveler in that the HS equips the church and He is not a respecter of persons. Hence, these gifts level those with academic degrees and those without. The church is not a leveler in that there needs to be some sort of organization in the church, it's not anarchy.

(On a side note, I have two pastor brothers who have the DMin and we have discussions about professionalism in the church (I sometimes wonder if Pastor should be a paid profession <> but that's a side, side note). One brother is in California (CA). He states that in CA one can be an attorney simply by passing the bar. However, the difference between an attorney who has gone to law school and one who has not is as different as night and day. He uses this as an example that a pastor who has gone to seminary is vastly different from one that has not.)

2) You wrote in response, "The one who has these qualities and arguments "rises"... he is no longer "level." I was thinking of two different kinds of rise at that point... a) rising above the tsunami and b) the 8th grader rises and the PhD drops so that they are on a level playing field. The PhD drops because even though s/he knows how to research, s/he may be outside of his/her area of expertise and the 8th grader rises to a level of clarity and soundness of argument of a PhD outside his/her area of expertise.

In response to your segue to Brenda. I have been on discussion boards that have gotten quite frenzied. On these boards, the attitude seems to be the one who posts last wins (the one with the most stamina/time/rhetoric). The "winner" (if there is such a thing on these frenzied discussion board) may be the one who just makes a few comments that are well-placed, well-timed, clear, thoughtful and reasoned. I believe that is the point you're trying to make.

Thanks for the interaction.

Pedid por la paz de Jerusalén.

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