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?

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Internet: the Great Leveler?

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 question

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.)

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