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Is the "Daily Me" a Reality or a Myth?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, March 19 2009

Is there such a thing as the "Daily Me" effect? Is New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof on to something when he writes:

...We generally don’t truly want good information — but rather information that confirms our prejudices. We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber.

I'm not here to argue with Kristof's general claim, that human nature and modern society leads to clustering around ideas and people that tend to give us comfort rather than ideas and people who challenge us to think different. But his column makes a bit of an intellectual leap, arguing from a set of non-internet-related cases (what kinds of mailings do people like to receive, the tendency of people in like-minded group settings to intensify their common views) to a big claim about the impact of the decline of newspapers and the rise of the internet, that it is going to make our society more polarized and less in touch with differing points of view.

I have three problems with Kristof's argument.

* First, there's a hidden assumption, that during the glory days of newspapers American society was more pluralistic, more open to differing points of view, etc. Excuse me, but if you were a woman or black or gay during the heyday of American newspapers (the 1950s, before TV started eating into readership) you hardly experienced a pluralistic world.

* Second, his argument just doesn't track with my own personal experience and that of my peers. In the years before the Internet, I only read other liberal/left publications and I had no friends who came from the other side of the political aisle. Since I started living and working online, I've dramatically broadened my own reading tastes and can count a number of Republican and rightwing activists as friends with whom I have had long and serious conversations about politics (plus a number of libertarians, as well as a bunch of people who I can't pigeonhole but greatly respect for the originality of their thinking). My RSS reader includes a bunch of rightwing blogs on politics as well as economics, along with many that would be comforting to someone who spent his formative years working at The Nation.
I happened to bump into Josh Levy earlier today and he agreed that he had the same experience: more interaction with more people and publications of diverse viewpoints online than not. You might argue that we're hardly a representative group, but I have a feeling Kristof, et al are arguing with an abstraction and the reality of online news consumption is far more complex.

* There's some evidence that online news consumers in general are more likely to seek out or encounter differing points of view than people who primarily consume non-online news sources. According to the Pew Internet 2007 report on internet behavior, between a fifth and a quarter of online political activists (the heaviest internet users and sharers) say they also use sites that "challenge my point of view." Nearly half of web news consumers report being taken to sites "unfamiliar" to them when they look for news by using search engines. (By comparison, heavy talk-radio and cable TV viewers appear to prefer to reinforce their own point of view: Pew reports that "Rush Limbaugh's regular listeners are among the most likely to say they prefer sources that share their point of view - 37% express this view while 53% say they prefer news sources that don't have a particular point of view. Similarly, 37% of Larry King's regular audience prefers sources that share their political views."

What do you think? Are you more or less inclined to engage with people and views different than your own? Does relying primarily on online sources change your experience?