It’s fashionable these days for many in the political class to complain about the Internet for, among other reasons, allowing people to ideologically self-segregate. But like much of conventional wisdom, this widespread view appears to be wrong. At least according to David Brooks, who cites new research by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro, both of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. According to Brooks:
[T]he core finding is that most Internet users do not stay within their communities. Most people spend a lot of time on a few giant sites with politically integrated audiences, like Yahoo News. But even when they leave these integrated sites, they often go into areas where most visitors are not like themselves. People who spend a lot of time on Glenn Beck’s Web site are more likely to visit The New York Times’s Web site than average Internet users. People who spend time on the most liberal sites are more likely to go to foxnews.com than average Internet users. Even white supremacists and neo-Nazis travel far and wide across the Web.
This study suggests that Internet users are a bunch of ideological Jack Kerouacs. They’re not burrowing down into comforting nests. They’re cruising far and wide looking for adventure, information, combat and arousal. This does not mean they are not polarized. Looking at a site says nothing about how you process it or the character of attention you bring to it. It could be people spend a lot of time at their home sites and then go off on forays looking for things to hate. But it probably does mean they are not insecure and they are not sheltered.
If this study is correct, the Internet will not produce a cocooned public square, but a free-wheeling multilayered Mad Max public square. The study also suggests that if there is increased polarization (and there is), it’s probably not the Internet that’s causing it.
For the gatekeepers of the Old Media, whose influence and dominance have so rapidly diminished since the advent of the Internet, this finding will be most unwelcome. For the rest of us, it’s more evidence that the Internet is one of the wonders of the modern world and a huge gift to the public, and to politics itself.