There’s a widespread sense—of debatable historical accuracy, but widespread all the same—that we’re living in an era of especially pronounced political polarization, with a correspondingly poor ratio of tribal slogan slinging to meaningful democratic deliberation. One possible explanation for this is that the massive explosion of our media ecosystem makes it increasingly possible for us to construct ideologically congenial “filter bubbles” that provide us a rich enough stream of information to occupy all our available media consumption time. There are so many blogs, publications, podcasts, radio programs, Twitter feeds, and radio broadcasts that we can have a superficial impression of great variety, while only ever encountering information tailored to reinforce our preexisting worldview—conditions under which we know the median member of the group tends to adopt more extreme views over time. Our filter algorithms, as Eli Pariser argues at the link above, are increasingly doing this for us automatically, so that we may not even be aware of the echo chambers we’re constructing around ourselves. I assume most readers are reasonably familiar with this story.
But there’s another plausible story I think we can tell grounded in the ways information technology enables disagreement. Plenty has been said about the salutary effects of a more egalitarian media ecosystem, in which it’s far easier for anyone to weigh in on matters of public concern; to “talk back” to politicians, journalists, pundits, and others who once monopolized the microphone; or to become at least part-time pundits themselves.
The upside of this is that it’s much less likely that a smart contribution or novel perspective gets missed because it’s excluded by gatekeepers. The downside is that there’s a lot more crap to ignore. Any commenter on politics or public affairs whose audience reaches a certain size gets a level of feedback—via email, Twitter, blog posts and comments—that would have been unthinkable for any but the few most prominent public intellectuals a generation ago. Much of it is insightful and constructive. A whole lot spans the gamut from rude and ill-informed to semi-literate and vulgar. If the pundit is a woman, multiply that latter category by 10 and add a heaping spoonful of unsolicited sexual fantasies.
If, like me, you’re more wonky than partisan, and not especially well known outside a niche audience of folks who follow your issue space closely, this is a minor irritant. But my sense is that if you’re a little more famous (which is a low bar) and a bit more of a generalist (my issue space tends to work as an education filter), it can become an onslaught. You’d expect this to have an effect on the kind of people who end up being generalist political commentators, both by filtering the pool of people who find that an attractive vocation (or avocation) and inculcating certain habits and dispositions over time.
The nice way to say this is that selects for pundits who have a thick skin—or forces them to quickly develop one. The less nice way to say it is that it forces you to stop giving a shit what other people think. Maybe not universally——you’ll pick out a domain of people whose criticisms are allowed to slip through the armor—but by default.
Probably it always took a healthy ego to presume to hold forth on a wide array of public issues, confident that your thoguhts are relevant and interesting to the general populace, or at least the audience for political commentary. But in a media space this dense, it probably takes a good deal more.
If the type and volume of criticism we find online were experienced in person, we’d probably think we were witnessing some kind of est/Maoist reeducation session designed to break down the psyche so it could be rebuilt from scratch. The only way not to find this overwhelming and demoralized over any protracted period of time is to adopt a reflexive attitude that these are not real people whose opinions matter in any way. Which, indeed, seems to be a pretty widespread attitude. Scan the comments at one of the more partisan political blogs and you get a clear sense that the “other side” consists not so much of people with different ideas, but an inscrutable alien species. I think it’s self-evident that this is an unhealthy development in a democracy, but it may be a coping strategy that our media ecosystem is forcing on us—at least until we find a better one.