It’s Content, Stupid: Why the “Digital Divide” Is a Red Herring

[Note: This is a slightly rewritten version of a post I made on some time ago.]

The Internet makes it possible for many people to speak their mind in a way that amplifies their speech through a mass media that is potentially accessible by most citizens of a developed nation. We can now do an end run around media monopolies of a kind, and take charge of the production of information and political discourse in significantly new ways. But what the history of Internet discourse in the past ten years has really demonstrated is that the most important issue was never access to mass media, or the possibility of democratic communication, or the monopoly of the culture industry.

The issue is that most people don't have much to say, and what they do have to say, they say badly. The issue is aesthetics. The issue is meaning. The issue is clarity of thought and expression. And the issue is good faith efforts by all consumers of and participants in the Internet to make a better, richer public sphere. Better in terms of the quality of political thought and the artfulness of its expression in online institutions.

I think the reasons that people have so little to say, or say what they have to say so unpersuasively and unproductively, are complex and debatable. One could blame the past existence of media monopolies, or the inadequacy of education, or the power and snobbery of intellectuals and other 'chattering class' elites, or even argue that underneath the flamage, hysteria, trolling, and banality of most Internet discourse there is a rich vein of common sense and political wisdom.

If you look at the drift over the past five years in online environments, you cannot help but notice the crisis that an overabundance of junk, flamage and malicious wastage poses. Reputation systems (like the ones ethePeople or Slashdot use) are one effort to overcome that, as are 'gated communities' like Howard Rheingold’s Brainstorms, which I am long-time participant in.

Many good-faith efforts to foster communities founded around political and social discourse have foundered because the only people attracted to them are bored 13-year olds who speak only fluent Southparkese, lunatic one-cause ranters who live in unlit basements, objectivists who have read nothing but Ayn Rand in their entire lives, hippy-trippy refugees from the counterculture who are seeking harmonic convergence on the Internet and hardcore leftist conspiracy nuts who think that anyone who disagrees with them is a paid-up member of the Illuminati.

Stephen Johnson’s FEED magazine, for example, set a wonderful, bountiful table with its articles and was blessed with an insightful steward who saw some of the potential of the medium--and the "Loop", Feed's forums, were a seedy disaster area of ranting and subliteracy, despite many efforts to make them otherwise.

That's not unique--it's typical.

Addressing the question of quality is really, really hard, because it's not a technological question (except inasmuch as bad GUIs or other impediments interfere with good discourse. It's not a question that much contemporary theory in the humanities about communication or culture is poised to address, given how far out of favor the idea of some work being better than other work has fallen. But this is the next step on the ladder if we want the Internet to function as a better public sphere--or as a better receptacle for our popular culture--or anything more than what it is.

If I were trying to figure out what the “next new thing” would be with regard to online discourse, and how I might cash in on it, I wouldn’t be thinking about whether televisions are going to become computers or whether WiFi is going to become ubiquitous. I would be thinking about how you get people who know how to say and write and create things that matter, things that draw people’s attention. I’d especially think about how to get the kind of “content providers” who come from somewhere other than the usual places and who sound like something other than the usual suspects. I'd be thinking about how I might invest in institutions and processes that would help produce such people.

Higher education ought to be good at eliciting these kinds of capabilities from students and refining them. However, to do so effectively, we’d have to once again openly embrace a kind of elitism, a different kind of digital (and analog) divide, namely, that in a world where everyone can speak on the Internet or elsewhere, only a few of them are worth hearing.