Does the Internet exert a homogenizing influence on culture? Lurie writes:
... Like reading or breathing, web browsing itself is agnostic with respect to politics and culture. Unlike reading or breathing, however, surfing mimics a postmodern, deconstructionist perspective by undermining the authority of texts. Anyone who has spent a lot of time online, particularly the very young, will find themselves thinking about content -- articles, texts, pictures -- in ways that would be familiar to any deconstructionist critic. And a community of citizens who think like Jacques Derrida will not be a particularly conservative one.
HTML, hyperlinks, frames, and meta-tags are the essential building blocks of the web. They combine to create a highly associative, endlessly referential and contingent environment that provides an expanse of information at the same time that it subverts any claim to authority, since another view is just a click away. [Lurie 2003]
While I agree that computers do offer new ways to think about identity as Turkle (1995) has pointed out, I think Lurie is badly mistaken if he thinks an internet browser is a philosopher's stone that turns conservatives into Derrida clones. Di Leonardo points out that a "fissioning of the American public sphere has taken place" (1998: 271), where gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, political viewpoint, and many other categories of identity have become "potentially marketable boundaries of difference," so that people with different identities flock to different media products. If the mere existence of media alternatives were sufficient to create postmodern thinking, then I think it would have happened already. Just because another view is only a click away does not mean that you will click on it; and, even if you do, it does not mean you will be convinced by it. As Godwin (2003) points out, "when readers of encoded messages come across messages that challenge their beliefs, worldview, ideology, etc. they may be likely to either misinterpret the message to fit with their beliefs or they may disapprove (dismiss as crazy, for example) what they see as socially or psychologically unsound or wrong" (p. 36).
It could perhaps be argued that the Internet has different characteristics than other forms of media, so the fact that this fissioning of the American public sphere has been occuring for decades does not invalidate Lurie's claim. Yet some have argued that the characteristics of the Internet promote less civil social interactions:
...I find it...plausible that the transfer of academic rhetorical practices into cyberspace amplifies the aspects of those practices that problematize self-construction, self-representation, and self-control. Textual cyberspace filters away all qualities of a personal self save the highly mediated, acutely self-conscious elements that appear in written language. Phatic or metacommunicative cues, the linguistic and paralinguistic signs that maintain cognizance of the social relation between the sender and the receiver of a message, are drastically reduced in this medium. [Millard 1996:147]
I think a good case to examine these issues is the Raed in the Middle blog. Raed shares a lot of information that is not reported in mainstream media, yet I have not seen any of the commentators change their opinion because of it. Those who are for the war remain for the war, and vice-versa. One comment in particular jumped out at me recently:
Listen, there isn't going to be much reasoned argument on this weblog. You realize that, don't you?
I'll be honest. I comment to blow off steam after reading and correcting compositions. Commenting is kind of a hobby.
Jeffrey -- New York
This hardly seems like the right sort of mindset for allowing one's views to be challenged, although I suppose it is possible that could be an unanticipated result.
di Leonardo, Micaela
1998 Exotics at Home: Anthropologies, Other, American Modernity. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.
2003 Film in the Classroom: Toward a More Effective Pedagogy. M.A. Thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of South Florida. Available: http://purl.fcla.edu/fcla/etd/SFE000015
2003 Why the Web Will Win the Culture Wars for the Left: Deconstructing Hyperlinks. CTHEORY A125: www.ctheory.net/text_file?pick=380 .
Millard, William B.
1996 I Flamed Freud: A Case Study in Teletextual Incendiarism. In Internet Culture. D. Porter, ed. Pp. 145-160. New York & London: Routledge.
1995 Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Touchstone.