The Internet and the Lost Art of the Discussion

Cass Sunstein is a professor at Harvard Law School and a member of the Obama administration. Sunstein has spent many years examining how groups of people think and act, especially in business. His research "touches" many different axes covering a range from organizational behavior and psychology to economics and management. In the Harvard Business Review December wrote a lengthy article explaining the reasons why human groups are mostly dumb and making mistaken decisions.Communicating INTERNET Internet Internet Internet Internet Internet Internet INTERNET Internet Internet Internet Internet Internet Internet Internet

Reading his notes, I realized that his conclusions, in addition to the business world, could be fully applied to the digital world and the groups created in social media, explaining to a large extent a phenomenon I personally observe at all the timelines I use. This is the complete lack of substantive and structured discussions. So in the next paragraphs, I will try to examine if the inherent elements of the Internet are in line with Sunstein's scientific findings.

The failed transition of the debate into the digital world

If you look at analyzes and academic research on the influence of the Internet in all aspects of a society you will notice how you will find information on many areas such as education, economy, entrepreneurship and interpersonal relationships. Completely logical as the Internet has radically changed all of the above-mentioned levels, but if we look at the Internet and social media at a more literary level, we will notice that they create an environment that is not only not ideal but instead prevents the creation of a framework that will allow structured discussions that follow the basic rules of exchange of arguments, respect for the interlocutor and the drawing of reasonable conclusions.

As we live in an age of utter democratization of speech, immediacy and speed of thought, our participation in dozens of networks that make a living from the production of written material, there is an increasing poverty in the internet way of writing, a very limited exchange of views and a tendency to avoid discussions on serious issues that need analysis and study. It would be perfectly safe to say that the Internet has not been able to create the slightest environment conducive to promoting such discussions. If we use the argument that the Internet wants to transfer to a digital world all the basic actions of people that already existed, the transition of energy called "conversation" has completely failed.

The reasons that have led to this phenomenon are many and some of them are completely expected as we are talking about a completely different field. The predominance of the written word as the main vehicle for starting a conversation, the creation of personification due to the existence of a screen and an anonymous avatar, the often necessarily fragmentary expression of opinions and the existence of an informal scoring system are some of them. At the same time, the content of the views expressed is shaped by a flawed set of information which I have tried to analyze in previous my article.

Why teams do not work effectively

But let us focus on the dissuasive reasons created by the tendency of people / users to form groups, which is obviously true in our everyday life as well as on the Internet. The truth is that on the Internet we are always in the context of a larger group whether it is called a Twitter list, or a group on Facebook or more generally the circle of friends or followers we have. Writing or reading is also read by a group of people we have chosen or arbitrarily chosen by social media.

So Sunstein has found that 2 is the main reason that teams do not make right choices. The first is the information being replicated and the second is the management of the reputation. Let us focus on the second as the former has already been analyzed.

The management of reputation

I believe that this conclusion reveals the heart of the "problem" that the Internet presents in the subject of discussion. The awareness that we write belongs to the public sphere makes us change a lot of what we will communicate. Because social networks are built on a central idea, of this constant surveillance both by the invisible eye of impersonal networks and by our friends but also by the existence of a detailed rating, it makes sense to turn to opinions that will give us likes and social recognition by other users.

In other words, the Internet has created a framework in which it is much more important to be socially accepted and liked than to express opinions that may be contrary to the existing ones. It's a bit awkward but think for a moment how we would work if we had a conversation with a friend in front of thousands of spectators who cheer every time the other side expresses an opinion. The so-called metrics of social networks, ie the universal dominance of quantitative units for measuring quality data, have reversed basic modes of operation of the media. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the metric is the message as it now matters more how many times you liked something you wrote, than what you wrote.

The above situations create, according to Sunstein, the following problems in groups: polarization and the "waterfall effect".


Research has shown that it is mathematically certain that groups have a natural tendency to be driven to extremes reaching absolute polarization. The reason is that the edges, whatever they are, offer an excellent background behind which not only can X decisions be justified but also create a diametrically opposite side which we define as an example to avoid. The digital world is a fertile ground for this phenomenon for a number of reasons. A Pew Research study found that 55% of Internet users believe that social media maximizes the influence of groups with extreme political positions while 4 out of 10 choose to read news that is in line with their opinions.

Initially, the need to join a group is very great as only this way we can effectively filter the huge amount of information that floods us every day while at the same time it is the only way to find like-minded people through thousands of users out there. In addition, the expression of views that do not belong objectively to the extremes, usually take a long time to be properly captured, require the full attention of the listener and are finally formed through the constant exchange of arguments of the interlocutors. This is almost impossible to happen on the Internet as you never know exactly what your interlocutor is doing at the same time, there is the "noise" of other users who can add something irrelevant and finally there is either the need for laconic wording (Twitter) or the general avoidance of lengthy texts.

Cascade Effect - Waterfall Phenomenon

There will certainly be a better and more academic rendering of the term but let us keep the word waterfall because it effectively communicates the meaning of the phrase. The cataract effect in groups is that according to which one formulates an X point of view before any other and this point of view acts as a compass for all the other members resulting in a waterfall of similar points of view which in its passage does not allow to be heard carefully anything else. It is another phenomenon that finds absolute application in the field of social media, in which the phenomenon of segregation of users into influential castes with terms such as connectors, mavens and salesmen is very strongly encountered. So because the internet operates mainly on the speed of expressing opinions and because very often (and logically) we do not have time to have an opinion on what concerns the wider society, we find users who express opinions with which we agree resulting in a waterfall of opinions that almost always monopolizes internet interest. It is very common for the initial opinions that create the cataract to be neither studied nor properly formulated, reaching a point where the facts are distorted to fit the view and not the other way around.

In search of a new form of communication

There are other findings from Sunstein's research that are of great interest, such as that teams usually focus on knowledge that already exists without 'producing' new data, and that they usually alleviate their problems rather than the other way around. I believe that the way in which the existing social networks have been built and at the same time the structure on which the Internet as a business can not create any framework that favors the concept of discussion as at least we have been taught it.

Even video services such as Skype that allow users to have visual contact with the interlocutor make it harder than facilitate the development of a real conversation. The most interesting aspect of this phenomenon is exactly what form the debate art will take in the years to come from the millennials generation and after not having been taught the traditional chat rules as with people born before 1990. Perhaps in the near future we will notice the prevalence of one new form of communication which can simultaneously transmit both digital and physical data. An easy-to-understand example would be to have a conversation between 2 people in the same physical environment while wearing google glasses that during the conversation will display information such as the social profile of the interlocutor, the temperature of his body. We automatically switch to a completely different form of communication governed by rules unknown to us at this time.


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