Monday, November 10, 2008

A little more on the December Public Forum Topic

Update 11/11: Welcome to the debaters who have clicked over from Jim's decorabilia site. Feel free to chip in any arguments you're thinking of making; we'll see if we can help each other out.

As I slog my way through my new Facebook account to try to figure out the new PuFo topic, I'm doign a little reading.

Most helpful was a chapter entitled "Niche Culture" from Chris Anderson's The Tail Effect. Here are the money excerpts:

It's the end of the couch potato era. When you think about it, in the peak of the network TV age, we may all have been watching the same things, but we were all too often watching them by ourselves--"bowling alone" in prime time. Online today we're doing different things, but we are more likely to encounter other individuals, either by reading their writings, chatting live, or just following their example. What we've lost in common culture we've made up in our increased exposure to other people.

Today we're not so much fragmenting as we are re-forming along different dimensions. These days our watercoolers are increasingly virtual; there are many different ones; and the people who gather around them are increasingly self-selected.

Or, do we believe U of Chicago professor Cass Sunstein, who Anderson quotes?

[S]ociety is in danger of fragmenting, shared communities in danger of dissolving...[Y]ou need not come across topics and views that you have not sought out. Without any difficulty, you are able to see exactly what you want to see, no more and no less.

Robert Putnam only made tentative predictions in his 2001 Bowling Alone, as social networking websites were still in their infancy (I was in, as I recall). But he suggested that:

Real-world interactions often force us to deal with diversity, whereas the virtual world may be more homogeneous, not in demographic terms, but in terms of interest and outlook. Place-based communities may be supplanted by interest-based communities.

The Big Question On Which I Think The Debate Hinges: what have we lost by surrendering place-based communities for interest-based ones? What have we gained? Is it a net loss or a net gain? If we believe--and I do--that talking to smart friends who disagree with you is the best way to grow, do social networking groups do that as effectively as Putnam's dearly-departed bowling leagues???

J.J., you're Putnam's champion. I think I get his thesis, but I need you here, since I've only had time to read the above-quoted chapter 9. Do the losses he laments in face-to-face communication counteract any gains from "virtual social capital"? Is "virtual social capital" an oxymoron?


Joe said...

Here's a thought, which may be overly technical for a judge to grok...

Separate "social networking" from "microblogging". Facebook is fundamentally (IMO) a platform for sharing little itty bits of content - a sentence about your day, a link with a comment. This is "microblogging", and while it serves some good purposes, it's the penny stocks of social capital. It's hallway conversation, and while there's a lot of benefit to a regular "heyhowyadoin", it's not the same as a long email, or considered blog page - or 2 hours of bowling.

On the other hand, we have the social networking built in to more specialized sites like Delicious or GoodReads or Snooth or Last.FM, or for that matter Amazon, where there are some boundaries around the content. Now, the tradeoff is you don't have the same social interaction when you draw that boundary. But the upside is that you've got a better filter for good information, since you're not trying to filter _everything_.

So here's a question - is it an effective debate tactic for either side to say "my opponent thinks networking == Facebook, and that's just not true"? Seems to me like a good way to derail the other side's carefully planned argument...

TeacherRefPoet said...

I think that, with the lay judges we use in Public Forum, it is okay to say that "there's more to Social Networking Sites than what my opponent says." Absolutely.

I've spent a lot of time considering how, and with whom, I spend my online time.

I read the writings of Portland-area liberals, and sometimes respond. So that's a community. I've even met at least three people in person from said writings, developing good friendships that would not otherwise exist.

I glance at the writings of fellow Mariner fans on While I seldom contribute, that's a community.

I write another blog that is, I think, the perfect example of a niche blog, writing only about sports officiating and news associated with it. It gets maybe 6-7 hits every time I post, but spikes to a hell of a lot more if I write about a major story/controversy surrounding officials. I like to think that I provide a perspective that people won't otherwise see--throwing valuable contributions into the Free Marketplace of Ideas.

And my nascent Facebook account is nothing more than a way to wave at friends every day.

In the process of doing this, I suppose I've created a couple of new interest-based communities (Mariners, officiating, liberal Portlanders, Kenyonites of the early '90s). But these replicate existing communities. In my normal life, I -already- have conversations with Mariner fans, basketball officials, lefty Portlanders (as if there's another kind...), and classmates.

So, if I'm arguing con, I think I need to say that social networking sites, however you want to define them, add very little beyond what email and the telephone already had added. But they -contribute- to the fact that I have forgotten the names of the people who live north of me, and have never known the names of the people who live south of me--and haven't a clue about the rest of the block.

If my kids can convince a judge that there's a cause-effect relationship between screen time and not knowing one's physical neighbors, that might be the silver bullet here.

TeacherRefPoet said...

Oh, and thanks for teaching me the verb "grok." I love it when my friends' emails make me look up a word.

Alison said...

"So, if I'm arguing con, I think I need to say that social networking sites, however you want to define them, add very little beyond what email and the telephone already had added. But they -contribute- to the fact that I have forgotten the names of the people who live north of me, and have never known the names of the people who live south of me--and haven't a clue about the rest of the block."

There's something to that, but I don't think it's quite that straightforward. For instance, I am now back in touch with a number of people via Facebook (which I know != social networking, but is about the only example of it I use) with whom I had completely lost touch because I didn't have their phone numbers or email addresses. More importantly, it has allowed me to keep in touch with a few folks who live right up the street, but whom I rarely see because the Munchkin largely prevents Joe and I attending any social event that runs beyond about 8:00pm.

I also tend to have a knee-jerk response against anyone who talks about technology diminishing personal interaction. I don't believe that's the only cause, or even the primary one. I didn't know the names of most of the people who lived downstairs from us in our house in Rockville, and knew none of the neighbors. Obviously that wasn't because of social networking sites, since they didn't exist yet. More likely it was related to our long commutes through rush-hour traffic and an existing circle of friends elsewhere in the DC area. Even with the perils of technology (and, as I said, because of it in a few cases), I know my neighbors a lot better now.

TeacherRefPoet said...

It's worth pointing out that your living situation also switched from urbane suburb to uber-small town in the interim, which is at the very least a confounding variable.

I tend to agree, and so does Putnam, who points out that people stopped joining groups (from bowling leagues up through the NAACP) before the Internet got going. However, as my kids assemble their con cases, this is the argument I find most compelling. Social Networking enables us to spend our entire lives in an echo chamber, only hanging with those who agree with us, whether their local or not. A block party might cause a gay-basher to meet the gay couple down the street, or the Sarah-Palin-is-evil basher to meet a very kind conservative Christian family that lives kitty corner from them...but as we lose our physical communities in favor of interest communities, this never happens. My thesis, which at least a couple of sociologists seem to back, is that social networking sites decrease the chances of that ever happening.

TeacherRefPoet said...

er, I mean "whether they're local or not." Kids' writings have bruised my brain today...

Alison said...

The move from suburb to rural is definitely a factor in my case; the suburbs are, I believe, more prone to this sort of isolation than either big cities or small towns. Another factor was possibly home-ownership. I cannot figure out why, but that seems to make a difference.

On the other hand, in the case of Facebook, these are (or at least are supposed to be) people you have met in person at some point, and will reflect the diversity (or lack thereof) of ones in-person friends. My Facebook friends include a huge number of Obama supporters, for instance, but also at least four die-hard conservatives who supported McCain and Palin. I frequently don't like talking politics with them, because I think we tend to argue in circles, but again, the online relationship mirrors the in-person one.

When the online friendships are intended to be an extension of in-person friendships, how can one be an echo chamber and the other not?

TeacherRefPoet said...

Facebook isn't an echo chamber, and for exactly the reason you state. To get to the echo chamber, we have to get to other kinds of social networks on-line. A white supremacist, I believe, will find it -far- easier to find other white supremacists in a virtual community than in an actual one, and much easier to spend most of his/her time among like-minded bigots. The same is also true in lesser extremes. I'm less likely to meet Republicans or even Texas Rangers fans on-line than in real-life simply because I don't have to talk to people who are different from me on-line like I would at a block party. Or so my nascent con argument. Not positive I agree with it, but I think it's compelling enough to win.

Don't think I have backing for this yet, but I can get it.

Hillary said...

I first discovered this blog when I was procrastinating studying for the National Board ELA test. We both have in common being English teachers. I was a high school debater many years ago. I have a son living in Seattle and am an Obama supporter. Other than that, we don't have much in common. While I tend to skip your posts about sports teams, your other musings give me a perspective I might not otherwise encounter.

When I share your funny stories about the Pacific Northwest (the governor getting carded; a cow falling from the sky) with my son, I'm using my virtual social circle to connect with my real one. When you were trying to sell your condo, I asked my son if he knew anyone at work looking to buy. And, when you first announced the Hedgehog, I wrote you, not your wife, because on some level I felt I "knew" you, but not her.

Captain Princess said...

Perhaps. I buy the notion that homogeneity will probably occur on the internet. It has been occurring in physical communities for the last three decades. Fiorina's work talks about the purpling of America, but at the neighborhood level, ethnic-class-and age groups live more and more in the same places. Richard Florida's writings of of the "creative class" imply that people are forming placed based communities for the least social reasons; to make money.

Social networking sites might be made of a collective bias, but thanks to the power of info-tech an individual has to deal with more and more information. If good means having one's viewpoints challenged, social networking sites make it easier to move from community to community. It takes less time, effort, money, commitment. The stakes generating in the virtual communities might be lower, but there is no reason that they have to be.

Place is important for society, but I think that fewer and fewer communities are ideologically diverse.

Joe said...

OK, other arguments...

Social networking sites tend to sacrifice "truth" (or good judgment) for popularity. Consider viral video - what rises to the top is not the best cinematic work, it's a monkey washing a cat.

Social networking sites tend to limit the depth of interaction in favor of quantity. Actually, this could work either pro or con... you might have different sets of friends on Facebook, Flickr, and Delicious based on who's good at what.

The techie in me really wants to get back to that issue of "what's a social networking site." I'd argue that there are a lot of useless definitions out there. (Mostly proposed by companies trying to make a buck on "web 2.0" without understanding it.)

So here's a shot: "a social networking site is one where the ability to track social relationships within the site is inherent to the way information flows to and from the user."

So you have highly social sites - Facebook, Twitter - where there's virtually no information flow without documented relationships; medium-social sites - YouTube, Flickr, Delicious, LJ - where there can be flow without relationship, but you miss a lot, and low-social sites - LibraryThing, Movielens - where relationship tracking is mostly grafted on to a site which exists for another purpose.

And then there's blogs, Wikipedia, discussion forums, newspapers with commenting - where social relationships exist, but are not documented by the software. In a strict definition, these are not social networking sites.

Is this approach even useful? Sadly, I don't know PuFo, and I suspect fighting over definitions is more of a cross-ex approach.

But as a techie, I like this, because it's abundantly obvious to me that the newscasters and politicians in our actual Public Fora have no stinking grasp of what I do all day, and I'd love to see you fix that with the next generation. :-)

Alison said...

Joe wrote:
"Consider viral video - what rises to the top is not the best cinematic work, it's a monkey washing a cat."

Excuse me, but that was a work of cinematic genius, I tell you. Genius!

Anonymous said...


PuFo is a debate made up of a series of fairly quick speeches (4 minutes max) with a judge who, ideally, has no debate experience but is a registered voter. So you've got to get to your points quickly so you've got time to do the persuading. Plus, people often come into the room with some sort of pre-conceived idea about the topic.

Which is my way of saying trying to turn this into a definitional debate over what "social networking" is probably is not a good idea.

Although, now that I'm typing this out, there might be a case to be made to argue that it is changing our definition of what constitutes "social" - and is that a good thing or not?


TeacherRefPoet said...

Captain Princess--

Welcome aboard. Your point about our physical communities becoming more homogeneous (ethnically, politically, age-wise) is on the money, and if this is the direction these debates will go, it's worth having stats to that effect handy. It's another way to bolster what my kids' pro cases may be developing into; that is, virtual social networks are not distinctly different from physical ones.

You do say this, however:

"If good means having one's viewpoints challenged, social networking sites make it easier to move from community to community. It takes less time, effort, money, commitment."

I know that we -can- go from community to community, and that we -can- more easily have you viewpoints challenged on-line. The question is: -do- we? I think that's highly arguable, and I lean towards no. I'm far more likely to get into a hot political discussion with someone who disagrees with me next to the microwave at work or at a block party (if we ever have one) than I am on-line. I -avoid- people different from me on-line, in fact. I don't avoid them in flesh-and-blood form.


As Swankette points out, Public Forum judges are all supposed to be lay-judges. So think of smart registered voters like your mom or my dad or Alison's first cousin or the guy in front of you at the grocery store. My experience is that they don't tend to buy definitional debates; they're more likely to light up when a kid says "Here's the big picture for you..." But then, lay judges are, by definition, as different and unpredictable as individual members of the electorate. That's part of the joy and frustration of PuFo.


I tried commenting on a whacked-out Republican's blog before the 2004 election. I enjoyed the exchange, but I do think it's the exception to the rule. When's the last time you had a major exchange with someone who disagrees with you on a website? I do this with friends every now and then, but these are friends I agree with at least 90% of the time. I don't meet people that different from me on-line. This includes you, with whom I share far more commonalities than I do with most other Americans. Make sense?

JJ said...

A few quick things:

1) For pro, I'd simply argue that social capital is a good thing (for all the reasons listed in Bowling Alone), and that social networking sites increase *real* (not virtual) social capital. I'd reference the research paper I mentioned in Facebook that found that college students largely use Facebook to enhance relationships with people whom they already know rather than create lots of purely virtual relationships.

2) For con, I haven't seen any arguments yet about vulnerable populations (kids, the elderly, etc.). There are always predators looking for new ways to exploit vulnerable populations, and social networking sites give predators a new way to target vulnerable populations. It's a bit of a stretch, but it is a method of argumentation, especially if you pull the whole line of "how many cases of child abuse are you willing to tolerate to get an increase in social capital for everyone else?" Not my favorite argument but I wouldn't be surprised to see it.

There may also be some support for "the rich get richer/the poor get poorer" argument. People who can afford computer+internet access, who have computer literacy, and who are more outgoing personalities get "richer" from social networking sites in terms of social capital, while people who can't afford computers+internet access, who don't have computer literacy, or who are more shy get shut out of this whole new world of social capital, thus they get "poorer". The net result is a wider inequity gap between major populations in the U.S.

Anand said...

This blog post and ensuing discussion are an example of the power of the vitrual world of the internet to allow physically distant individuals to connnect and share ideas.

One could agrue that socail networking sites allow similar sharing of ideas qacross distance and that these virtual relationships are analogues of physical relationships and should not be considered less valuable.

TeacherRefPoet said...


That's the pro side. I'm struggling with con. How would you argue against? Also, saying that something is merely an extension of existing ties might nto be a great pro argument. It's more like more of the same.

Captain Princess said...

It's pretty silly, but I think this strip ( gets to the heart of the matter. I tend to see the long tail as better for society because it allows for more precise organizational structures to emerge.

Stidmama said...

you asked for "cons:" I think that, sometimes, when I am on a social networking site I am lazier... because other people have said something similar to my thoughts, I don't chip in my opinion. This can be a negative because I don't get to refine my viewpoint (no one asks more in-depth questions or challenges my perhaps erroneous assumptions), and because I don't clarify what others have said.

Also, it is easier to stay silent when someone posts something that I disagree with -- I tend to be very non-confrontational in real life, but at least in real life my expression, or my verbal or physical withdrawal give others the idea that I disagree, even when I don't put it into words.

Finally, I it's easier to ignore a discussion entirely in social networking... in a real community, if someone thinks something is important, they really approach me. In facebook, for example, I block or opt out of the sorts of conversations that don't interest me.

Anita Haldar said...


Your post is very interesting, and you define it like a experienced blogger and I think its very effective way through Public Forum to evaluate any persons mind.

Thanks For Sharing