What cumulative advantage means for debates about the networked public sphere

March 18, 2008

Everybody and their cousin’s got a link to Duncan Watt’s recent NYTimes Magazine piece on cumulative advantage. It’s a nice bit of public sociology and an interesting application of experimental methods to understand how social networks function.

The argument also has implications for the ongoing debates about the nature of the networked public sphere. Watt’s results suggest that there may be some merit to the position of folks like U Chicago’s Cass Sunstein, who claims that big media has historically promoted civic virtues by exposing us to ideas we wouldn’t encounter by googling alone. If, as Watts says, people’s interests are over-determined by knowledge of what is popular, then search algorithms predicated on popularity (like “PageRank“) could produce a feedback mechanism that stifles diversity in public debate. To adopt Matthew Hindman’s phrase, we’d be left with “googlearchy.”

Yochai Benkler has disagreed with both of these views for a while [full disclosure: I currently work as a research assistant for Benkler], in part because they both idealize the state of public discourse prior to the creation of the Internet. Watt’s data could just as easily be turned around to make the claim that traditional print media and television – much like the recording industry – were giving us a false impression of popularity (or importance) that only reflected the prejudices of a handful of editors and industry executives. By disseminating these perspectives widely, the big media therefore imposed an elitist politics and outlook on the public as a whole.

I’ll have to do some more thinking and reading to figure out where I fall on this issue – but for the moment, studies like Watts’ shed important light on the complex nature of social networks and reputation on the role of information in society.

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