Signal to Noise

Since my Wikipedia post on Monday, I've been giving more thought to the question of who gets to be heard on the Internet, especially with the rising ubiquity of different social networking platforms.  These thoughts were sparked in large part by two occurrences around the Harvard-verse yesterday:  the release by the Harvard Business School of a recent study of Twitter usage, and yesterday's installment of the Berkman Luncheon Series, presented by Berkman Fellow Lokman Tsui.

The HBS study, by Bill Heil and Mikolaj Piskorski, is but the latest in a long line of studies attempting to quanitify gender differences in Internet and social media usage. Once again, the HBS study points to a conclusion that's a bit inconvenient for those of us that celebrate the promise of the Internet to lower the barriers for entry into the public debate -- women, despite making up the majority of both Internet and Twitter users, have fewer followers and thus are less likely to have their voices heard on Twitter. According to Piskorski, this differs from the typical pattern on social networking sites, where both men and women are more likely to follow updates from women. 

Many have raised questions regarding the conclusions of the HBS study. (A completely unscientific review of my own Twitter account, however, lends some credence to Heil's and Piskorski's thesis. Of course, there are many variables that go into the imbalance in my own feed -- I tend to follow other people associated with the Berkman Center, as well as other people in the "cyber law" area, both of which skew somewhat male.  But I also tend to follow people who have taken the initiative to seek out and follow me first, which, on balance, appears to include more men.) Yet the HBS study tracks the results of at least one other investigation into the intersection of gender (and race, and socioeconomic status) and the Internet -- Matthew Hindman's recent book, The Myth of Digital Democracy.

In The Myth of Digital Democracy, Hindman challenges the narrative that political blogs have democratized politics, giving direct voice to citizens and displacing the media from its role as an elite intermediary.  Instead, Hindman argues, the well-known political bloggers draw largely from the ranks of a similar (although not identical) elite -- Ivy-educated, white males. While Hindman's book, and the 2004 "Blogger Census" upon which it is largely based, suffers from some methodological defects, it does provide  evidence for my (and others') gut instinct that the Internet, while holding out the promise of allowing one to access the experiences of a broad range of people from all walks of life, in practice is often used to make it easier to find and follow others that are just like you -- the echo-chamber effect.

The question of how to use the Internet to broaden the user's experience and give voice to those that many would not otherwise encounter is at the heart of Global Voices, "a non-profit global citizens' media project" that aims "to aggregate, curate, and amplify the global conversation online -- shining light on places and people other media often ignore." Global Voices is the the subject of Berkman Fellow Lokman Tsui's PhD dissertation, which in turn formed the basis of Tsui's talk at the Berkman Luncheon Series yesterday. Like Global Voices itself, Tsui's work seeks to understand how we, as journalists, academics, and participants in the public discourse, can bring more, underrepresented voices to the table.  Tsui has imagined a new way to judge the effectiveness of journalism, asking not "is it objective," but asking instead "is it hospitable to conversation?" This question can be broadened, and addressed not just of journalism, but of all the social media forms we use, and of the Internet itself.

As the title to this post implies, studies like that released by HBS this week indicate that we still have a ways to go before the Internet lives up to its promise of amplifying the voices of the other and the non-elite above the din of the background cultural noise. But at least some researchers are asking the right questions.  Are you listening?