I think Amy Harmon is a terrific writer, and she's done countless pieces over the years that have been dead right about the net and its social impact. But like Jeff Jarvis and a few others, I find this whole "the web is fragmenting society" argument completely infuriating. (I've been railing against it for almost a decade now, but I just can't help myself.) In this latest piece, it's just entirely taken as a given that the web is dropping us all into echo chambers where we can only hear like-minded voices. There are people quoted who disagree about what should be done with this phenomenon, but the underlying trend isn't questioned.
I find this to be one of those bizarro bits of conventional wisdom, where exactly the opposite is true. The reason we have so many filters and personalization tools is because the web has created a veritable Cambrian explosion of diversity, funneled directly to your home -- social, political, sexual, ethical, you name it. There are literally millions more points of view available to you today in your own home then there were fifteen years ago. We have filters because the web has unleashed so much diversity, not because we have too little.
Take this quote from Harmon's piece:
The Internet became the ultimate tool for finding like minds and blocking out others long before supporters of candidates began seeking one another out on Meetup.com. With online dating sites where searches can be tailored by age and income, e-mail forums for the most narrow band of subjects, bookmarked sites and even spam filters, the Web allows users to tailor the information they consume more than any other medium. Social scientists even have a term for it: cyberbalkanization.
Slow down and work through the logic here: spam filters are invoked as yet another indication of the echo-chamber effect. Now, who is winning right now: the spam or the filters? Obviously, the spam is winning -- nobody's walking around complaining that they miss the days when they'd get a completely spontaneous penis-enlargement ad in their inbox, despite the fact that they're opposed to penis-enlargement in general. The filters are there because there are so many voices flooding our inboxes and our browsers that we need tools to fight back. You don't have filters on television or old-fashioned newspapers because you don't need them -- there's not enough diversity and chaos to justify them. But the web -- and particularly the blogosphere -- is far more eclectic and cross-pollinating than any of those older media. That's the real story. Writing about the rise of filters as a sign of web insularity is like writing about the heat wave we're having here in New York right now because everyone's bundled up in parkas.