Technologies and Emerging Democracies: Building a Better Gatekeeper

author: Ethan Zuckerman, Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University
published: Sept. 16, 2013,   recorded: October 2008,   views: 2341

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Don’t forsake The New York Times for online media, instructs Ethan Zuckerman, because newspapers provide opportunities for learning about the world largely unavailable in the digital kingdom. Zuckerman points in particular to the “serendipity box” -- that intensely local or exotic piece that often grabs attention at the bottom of the front page. This “juicy bait on a hook,” as he calls it, often leads to an in-depth, fascinating report about a culture or perspective far removed from most Americans’. At a time when the world has become connected by infrastructure of all kinds, it behooves Americans to take a closer look at our neighbors, especially those in developing nations. But capturing people’s attention on these matters, says Zuckerman, turns out to be a “surprisingly difficult problem.”

In the age of the web, traditional gatekeepers such as broadcast anchors and newspaper editors wield less clout. The internet, increasingly the primary source of information for millions, doesn’t maintain gatekeepers as much as self-publishing bloggers or user groups that clump together around specific interests. Useful search technology, such as the collaborative filtering employed by Netflix, helps you find the kinds of things you’re interested in, based on previously expressed preferences. But these kinds of prediction systems won’t surprise you, and, says Zuckerman, “are more likely to trap (you) in a circle of recommendations.”

Current web searches encourage homophily, says Zuckerman, the tendency to flock together. While this clustering by like-minded people is part of human nature, it becomes problematic when it guides our exposure to media and information. “In a global world, we’ve gotten much better at moving stuff around than ideas and perspectives. Moving stuff around can be incredibly dangerous,” says Zuckerman. “We isolate ourselves in political cocoons, and nationalist cocoons” at our peril.

To break out of these “echo chambers,” Zuckerman has developed a method called “bridging,” which he employs in his Global Voices web project. He finds people from around the world to act as filters for what’s happening in their country, and as translators of both language and context. These bridge bloggers are “people with feet in two worlds.” One blogger Zuckerman mentions works to explain Bahrain to the rest of the world, “trying to dispel the image Muslims and Arabs suffer from.” While this is a start, Zuckerman wonders how he can better “engineer serendipity” to help us “resist homophily,” lest we get stuck in the digital age wearing blinders.

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