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Sam Smith's Undernews: Cyberbalkanization

Sam Smith's Undernews: Shop Talk

By Sam Smith Editor

On the same day recently, we received a letter lambasting us for being anti-Dean, another wondering why we were so pro-Dean, and a third complimenting us on changing our mind about Dean.

It was the sort of day that makes an editor happy. Especially one mucking around in cyber space, because I had noticed a somewhat unsettling trend: readers seemed to be increasingly flocking to sites that reflected their own views, and expecting not news but reaffirmation of their fairly precise inclinations. As a site with a point of view but putting news first and attracting quite a range of readers - it leaves us a bit of an oddball.

Now, from a wonderful place called Word Spy, I learn that my sense was not misdirected. Word Spy's Paul McFedries picked as today's word of the day

cyberbalkanization ( n.

The division of the Internet into narrowly focused groups of like-minded individuals who dislike or have little patience for outsiders. Also: cyber-balkanization. --cyberbalkans n.

And he offers a couple of examples of usage:

"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 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. --Amy Harmon, "Politics of the Web: Meet, Greet, Segregate, Meet Again," The New York Times, January 25, 2004

"A growing body of research suggests that on-line participation by so-called e-citizens may be qualitatively different from off-line forms of civic engagement and participation. The personalization features of the Internet provided by various filters and customization tools have the potential to lead to the "cyberbalkanization" of the on-line public sphere into increasingly insulated groups of like-minded "interest-based communities" who increasingly know and care more and more about less and less. -- Graham Longford, "Canadian democracy hard-wired?," Canadian Issues, June, 2002

The Review has done extremely well - one popular listing service rated us the ninth most read progressive news site. On a per-staffer basis we'd do much better than that for we are one of the few publications for which the editorial 'we' is a blatant lie, if not a sign of schizophrenia. There is nobody here but me and what one reader referred to as "my gnomes." And they tend to disappear when I need them.

And while I am a happily prejudiced individual, I am just as happy to challenge my own prejudices if it involves a good story. As I explained to one interviewer, if I found Ralph Nader driving an SUV I'd report it.

I don't have anywhere near the same fondness towards any of the current presidential candidates as I do towards Ralph Nader and so have no problem with pointing out John Edwards' somewhat sleazy litigation history, John Kerry's preppy arrogance, or Howard Dean's attraction to a national ID. Some readers, however, assume that these items reflect a presidential plan as well developed as that in their own mind. This is not the case.

The journalists' job is not the make the stew but to gather the ingredients. So don't jump to too many conclusions about what I dump on the table. It's only the result of today's forage. Tomorrow may be a whole 'nother story.


JAN 24, 2004
SINCE 1964, Washington's most unofficial source
1312 18th St. NW #502, Washington DC 20036
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