Diversity of Political Conversation on the Internet: Users' Perspectives

Authors

  • Jennifer Stromer-Galley

    Corresponding author
    1. Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University at Albany, SUNY. Her research interests include communication technology and democracy and political communication. Her current work investigates why people participate in political chat spaces, message boards, and Usenet. Recent publications of hers can be found in the Journal of Communication and Javnost/The Public.
      Address: Department of Communication, Social Science 340, University at Albany, Albany, NY 12222. Telephone: 518-442-4879 fax: 518-442-3884.
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Address: Department of Communication, Social Science 340, University at Albany, Albany, NY 12222. Telephone: 518-442-4879 fax: 518-442-3884.

Abstract

This essay provides an account of the perspectives of users of online political discussion spaces. In-depth interviews with 69 people who participate in online political discussion groups were conducted. The interviews suggest that they perceive themselves to be interacting with persons who differ from them. They appreciate and enjoy the diversity of people and opinions they encounter online. Although some interview participants expressed dislike at encountering racist or xenophobic perspectives, others appreciated the broad range of opinions they encountered. These findings lend support to the view that people appreciate the diversity of persons and viewpoints they encounter in their chosen discussion spaces. Information provided by interviewees did not offer much support for the homophily perspective–that people seek out like-minded others online–which raises questions about the accuracy of that perspective in characterizing people's online communication behavior.

Introduction

Developments in transportation have altered people's sense of geographical distances (Neuman, 1991). What once took days to traverse by foot takes several hours by car and a few hours by plane. The shrinkage in time to travel creates a sense that people are geographically closer to each other. The Internet, one can similarly argue, connects people in a shared communication environment across the globe, and it does so in a matter of seconds. Unlike sending a letter, which can take days to send across the United States and weeks across the globe, sending an e-mail message takes seconds, and chatting online through Instant Messaging takes even less time, shrinking the sense of physical distance between people.

This shrinkage enables people from many geographic locales to encounter each other online: rural, suburban, and urban, North American, African, and Asian. People physically located in different places, who have diverse cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, as well as diverse levels of education, income, and ideological perspective, can find themselves together in a digital space. These public spaces on the Web can in turn be defined as ‘public’ by virtue of the possible heterogeneity of those who visit.

This is not to say that those who do visit public spaces online are necessarily seeking that diversity. Indeed, there is a debate about the social effects of the Internet regarding this matter. One side of the debate is that people come online and find like-minded people, information on topics with which they are already familiar, and arguments and opinions on matters to which they are sympathetic. The other side of the argument is that people come online and, while finding information and opinions they seek, also have chance encounters with information they were not seeking and are exposed to arguments and opinions with which they disagree or about which they have no opinion.

My purpose in this essay is to ground that debate using in-depth interviews with users of political discussion spaces. I conducted interviews at the end of 2001 and beginning of 2002, with people who participated in one of three different online discussion spaces focused on politics. My research questions for that project were: How do users experience online discussion spaces? and, What are the motives that draw people to participate in their chosen online political talk space? The interviews suggested that people participated in the online forums for a number of reasons, including the apparent public quality of the conversation. An additional question, then, that emerged from their responses is whether or not they experience the online discussion spaces as exposing them to people they believe to be different from themselves and whether they see viewpoints different from their own. The answer might shed some additional light on the question of whether people talk online primarily with like-minded others. Their responses suggested that they experience the online discussion space as one that provided them with a diversity of people and opinions.

Before providing further evidence from the interviews about the experience of talking politics online, the conflicting literature on whether people interact online primarily with like-minded people is reviewed. Then, findings from the interviews are offered. The paper concludes by examining implications of the findings for the fragmentation debate and for larger concerns about the public sphere. Specifically, results of interviews raise questions about the utility of the hypothesis that most people talk with like-minded others when they participate in discussion spaces online. The interview findings suggest that more systematic research is needed to either prove or discount the fragmentation hypothesis. If it turns out that people who talk politics online do so with diverse others, it then opens up the possibility that online discussions are public and contribute to the public sphere, which is not always the case offline (Eliasoph, 1998)

The Internet and the Fragmentation of the Public

Those who argue for the power of new communication technology to “protect” democracy, in Arterton's (1987) words, or enhance it, in Barber's (1984) words, point to the ability for the Internet to close geographic distance. In closing perceived geographic distance, people can converge in a shared communication space with like-minded others or those who have differeng views. Town hall forums, national conversations on public issues, and media outlets, such as CNN, can bring together people from diverse backgrounds and provide a common set of experiences and information with which to unify the citizenry (Barber, 1984).

One of the possible outcomes of these diverse discussion spaces is that people end up spending more time arguing and attacking each other than engaging in rational deliberation. White (1997), for example, compares online conversations to teenagers fighting: “Did so.”“Did not.” Others identify the level of conversation as being facile, laced with ad hominem attacks, and far from meeting the ideals of deliberative democracy (Noveck, 2000; Streck, 1998).

Other observers of online discussion spaces conclude that, more often than not, people fragment into like-minded discussion groups. Davis and Owens (1998, p. 124) write, Although the Internet has the potential of drawing into political dialogue individuals from a wide range of backgrounds, regions, and ideologies, in fact the discussions via the Internet are more likely to be as narrow or perhaps even narrower than those across the backyard fence.” Similarly, Selnow (1998) is concerned that the Internet, unlike traditional mass media, pulls people into pockets of interests. Within those pockets of Web sites and chat rooms, they will co-mingle, hearing the perspectives they wish to hear, and avoiding exposure to alternatives.

More recently, Sunstein (2001) devotes a book to his concern that the Internet fragments people into interest groups. In one chapter, he offers a hypothetical tale of a group of people calling themselves The Boston Tea Party. They have a discussion group online with approximately 400 participants. Over the course of a few years, members have come to trust the information shared such that it now serves as the basis for their political judgments. The individual members have grown more extreme in their perspectives on the role of government in the lives of individuals, radicalizing to the point of sharing bomb-making tips and agreeing on possible targets. This hypothetical Boston Tea Party, Sunstein believes, is an accurate composite of many online discussion spaces. At the core of his argument is a concern that, as like-minded people come together, they will come to hold a more extreme perspective than each individual would hold alone.

Thus, in the literature there are two competing claims about the nature of behavior online. One – the diversity perspective – is that people from diverse backgrounds converge online to share information and opinions and to argue with one another. The other – the homophily perspective1– is that people come online and find people with shared interests. Both have potential consequences that seem unsavory. In the diversity perspective, the consequence is political talk that is unruly, irrational, and far from the ideals of public deliberation. In the homophily perspective, people expose themselves only to like-minded perspectives and others, and can become more radical as part of the social interaction with those like-minded others.

Both perspectives are in need of further empirical research. Sunstein (2001), for example, bases his critique of the online forum on anecdotal observations, often of the most extreme groups, and argues for longitudinal effects of online participation without having studied a particular discussion group over a period of time to measure whether such extreme movement occurs. Similarly, the studies of Usenet often analyze the discussions by counting the number of attacks or observing a discussion for a period of time and concluding that there is little interactivity in posts (few people responding to each other). Therefore, such studies conclude the Internet does not meet the ideals of deliberation (Wilhelm, 2000). There is a general lack of studies that explore users' own perspectives on their experience of engaging in conversation online. Scholars have come to their conclusions based on valid observations, but it would further round out the picture of online talk if users' perspectives were also understood.

This debate also raises the larger question of the role of the Internet in the creation or destruction of the public sphere. Political deliberation, that is conversation among diverse people that tackles problems and aims towards solutions (to borrow from Schudson (1997)), is essential to public opinion and democratic practice (Habermas, 1962/1989). If the diversity perspective is correct, then this suggests that people are exposed to, and are interacting with, people who are different from themselves. Diversity is important because it introduces a broader range of opinions, needs, value, and perspectives, which foster more viewpoints on the problems and can produce better, more equitable solutions (Price, Cappella, & Nir, 2002). The Internet, from the diversity perspective, can offer multiple public spaces for such deliberative conversation. If the homophily perspective is correct, however, then although the Internet may offer such public spaces, people choose to interact with like-minded others; thus, there is likely to be a limited range of perspectives and solutions to problems as a result.

The interviews conducted for this study with people who participate in online political talk suggest that both perspectives have merit. A handful of interview participants expressed appreciation at finding people whose viewpoints were similar to their own. However, the overwhelming response to questions of what they like about online political conversation was the public, diverse nature of the people and opinions expressed in the discussion spaces. Before detailing the findings further, an explanation of the method used to arrive at them is in order.

Method

People were interviewed from three different, publicly accessible, discussion space types: Usenet, real-time chat, and message boards. Three types of communication site were chosen because the channel qualities for each are different. As a result, people's perceptions of the online experience may be unique to the discussion type in which they participate. So, to be able to talk about the online conversation experience, these different types of communication spaces must be taken into account.

The actual spaces from which people were recruited were political newsgroups from Usenet, Yahoo's current events message boards, and Yahoo's political chat space. These three sites were chosen for a number of reasons, some of them technical. For example, Yahoo's chat space can be accessed through Yahoo's instant messaging program, which meant that participants could be ‘privately messaged’ in order to request an interview, rather than posting the request publicly in the discussion space. The three were also chosen because they are heavily used sites. One common methodological flaw of studies conducted of online discussion spaces is the tendency to study only those spaces that are populated with like-minded people, such as Usenet's discussion space “talk.libertarian.” It should not be surprising that researchers find that like-minded Libertarians gather in that news group (see for example Wilhelm, 2000). When scholars of online discussion spaces chose their sites of study, they must be aware of the nature of the discussion group. Some discussion groups, by the way they are structured and the way they are labeled, are more likely to draw people with the same perspective. Others, structured and labeled differently, may draw a diverse crowd. In order to understand whether people choose to interact with like-minded others online, there must be included in the study different types of discussion spaces to account for the structural differences of each that might serve to draw like-minded people together. Thus, in the sample constructed for this study, people who might participate in like-minded groups on Usenet as well as those who participate on general political discussion spaces were included.

Open-ended, in-depth interviews with a formal questionnaire seemed the best way to get at people's perceptions of the online, political discussion experience. Fontana and Frey (1994, p. 361) explain that the interveiw “can be used for the purpose of measurement or its scope can be the understanding of an individual or a group perspective.” Interviews conducted were open-ended and allowed for follow-up questions. Although a formal questionnaire was developed that was used as a guideline for the interview [See Appendix A for the interview schedule], it was deviated from at times to explore interesting themes or to probe further on a point (Wengraf, 2001). In reporting the findings in the next section, the interview excerpts serve as representative illustrations of the themes, perceptions, or experiences that interview participants articulated during the interview.

Of specific interest for this research was attending to the range of perspectives and perceptions offered by people who use online, political discussion spaces. A randomization process, as random as could be possible with the online environment, was utilized as part of the recruiting process [See Appendix B for a description of the recruiting process.]. The purpose of the randomization was to attempt to interview a range of kinds of people. Even with efforts for a random sample, it was heavily skewed towards men. Of the 69 people interviewed (23 people each from the three discussion space types), 62 were male. Three women were interviewed from the message boards, three women from Usenet, and only one woman from chat. Although active participation of women in the three discussion spaces was observed, they were reluctant to be interviewed.

The range of the age of participants, however, was wide; their ages ranged from 18 to 61. Chat participants were on average younger than the other two groups, and Usenet participants on average were older than the other two groups. The message board participants' average age was 34, Usenet participants' 41, and chat participants' 31. This makes empirical sense given that Usenet is the oldest of the three discussion space types, and thus may have an older user base, while chat tends to be popular among younger people.

In order to generate a breadth of responses, a sizable number of interviews were needed. Using Krueger's (1994) guidelines from focus groups, twenty-five interviews per discussion space type was set as the ideal number. This number should provide a range of people and perspectives from which to analyze. All participants signed an electronic consent form, and were Canadian or from the United States or lived abroad but had U.S. citizenship.

All interviews were conducted over the Internet, using e-mail, instant messaging programs, or a chat space established as part of the online teaching tool, Blackboard. There are advantages and disadvantages to conducting interviews online. One distinct advantage of doing the interview online was that it enabled an instant transcript of the interview. A second advantage is that it enabled people to respond to questions in the medium in which they participate for political talk. Thus, the interviews were conducted in a medium in which they are arguably comfortable communicating. A disadvantage was that the interview participants had to type their responses, which for most would be slower then giving verbal responses. As a result, participants may not have provided as much detail and justification for their responses as would have been the case if the interviews were conducted in person.

Before moving to the findings, brief note should be taken of the format of the reporting of the interviews. Unless there were major problems with readability of the quotations, they are reprinted as is, typos and all. Their punctuation choices, typing errors, and spelling mistakes give texture and richness to the interviews. In order to keep track of the interviews, they have been labeled by the discussion space they were recruited from and a unique identifying number. At the end of a quotation is a notation, such as [Board03]. These serve as referents to the actual interview. Finally, to preserve the anonymity of the people interviewed, any identifying characteristics, including handles, have been altered. In some cases, quotations include the handle names. Made-up, but similar handles were created to preserve anonymity while communicating to readers something of the online persona.

Findings

The Homophily Perspective

In order for the homophily perspective to be supported, one would expect participants in the political discussion spaces to articulate both a desire for and an experience of similarity to others with whom they talk online. One might expect to see during the course of the interview that participants wanted to find others who held similar thoughts or values, and that they appreciated and enjoyed hearing opinions and views that were similar to their own. This was not the case. Only rarely did interview participants in their narratives of what they liked about talking politics online express perceptions consistent with the homophily perspective. The few who did express such sentiments indicated that they appreciated finding others who shared similar perspectives online, because the people they interacted with offline they perceived to be different from themselves.

For example, one of my interview subjects, who participated on Usenet and who lived in Alabama, had this to say about why he liked talking online:

There's a different culture on USENET. Living in Alabama means living in a world where certain prejudices are completely ingrained into the culture. USENET has a completely different culture which is often refreshing, given the face-to-face options around Alabama [Usenet11].

In his offline interactions, he sensed that he held different opinions and values on issues in the political realm. If he were to engage in a political conversation with his neighbors, for example, he risked violating the ‘pact of civility’ if he expressed his true opinions to them (Pin, 1985). In order to get along, he must keep hidden his own views from his neighbors. To engage in political conversation with people who he believed would disagree with him would upset the equilibrium that strangers and acquaintances strive for in first encounters (Argyle, 1969). For him, the online world is “refreshing.” He can find others with perspectives similar to his own, and he does not have to worry about the risk of expressing his opinions to them because he trusts he will find others online who agree. The other context in which the homophily perspective was expressed occurred in relationship to benefits received from talking with others of the same perspective. As illustration, one interview participant explained that: “I sense that I'm not the only one with certain opinions. That there are others that believe the same thing, and some of them are more articulate in expressing their opinions” [Board01]. Thus, online, people can hear others articulate sentiments similar to their own, and can gather arguments and evidence to reinforce their own positions. In their offline worlds, if they perceive themselves to have a different set of opinions on a political subject from those around them, they can go online and find support. They can find reassurance, for example, that they are not alone in their opinion.

There were interview participants who expressed experiencing or desiring to experience people similar to themselves and perspectives similar to their own; however, many more people and many more statements were made concerning the online, political talk experience that are suggestive of the diversity perspective. This is addressed next.

The Diversity Perspective

If one were to expect support for the diversity perspective, one might anticipate hearing the interview participants report that they encounter people who are different from themselves and hear opinions that are unlike their own. Overwhelmingly, the people interviewed for this research expressed those two themes. The comments of many interviewees indicated that they experienced the online political talk environment as one in which diverse people participated and diverse perspectives were voiced.

Interview participants explained that they liked talking politics online because it enabled them to have access to a public, a heterogeneous group of people available at any time and any day of the week. They rarely used the word ‘public;’ instead, they expressed the sense that the people they talked with were diverse in two senses. The first is that the people with whom they talked are from around the world or at least around the country, and as a result are different from them. The second sense is that the people with whom they talk express a broad range of opinions and information on political matters.

With respect to the first sense of diversity, the interview participants found it novel and appealing that the people online with whom they talk live across the country and the globe. When they talked politics online, they sensed that they were conversing with people from disparate social and demographic backgrounds. As one participant said, “It's interesting to meet people from around the country, and the world” [Board03]. Similarly, another interviewee explained, “I like having the forum to see a cross-section of Americans sounding off on world events” [Board17].

The second sense of diversity is the range of opinions expressed. Not only did the interview participants perceive the people online to be diverse, but also the opinions expressed are regarded as varied. One participant explained this perception succinctly: “I like the wide range of opinions that are offered. What I like most is the fact that people from all over the world engage in these discussions” [Board19]. Given the broad range of opinions expressed, they do find people whose views mirror their own. One interview participant said of online political talk: “It does not get boring, you see many different points of view and you see many people that have the same points of view as yourself” [Chat23].

At the same time, the people I interviewed expressly enjoyed the ability to encounter perspectives other than their own. People offered statements such as these:

“I did get a more accurate picture of just how diverse peoples opinions are” [Board08].

“In some ways I consider the postings to be a ‘litmus test’ for the views and opinions of society as a whole. Often times we in the military tend to have one-sided views and it is interesting to consider others” [Board11].

“Mainly for me it's trying to obtain a general sense of how the rest of the country feels or looks at an issue” [Board12].

“I gain an insight into what other people from all walks of life have in their minds. I would never run into these people in real life, and if I did, they wouldn't be open to telling me what I think. On a message board, people seem to say what they feel” [Board19].

“I like the way that it allows everyone, world wide, a forum to address their issues. It shows everyone's point of view. Not just yours” [Chat13].

Online, given the public, diverse quality of the discussion, people are exposed to a range of opinions. They enjoy the opportunity to survey the ‘public opinion’ or ‘mood’ of the country, which they may not believe that they get during their offline interactions.

Alongside the diversity of people and opinions, there is another sense in which the online discussions are public. There is an audience, an often large but unseen body of people who read the messages posted in these online discussion spaces. A participant on Usenet identified the wide variety of opinions and mentioned that she liked that “*many* people can read your answers” [Usenet13]. She felt the public quality of the discussion – that she had an audience, a common space to share her opinions – is adesirable feature of online talk. Another interviewee who spent time on Yahoo's chat space also mentioned the public, heterogeneous quality of Internet political talk. When asked what he liked about talking in the chat space he wrote:

sparechange: it let me as a normal person, express my opinions and listen to others

jen_s_g: What else do you like about chatting in the politics lobby?

sparechange: i like the voice chat option,2 and getting peoples views from all around the world

jen_s_g: Is there anything else you like?

sparechange: just getting into good debate and conversation from people from all different background [Chat08].

Particularly in the chat rooms where the general subject is simply ‘politics,’ the range of issues discussed and the apparent differences in the people discussing makes especially apparent the public, heterogeneous quality of online political talk.

Consequences

The interview transcripts also suggest a number of consequences that emerge out of possibility to talk with diverse people who hold a range of opinions. As mentioned in the literature review, scholars have raised concerns about the consequences of political discussion online. In this section, consequences are outlined as articulated by those who use political discussion spaces. What became evident in the analysis of the interviews was that there were a number of positive consequences articulated by interviewees. People felt that they learned from those with whom they talked. They learned about political topics of which they knew little before, or they gained richer, deeper insight about an issue on which they were already well-versed. They learned what other people were thinking and what others' opinions were on issues –‘the buzz.’ They learned about themselves. They discovered how they felt on political subjects, and sometimes they even changed their opinions on an issue. There also were some negative consequences. The most prominent consequence was that they were exposed to opinions and views that were highly problematic to them, views that they labeled racist, backwards, or, simply, wrong.

Learning about Political Topics, One's Own Views, and Others' Views

Some enjoyed talking online because they gained new information on political subjects. One participant in Yahoo's message boards explained it this way: “I think I'd have to say the best thing is that people frequently point you toward interesting information, information that it would take me a while to find by myself. We share our research, basically” [Board06]. One of the norms on Usenet and on message boards is to include hyperlinks to news articles or other sites that serve as evidence to bolster their arguments. A person may challenge a claim by asking for a link to information to support it. This creates an environment in which those who participate in a debate as well as those who simply read it can get additional information on a subject. Thus, there is information exchange occurring in the discussion spaces, findings in line with those of Hill and Hughes (1998). The exchange of opinion, which people indicate they enjoy, is intermixed with facts, statistics, personal anecdotes, and other types of information that provide people with evidence and information to expand their understanding of an event or an issue. Such information can also serve as an additional tool for arguments that participants wish to make.

People's living in different media markets, living closer to particular events and so having first-hand knowledge, and having knowledge about specific issues on which they are passionate, means that a range of topics, issues, and information is expressed. For example, one person explained that he liked to talk on Usenet because of “the exchange of ideas and news items from people all over the world; the variety of perspectives you get. Also, being able to use the Internet to research issues brought up in Usenet groups” [Usenet14]. Another explained, “I enjoy it when there is [sic] people whom [sic] actually have a grasp of the real economics and political power behind the decisions of nations, and whom [sic] have the insight to see beyond the media announcements of Western News and particularly the U.S.A.” [Chat20]. During the course of a conversation, a person may introduce evidence from personal experience or stories that do not make it to the level of attention in the U.S. mass media. Such personal experiences or information shared through these online, informal channels can constitute another stream of information that discussants may factor into their opinions on an issue.

Another consequence is that participants can gain a sense of public opinion. Because they perceive that a diverse array of people and hence values and opinions are expressed online, they believe they are getting a good sense of what ‘the public’ is thinking. They realize that the public does not speak in one voice, but in multiple voices from an array of perspectives. They can witness this first-hand by visiting an online discussion space such as Yahoo's chat. One person who participated on Yahoo's message boards explained, “I like to observe the opinions of others with regards to certain ‘hot topics’ in the news, with particular attention to military issues” [Board11]. Another, who participated on Yahoo's chat space, said he liked talking there because “it gives me an idea of what people in the US are thinking from time to time. I also get to listen to people rant in an uncensored setting” [Chat09]. When he made reference to “rant[ing] in an uncensored setting” he was invoking the idea that people online can feel free to express their true opinions. The social norms that might prevent people from ‘ranting’ offline may not hold at all or as strongly online, allowing people to observe a broader range of opinion. Because the online discussion space overcomes geographical distances and draws together people with divergent political opinions and ideologies, it enables people to see a range of opinions and issues on others' minds.

Along with learning about who the “others” are, people can also learn about their own views and beliefs. If a person is moved to express an opinion on an issue, they must figure out what it is that they are going to say. This requires them to consider their own opinions and the values that underlie those opinions. As this participant on Usenet explained, “It stimulates thought. The ideas of others which are contrary to my own ideas prompt a clarification of my own ideas” [Usenet17]. Others expressed similar sentiments:

“I think when you have to argue your position then it helps you to understand why you believe in something. Often we find ourselves thinking a certain way without ever analyzing why. When you go on the boards you have to think about what you are saying very carefully because everyone is just waiting for you to make a mistake.” [Board09]

“Like all debate, it helps me to better understand my position – whether my feelings are defensible, whether my beliefs have any logical merit. It also gives an arena for trial of these beliefs where I can see others who support similar beliefs (and how they do so) as well as getting a chance to go up against the opposite views (and their supporting material).” [Usenet11]

“You run into some people (most are jackasses on here) who sometimes think about what they say and it makes sense, giving you a different outlook.” [Chat03]

“Primarily I do it because it forces me to analyze my own positions/opinions on a deeper level.” [Board12]

If people are confronted with a statement that they disagree with while they are browsing Yahoo's message boards, for example, they first need to assess why it is that they disagree. It may be that they know instantly with what they disagree. They have thought about the issue before, and they quickly reply with a response. Perhaps, though, their emotional-level sense of disagreement is not yet backed up by good reasons. Being confronted with a reaction to another's opinions may cause them to reflect on why they are reacting emotionally and to begin building arguments to support that emotional reaction (Marcus, Neuman, & Mackuen, 2000).

Listening to Racist, Extreme, or ‘Backwards’ Views

The respondents did not paint an entirely rosy picture of the experience of online conversation. Indeed, alongside the positive consequences just outlined, participants also expressed that they disliked being exposed to views to which they were strongly opposed. One of the negative consequences of encountering people who were different from themselves was having to listen to what they felt were racist, extreme, or ‘backwards’ views. For example, one of the people I interviewed from the message boards said “sometimes it's depressing listening to people rant … often some very racist and backwards views (in my opinion) … don't know if they're all real views, but I know some of them must be, and there's lots of people like that in this country.” [Board02].

What some found troublesome was that they believed those expressing extreme or racist views believed them. For instance, one of the participants on the message boards explained:

Many people hate trolls but often they can be quite amusing. What I really hate are people who have extremist views and really BELIEVE in them. You can tell when people are taking an extremist stance just to get a reaction. But some actually have these extreme positions on race, politics, gender, religion etc. It makes me sad to think that there are people in the world you are really like that. [Board09]

This message board participant found trolls easy to laugh at. The term “troll,” a common expression used by people who participate in online discussion, refers to people who come to the discussion simply to disrupt it. This participant relegated them to categories of “ignorable” or “comedic.” What he cannot so readily dismiss, what struck him as troublesome, were not those who disrupt but those who come to the discussion with an earnest but, in his opinion, absolutely wrong perspective.

These negative reactions provide further evidence that people are exposed to a public, both people and arguments. That they experience emotional reactions, a sense of feeling troubled or strongly disagreeing, gives further evidence to the argument that people are encountering through these online discussions opinions, values, and arguments with which they disagree. They are choosing to expose themselves and are exposed to diversity when they participate in online political discussion spaces.

Discussion

The homophily and diversity perspectives make fundamental assumptions about the level of diversity people encounter offline. The homophily perspective holds that during the course of a day, a people are likely to be exposed to information and viewpoints that are of little interest to them. They encounter people who are different from them in their neighborhoods, at work, and at the grocery store, and they have conversations that expose a them to new issues and information outside of their usual interests. Moreover, they are exposed to mass media, which carries material that they would not necessarily choose but to which they are exposed nonetheless. As Sunstein (2001, p. 8) explains, “Unplanned, unanticipated encounters are central to democracy itself.”

The diversity perspective argues for the likelihood that in the course of a day, in offline encounters, a person is exposed to information and viewpoints that are similar to his or her own. The people encountered are similar in many respects, because similar people move into the same neighborhoods, work together, send their children to school together, and shop in the same locations. When they stop to converse, it is about trivial matters of little importance, and if the conversation does turn to political matters, the conversation is likely to be of the sort in which the conversants hold similar opinions. If there are differences of opinion, those are not as likely to be expressed, thereby continuing an illusion of sameness. The mass media to which they are exposed has become fragmented, enabling people to watch television channels that only a million people tune into at any one time. Although the mass media carry diverse content, people have the ability to expose themselves to the content they are interested in and avoid the rest.

Online, as explained at the beginning, these two perspectives suggest a different set of possibilities. The homophily perspective argues that when a person ventures online, they choose only the content they are interested in. Similarly, if they choose to interact with others, they choose to talk only with those whose interests are similar to their own. The diversity perspective, on the other hand, argues that when people venture online, they are exposed to content they are interested in, and they also encounter in unplanned, unanticipated ways, other information and perspectives. If they venture into chat rooms, they are as likely to encounter people with a different perspective as a similar one.

The interviews suggest that although those who talk online in the discussion spaces of Usenet and Yahoo's message boards and real-time chat do encounter people who are similar to themselves in ideology and opinion, they are also likely to encounter people who are different. The people interviewed frequent discussion spaces that tend to bring together a large number of people with different perspectives. They appreciated and enjoyed this aspect of their online conversation experience. Thus, contrary to Sunstein's claim that “many people like hearing discussions that come from a perspective that they find sympathetic” (Sunstein, 2001, p. 55), the people who were interviewed reported appreciation of hearing discussion different from their own. At the same time, interviewees reported having difficulty being exposed to opinions that they found to be “backwards” or wrong in some fundamental way. So, while they appreciate diversity, they also are not always happy to be exposed to views that are in opposition to their own.

Considering the implications of these findings for the health of the public sphere, this would suggest that the Internet does enable public spaces for political conversation. More importantly, there are people who choose to frequent those spaces with a variety of people and opinions, to engage in those conversations that involve a high level of disagreement. I leave it to others to judge the quality of the conversations, but from the perspective of the users interviewed, this is generally something they appreciate about the medium. Specifically, the users recognized the public quality of the conversations in which they engaged. Although they found it hard at times to encounter opinions that were widely divergent from their own, they also recognized that they were encountering a broader set of opinions, and possibly more those more representative of the range that actually exists, than what they encounter in their offline social interactions and media exposure. The Internet may, as a result, enable a new forum for public conversation that does not exist or rarely exists offline. As long as the Internet continues to be used for the purposes of public, political conversation, then it contributes to the public sphere.

Conclusion

At least for those who participated in the political discussion spaces examined here, the diversity perspective was the one most frequently articulated. Respondents felt that they encountered, and enjoyed, people whose perspectives were different from their own. This is not to suggest that people do not also enjoy talking with people who share perspectives similar to their own. As explained earlier, there were people who articulated the homophily perspective – an enjoyment of talking to people online who are similar to themselves. Overall, however, the more common perspective articulated was that which supported a view that there are diverse people and ranges of opinions expressed on a broad set of issues.

There are at least three potential limitations to the study reported here. The first is that this is qualitative, descriptive research and further systematic investigaton is needed. What the study provides evidence for is that those who venture into chat rooms are entering public spaces with as much likelihood of encountering people, perspectives, and values that they agree with as those with which they disagree. Cases exist in which people experience online talk as diverse and public. Thus, the study raises questions of the accuracy of the fragmentation hypothesis and the extent of homophilic motives driving online behavior. Further research still is needed, however, to confirm or reject the fragmentation hypothesis.

What the study reported here also cannot do is refute the larger claim made by Sunstein (2001) and others that people who use the Internet are exposed primarily to information to which they want to be exposed. To some degree, by choosing to enter a chat room, they are choosing a specific kind of encounter. It is akin to deciding to take a walk through the public park knowing one will encounter a public protest, rather than the kind of accidental public encounters when one decides to take a walk through the park and discovers (to one's horror, chagrin, or delight) that there are protestors. The difference in these two examples and the product that occurs from that difference is key for Sunstein (2001), as it is those random, accidental, unplanned encounters that are the lifeblood of a healthy democracy.

A second limitation of the study is that I did not ask people explicitly to indicate whether they sought out people who were diverse from themselves. Instead, I asked open-ended questions regarding what they liked and disliked about talking politics online. Perhaps, if the question of diversity has been posed explicitly to them, more responses representative of the homophily perspective would have occurred. This would be a useful enterprise to confirm or counter the findings here. It is worth remarking, however, that the interview participants' top-of-mind responses suggested experiencing and appreciating diversity rather than homophily.

A third weakness of the study is the small number of women in the sample. There are a number of factors that might explain the unwillingness of women to respond to my query. First, it appears to be the case that fewer women than men participate in these various discussion space types (Davis & Owen, 1998; Hill & Hughes, 1998; Savicki, Lingenfelter, & Kelley, 1996). A second problem is the level of unwanted attention women appear to get when they participate. From personal experience on the message boards and on the chat, I was the recipient of much unwanted attention from men or at least persons representing themselves as such. A third problem is with political conversation generally. It may be the case that women do not feel that their comments are welcome in the political discussion spaces, and so they leave after a few attempts, whereas men stay around longer, dominating the discussion space. It would further round out understanding of the dynamics of political talk online to study gender dynamics more explicitly.

These limitations aside, the study reported here provides insight into users' experiences of online political discussion spaces. Their experiences, as articulated in the interviews, are ones of diversity. The Internet reduces the geographic distance that generally separates people. As a result, for those who are so inclined, they can use the Internet as a medium through which to participate in a public space and can, as a result, contribute to the public sphere. Considering, for a moment, the offline context in the United States in which these interview participants live, there are few if any discussion spaces offline akin to the general-topic discussion spaces online. Where could one gather with twenty strangers to talk about any political topic that comes to mind? Alongside the general absence of such a venue, there are social norms that inhibit people from political talk. Offline, people may feel it inappropriate to engage in political conversation with others, particularly those who appear to be different from themselves (i.e., strangers). If people primarily talk politics with friends and family, as research from Wyatt, Katz and Kim (2000) suggest, those conversation partners are likely to share similar values, belief structures, and have similar knowledge about current events or public policy issues (Huckfeldt & Sprague, 1995). Thus, while there may be some moments of disagreement and divergent views expressed, on the whole, they are likely met with a narrow range of opinions. Thus, the interview participants rarely have access to a broad range of opinions as articulated through political discussion in person. Online, the range of opinions is there for others to see and discuss. Thus, the interviewees found that the Internet provides them a public forum to engage in political conversation and argument with others. They are able to use the Internet as a channel into public discussion forums they either do not seek or cannot find in their offline lives.

Footnotes

  • 1

    The term “homophily” is borrowed from Huckfeldt and Sprague (1995).

  • 2

    Yahoo's chat space enables people who have a microphone, speakers, and the appropriate software to talk to each other via voice. It functions similarly to two-way radio or short wave radio. When one person speaks, the others must listen and wait their turns to speak. Currently only Yahoo offers this feature in their online real-time chat spaces.

Acknowledgements

A draft of this essay was presented at the Euricom Colloquium, Nijmegen, Netherlands in 2002. The author wishes to thank the participants at the conference for their thoughtful feedback.

Appendices

Appendix A: Interview Schedule (Usenet)

Do you have any questions before we get started?

Actually, before we can begin, I need you to read and electronically “sign” a consent form. First, are you over 18?

Ok. Let me tell you about the procedure of the consent form, before I send you off to sign it:

If you agree to the terms in the consent form, I need you to indicate that you are over 18, and indicate that you are willing to participate. Then type your real first and last name, and hit the submit button. If everything is successful, you'll see a thank you screen. Close that window and come back to the interview.

To go to the consent form, please leave this chat window open, but return to the browser window you used to get to the ‘tutornet’ chat space. You'll see a menu option on the left of the screen that says ‘external links.’ Click on that. When you do, you'll see the word ‘Consent form.’ Click on it, and it'll take you to the consent form. When you are finished, close the browser window, and return to this ‘tutornet’ chat window. And let me know you're back.

Thank you

Let me just mention that because I can't see if you're typing or not, if I ask a new question, but you have more to say about the prior question, just continue answering the prior question.

Don't feel you need to answer the next question until you've said everything you wanted to on the prior one.

Also, don't worry about typing speed. Just take your time. I haven't got anywhere else to be :-).

Ok. Let's get started

(Motives for Online Political Talk)

How long have you been participating on Usenet?

How frequently do you post: daily, weekly, monthly, etc.?

What other online discussion spaces do you participate in?

What, if anything, do you like about engaging in conversation on Usenet?

[probe until they have nothing more to offer]

What do you feel you get from the Usenet conversations that you participate in?

What, if anything, do you dislike about engaging in conversation on Usenet?

[probe until they have nothing more to offer]

If the Internet did not exist, where could you have political discussions of the kind you find on Usenet?

(F2F vs. Online Political Talk)

Do you have political conversations (e.g. political or social policy issues, current affairs, or political campaigns) in your offline world?

(If so,)

With whom do you talk?

How frequently do you talk with them, daily, weekly, monthly, etc.?

How often do you have political conversations in face-to-face settings with people who aren't close friends and family? What are some of the differences you experience in talking politics on-line, like on Usenet, in comparison to face-to-face political conversations?

What do you like about talking politics in face-to-face settings?
[Probe]

What do you dislike about talking politics in face-to-face settings?
[Probe]

In general, then, where would you say you feel more comfortable talking about political subjects, online or in person?

Could you tell me anything about yourself that indicates why you prefer to talk?

[If the items in this section aren't answered by that question probe with these: Social Anxiety]

How would you describe yourself socially (in group settings, particularly among people you don't know or don't know very well)?

Would you describe yourself the same way when you talk online?

How likely are you to express disagreement in a face-to-face political conversation?

How likely are you to express disagreement in an online political conversation, like Usenet?

(Privacy)

How comfortable do you feel sharing personal information about yourself, for example your e-mail address, where you live or work, etc. online?

How comfortable do you feel sharing with others on Usenet your true political opinions?

How comfortable do you feel sharing with others in face-to-face interactions (say, with people from work) your true political opinions?

When you post or read on Usenet, where are you typically?

How hidden or anonymous do you feel when you post?

What is it about the experience that makes you feel (or not feel) hidden or anonymous when you post?

(Demographics)

Finally, I'd like to ask you five demographic questions.

Have you or do you contact political officials, write letters-to-the editor, or other kinds of political activities in your offline world?

How many hours in the past 7 days did you watch television?

Because it's often difficult to tell online, I ask this question of everyone: Are you male or female?

How old are you?

When did you first start using the Internet for e-mail or the Web or both?

(Final Thoughts)

That's all the questions I have. Would you like to ask anything of me?

Is there anything that you wanted to say but didn't get a chance to earlier?

Would you like me to send you an e-mail when I have a summary of my research findings?

Should I use the same e-mail address as the one we used to correspond with?

I expect to have that summary in about 5 months or less.

Thank you again for your time.

Appendix B

Usenet

To get 25 interviews, I culled e-mail addresses from several Usenet threads, talk.politics, talk.politics.animals, talk.politics.crypto (cryptography), talk.politics.drugs, talk.politics.guns, talk.politics.medicine, talk.politics.mideast, talk.politics.theory, alt.politics.equality, alt.politics.homosexuality, alt.politics.immigration, and alt.feminism. In the talk.politics subheading there was also a libertarian subgroup, but I did not save messages from it because there were not explicit talk.democrat or talk.republican subgroups to balance out the sample from an ideological perspective. If I were to take party and political ideology groups, I wanted there to be no bias towards one particular party or ideology. Thus, the Usenet participants primarily came from discussion groups that had explicit headings having to do with social and policy issues. After saving the talk.politics subgroups, I had an over-representation of groups likely to have men and conservatives in them, so I turned to the alt and alt.politics groupings, and saved messages from the four listed above.

To get e-mail addresses of the participants in order to contact them, I saved to my hard drive three days worth of discussions, November 12 through 14. Because threads, if replied to, are posted for the date they were last replied to, most threads were from the most recent days, but there are a few that had no replies from earlier days. Some of the threads from the discussions were hundreds of posts long and spanned weeks. I saved only seven days worth of messages from the larger discussions.

After the messages were saved, the message texts were stripped, creating a file only of e-mail addresses. The e-mail addresses as well as the subject line (i.e. the thread from which they were pulled) were transferred to an Excel file, and duplicate e-mail addresses were deleted, leaving 696 addresses in the file. There were problems with many of the e-mail addresses. Many included a “no spam” element to the e-mail address (e.g. jstromer@no.spam.yahoo.com). After pulling a random number of seventy-five e-mail addresses, extraneous information in the e-mail addresses was removed, such as additional words intended to prevent automatic agents from downloading their e-mail address and sending unwanted e-mail solicitations. There also were e-mail addresses that were obviously fake, such as bushlyin@lovin.it. E-mail addresses with country codes, such as yahoo.com.au also were removed. I did not want to extend invitations to persons who were not from North America. Thus, after getting seventy-five e-mail addresses from the random number generation process, and removing all the problematic e-mail addresses, I was left with fifty-five e-mail addresses. A new set of twenty addresses was pulled randomly to replace the removals. Five more e-mail addresses were weeded out: four were international, one was a fake. Five more were selected to create the final seventy-five.

Those seventy-five were sent an e-mail message requesting an interview. Interview requests were sent over e-mail on Monday, November 19, 2001. Nineteen people replied over e-mail agreeing to be interviewed. There were also two refusals and two messages bounced back. Nineteen interviews was short of the ideal number, so on December 10, a second request was sent to all those who had not yet responded. Six additional responses were generated, four of which were completed, and two only provided a partial interview response.

Real-Time Chat

To do the interviews, an entirely different strategy from the Usenet interviews was adopted. The goal was to interview twenty-five people during a 7-day, or 168-hour, period from Monday, December 17 to Sunday, December 23rd. To introduce randomness to the process of selecting people to interview, 30 “hours” were selected in which to do the interviews. (Thirty hours rather than 25 were selected in case there were problems recruiting people.) Then, a random minute was selected within that hour to begin monitoring the discussions. Random times to enter the discussion were established to prevent me from entering the discussion every day at 2 p.m. E.S.T., which would have been my preference. If I picked roughly the same time of day to do the interviews, it is possible that I would not get the full range of kinds of participants in the discussion space. It is entirely possible that the people who participate at 2 p.m. are quite different from those who participate at 2 a.m. I wanted to capture that, and the randomization process seemed the best way to do so.

Once I had the interview time schedule, at the allotted time and minute I started an instant messaging program and went to the political discussion area. Yahoo assigned me to a channel, and then I sat in the channel with the handle, jen_s_g, until another person entered after me. If the person was still in the channel 60 seconds later, I sent a private message with an invitation for an interview. This duration of 60 seconds was established because many people enter and leave quickly, perhaps looking for people, just getting a sense of the discussion and leaving if they are uninterested, or accidentally coming into this discussion space when they really wanted to be in the potted plants discussion. Although I could still privately message them (private messaging is not channel-specific), I did not want to interview people who were not seriously interested in staying in the politics discussion area. If the person contacted agreed to be interviewed, they were then asked the screening questions (not a minor, North American). If they refused or they did not meet my criteria, then the conversation was ended. I then returned to the question and queried the second person who entered and stayed, and so on. If after ten attempts to get an interview, no one agreed to be interviewed, I discontinued my attempts for that round. If someone agreed to be interviewed, I asked them to read and sign the electronic consent form, and then conducted the interview.

In the end, I was able to conduct 23 interviews. Four of the times I attempted to get a person to be interviewed, I was unable after ten solicitations, and so ceased soliciting. Although I had intended to enter the discussion channel 30 times, I ended up only entering 28 times due to technical problems with Yahoo or over-sleeping during one of the scheduled time slots (set for 6 a.m.; I had gone to bed two hours earlier because of an interview time scheduled at 3 a.m.). Message Boards

I posted an “advertisement” to the top two listed articles from Top Stories and Political News on Yahoo's message boards, for four requests per day, every other day for 14 days or until I received enough interviews. I staggered the days to every other day, because if there were regular participants on the message boards I did not want to irritate them unnecessarily by posting the request too often, leaving me open to being attacked as a spammer. I posted at different times during the day. As a rule of thumb, I found that for each request I placed, I would get roughly one response. Twenty-three interviews also were completed by the message board participants. Most of the interviews occurred over e-mail. After I placed the “ad,” I would receive an e-mail message from an interested person. I would then establish if they would prefer to do the interview over e-mail or some instant messaging program. Fourteen (61%) preferred to do the interview over e-mail. I noticed after posting the “ad” that some people would respond in the message board that they would be interested in being interviewed. If they included an e-mail address, I contacted them by e-mail. If they did not provide a way to contact them, I posted to the message board a request that they either contact me or provide me a way to contact them off-board. Some persons made derogatory comments to me after I posted the ad.

Ancillary