But, as with all tools, there are negative implications we must be aware of, even when discussing something as seemingly positive as a "free flow of ideas." With every wall we break down to allow for the spread of positive messages, we must accept that there are those who would use the same freedom to spread misleading, hateful and/or potentially dangerous ideas. This is the price we, as a connected society, must be willing to accept for progress; however, acceptance of this price should come with a more complete understanding of the implications.
As media sources continue to fragment, there seems to be a general trend towards polarization. What I mean by "polarization" is a movement away from the center (unbiased, data delivery) toward a more editorialized, narrative-driven interpretation of data (see U.S. cable news landscape as a macro-level example). What is happening is the combination of three forces:
1. In a sea of infinite choices of information sources, people tend to gravitate towards sources that coincide or confirm their own beliefs.
2. Given significant competition as publishers of information -- and nothing is more competitive than the infinite web -- publishers tend to compete to appeal to people's differences and more extreme viewpoints, until they have locked in on a small enough niche audience.
3. Previously publishers with very extreme positions and speech, appealing to relatively small audiences, would find it difficult to maintain lower-cost structures around content production and publishing (near-zero for Internet-only publishers), allowing for more niche content.
You might have noticed that I have tried very hard not to define any of the above trends as negative or positive, but simply as what is happening. The question becomes what the impact of continued fragmentation of society's media sources might be, both locally and on an international stage. It obviously gets more difficult to have intelligent public discourse when the public is not consuming the same information, but diversity in information sources provides new and valuable viewpoints and makes total control of media and information by oppressive governments nearly impossible. An additional concern: if media continues to gravitate towards polarizing views, people will do the same. This obviously becomes most troubling with the publishing of violent extremist teaching, both religious and secular.
The reason I have spent so much time thinking about this subject lately is that I have agreed to speak next week at The International Youth Conference and Festival, a fantastic event in Pakistan. I would like to focus on the positive change digital media will have in empowering youth to connect cultures -- after all, a new friend in Pakistan is just a Facebook click away, and that has never been the case before. But I think it is equally important to look at the challenges youth face, given the amount of misinformation and biased perspectives available.
I'd really love to hear your thoughts on where things are headed and the impact of digital media on international youth culture. I will also be tweeting from the event from www.twitter.com/joemarchese
Also, if you haven't read it yet and you are at all interested in the topic of digital's impact on international affairs, I highly recommend an excellent recent essay titled "The Digital Disruption" by Google's Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen.