For the past decade, it's been a holiday tradition of mine to talk about the Internet as a great uniter. Shrink time, distance and cultural barriers through universal online communication...

Share story

For the past decade, it’s been a holiday tradition of mine to talk about the Internet as a great uniter. Shrink time, distance and cultural barriers through universal online communication, my reasoning went, and you can’t help but make the global village a more peaceful, congenial place.

And usually the news has been good. Last year at this time, the glimmerings of online political prowess — coalescing constituencies as never before — were beginning to be felt in the presidential campaign. Meetups, MoveOns, online fund-raisers, campaign announcements and organizational events all benefited unimaginably from the Internet’s networking capabilities. In one sense, the Net brought people of like persuasion together as dramatically and powerfully as has ever been imagined.

But there’s a flip side to the empowerment of constituencies. It can serve to emphasize differences, and harden loyalties, to the point where it diminishes the concept of a common ground.

America has always been defined somewhat ineffably by “The Middle.” But an outsider viewing America through the lens of online networking — Web sites, mailing lists, blogs and other mechanisms — would be hard put to divine a middle ground today.

Perhaps the defining example of what I’m talking about came when Jon Stewart, host of cable TV’s Comedy Central “Daily Show,” appeared on the CNN talk show “Crossfire.” Stewart had the presence (and temerity) to suggest that shouting at each other was not aiding the democratic process of hope, sympathy and understanding.

“You have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably,” Stewart told the hosts.

The middle has suffered not just in political terms. Social scientists warn of the shrinkage of the middle class. Economists note the growing chasm between the rich and the poor. Academics say the educational system’s fragmentation into private and public systems is diluting the notion of a shared American heritage.

Online communication ought to be capable of crossing any boundary — physical, social, cultural. It ought to promote discourse among those of opposing viewpoints with the goal of enlightenment, respect and mutual understanding. If Anne Frank had had a Web log, I’ve often said, the Holocaust might never have happened.

Given the current landscape, I’m not so sure. An Anne Frank blog might well have inspired and catalyzed anti-Hitler forces. But whether it could have convinced Third Reich supporters of the error of their ways is more an open question than I’d have thought in the past.

The Net allows constituencies to turn up the volume and rally the troops. But in so doing, it may also be drowning out alternative viewpoints.

I belong to a family mailing list anchored by four brilliant and articulate brothers whose kinship proves little barrier to oppositional opinions. Their online debates are almost Grecian in their ideological eloquence. But they seldom reach consensus, or even try.

And that’s the way the Internet is. In countless forums, blogs and mailing lists, what we primarily do is argue.

I always thought the Internet would be the greatest tool ever for the exchange of ideas and views — for conversation, in other words.

There are plenty of conversations online. There just isn’t much dialogue.

It may be that the Net is simply a product of virulent times. If we’re living in the Divided States of America, perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect the Net to bridge ideological chasms. But what the Net hath wrought in terms of divisiveness it ought to be able to mend and bind as well.

I still hold out hope that universal access will help promote peace and understanding. For that to happen, though, we’ll have to see a lot more online bridges built than walls.

Paul Andrews is a freelance technology writer and co-author of “Gates.” He can be reached at