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Review of “A Small World After All” by Ethan Zuckerman

Ethan Zuckerman mentions a disappointing situation that though modern people have more efficient tool, the internet, to connect to the world, we do not take an advantage of it. Instead, we still concentrate on our daily life but do not see broadly and trying to solve the mysteries in our world.

To my mind, this might be an example of improvements of technologies will not definitely lead changes to how people think and act. Regarding to the internet, in my opinion, the basic nature of it may be just like a library, though it is a super huge one, with unlimited books and multimedia materials, and readers can look up books anywhere and anytime. Something even better, every single person can publish his/her own articles immediately and it costs nearly free.

But do all these features change the way how people use a library? We might use a library for study or for work, which are mostly related to our daily life. We might use a library for entertainment, which basically according to what we are interested in. And the same thing we do when we surf on the internet. I think seldom people will go to library and start to find a book about a topic they know little or are not interested in at all. Therefore, I can’t imagine someone just open the browser and automatically search unfamiliar information either. People will find something they think is important to them and they decide what is important on their own.

Ethan Zuckerman indicates that people don’t try to learn important issues in the world and merely focus on the circle of their life. But to some people, they have already concentrated on the most important topics and get plenty of good information online. The Arabic Spring is important, but the 7 Train will stop every weekend since October is important, too. The problem here is how we can nudge people to take a balanced information digest, focusing more on the issues happens at the other side of the world. By education? Perhaps. Adding the exposure of the different news, like Global Voices, it might work. But I think the way to improve social media and search engine in the article might not work due to the nature that people are tend to decide what is important by themselves. Therefore, the main effort should be to make these issues be seen to them, connect them to their life and become as important as one thing they might think when they wait the train in the morning.

532 comments to Review of “A Small World After All” by Ethan Zuckerman

  • Erin Finnegan

    I didn’t see a link to the original essay, so here it is.

    In your response I think you’ve hit on two major things a lot of people talk about online and in the media:

    1. What are libraries for in the internet age?


    2. The problem of information tunnel-vision.

    Regarding question number one, I think in the internet era libraries increasingly serve as a portal to the internet, especially for poor people in the U.S. who can’t afford expensive cable service and/or rural internet connections.

    It’s apparently a serious problem in places like Florida, where there is a large unemployed population and unemployment insurance must be registered for weekly online. If you’re unemployed, you may have cancelled internet service, (and in rural areas you can’t steal your neighbor’s wireless). Meanwhile, libraries are funded by state taxes, and a lot of states have gone broke in the recession. This means unemployed people have less time to search for jobs and register for unemployment benefits at the library. So job searching is almost all done online now, but the internet still represents a kind of luxury good…

    As for question #2, what this reminds me of is the death of newspapers, and, to a lesser extent, bookstores. Back in the Mad Men days everyone read the newspaper, sometimes two or three different newspapers a day to get different viewpoints and coverage. When I was a kid I just read the comics page, but adults read the whole thing, including at least the headlines of stuff they weren’t interested in just to know what was going on in the world.

    I think there’s the fear that Millennials today may glean all their news from Kotaku and Reddit, which is heavily filtered to one’s interests.

    Online bookstores like Amazon are not as good for browsing as brick and mortar stores, and those “Readers who bought the books you just bought…” ads are paid for by publishers (I’ve heard from insiders).

    Intelligent people I know don’t just read news directed to them, however. They follow the oldschool newspaper method and intentionally try to read news sites with differing opinions.

  • Kang-Ting

    Thank you for the response, Erin.

    Regarding to your first question, I found some information about internet access as a human right. To be surprised, several countries and UN have declared and dedicated to make internet to be cheaper and more accessible. Taiwan, where I come from, though is not a member of UN, also tries to expand the coverage of free wireless service and complete- despite of the speed- the service area located at the capital, Taipei. However, just like you said, to some people, internet remains a luxurious thing. It seems we still have some more efforts to do. Also, besides of the accessible of the internet, I think the ability to judge and criticize the information we find online is even more important. The lack of the ability, in my opinion, is the main reason why people now use the internet in the manner, which is just criticized by Ethan Zuckerman and why the internet does not improve our world that much as that some optimists anticipate.

    This also relates to your second question. The lack of the ability leads us to follow the most popular trend, which may not benefit to our world. And what make this trend so popular could be just advertisements. I think comparing the information from different media as you mentioned might be a good way to prevent us only receiving message from single resource and find out what is we really need to know.

  • Erin Finnegan

    There is a great irony that American politicians argue for internet access as a human right in other countries, when in the U.S. our internet speeds are among the slowest in the world, thanks in part to telecommunications monopolies (or the crumbling remains thereof).

  • Andrew Cerrito

    This response gave me an idea for a website.
    It would have a user-submitted content database, somewhat like Reddit or Digg, except the method of using it would be different. Instead of being able to peruse different topics to seek out familiar information, it would open multiple tabs and load random selections of what users have submitted as important or interesting. The only method of control you would have is to specify the number of tabs that load when you visit the site.

    Do you think people would use such a site to perhaps get exposed to new areas of interest? I always find myself in an internet rut, going to the same sources for the same news on the same topics, so I think I would welcome something like this. I wonder if people would actively explore in a system like this, or whether they would just think most things are boring and close out anything that doesn’t pertain to their interests already.

  • Kang-Ting

    I like your idea, Andrew. But I am not sure whether it will work or not. Will the random selections become annoyances as advertisements or will they be welcome? Another problem is how and who is going to decide the random tabs? Should it be totally at random? An even bigger question here is that I am not sure if internet is that suitable for giving people information that are not chosen by themselves. Because sites on the internet are so easy to close and leave and people always get distracted online. Some more traditional media, such as books, newspapers or performance are more suitable to get people interested in some topics in my opinion, and internet could serve latter as a powerful tool to get further information or participate in discussions.

  • Tiffany "Hewlett"

    Overall, I agree with the author and previous responses that most internet users do not take full advantage of the possibilities of the Internet despite their own personal interests and everyday comforts. However, due to the seemingly anonymous nature of the Internet, I do believe that with the advancement of social media that people often use the internet as a platform to express their true views and feelings. Moreover because of the internet, many causes have been able to gain momentum (i.e. through online petitions, twitter, Facebook and other similar outlets). Additionally, with the growing popularity of online dating, for example, some individuals are able to recreate themselves by painting a picture that others may not see upon first glance. The author gave the example of Facebook attempting to connect individuals that may have lost touch (i.e. high school classmates) and not others they may have never met that share common interests in other cities or countries; but, in the world of online dating, individuals are matched in such a way and individuals are able to interact that may have otherwise never met. Online dating is just one example of people going outside of their comfort zones.

  • ms6699

    As technologies become more advanced, that certainly means increased participation and communication. This is pretty obvious. It becomes easier to accomplish, and allows for people worlds apart to communicate with relative ease. The question is, what kind of affect will this have, particularly speaking on a revolutionary, political, and social level?
    Years ago, peoples perspectives on the world (outside of their own region) may have been shaped by what they see on the news, TV, films, or perhaps in books. Now, people are able to form their own perspectives based on not only what they are shown, but what they choose to search for. The internet has allowed us to choose what we want to see. Sadly in many cases, the internet has become reality for many people. Too many people’s realities are shaped by their online experiences. Also, the internet has made the spread of propaganda and disinformation much easier. This is why I agree with a specific thought relayed in the comment section of this article in the Wilson Quarterly online magazine. “…why does Mr. Zuckerman believe that by making a personal contact in some far corner of the world you are likely to get a representative and lucid account of life and politics over there?” The internet an incredibly powerful tool. It is one of the most revolutionary inventions and creations that has ever existed. Proceed with caution!!!

  • David

    It seems to me that even with our rapid technology development the way people use technology is not necessarily developing with the technology. As Erin pointed out the people who are already news buffs will continue to scan through news websites, sports buffs will look and ESPN and watch the wire headlines. These are all just activities that had slightly different forms before the internet became a widespread utility. I think Andrew and Tiffany’s ideas are very interesting because social media actively engages our personal behavior towards widespread information (news, weather, politics, sports, etc) while simultaneously engaging our personal sensibilities and relationships and relationships towards other people who are not making headline breaking news, towards friends and family. To a certain extend people care more about the personal headlines because it has a direct effect on their lives. I check news headlines but I rarely go any deeper, but when I see one of my friends or family members posting articles and offering views on a certain topic, the topic instantly has more relevance for me even if it is something I disagree with. Suddenly, even if only momentarily, global news occupies the same screenspace and therefore (in my opinon) psychological space as my cousin’s newborn baby or my friend’s engagement, and at the very least makes me renegotiate where I will place my attention and emotional and investment.

    I think if our goal is to get people to participate or engage new or diverse ideas then we have to think about it almost as a psychological experiment. What types of interaction will make people feel like they want to engage with a piece of information. Maybe it is some combination of random info, or targeted suggestions. Maybe its some kind of reward system like foursquare.

    In real life our interests are not the only things that play a role in what we pay attention to. There are also things like social capital/ peer pressure and necessity. A lot of my musical knowledge is from friends suggestions, or what was popular at my high school. Everyone was watching weather updates during the hurricane. So maybe the key is making something that is more of a friendly influencer or even guilt tripper rather than just a feed which is more of a sorted list or a bunch of annoying pop ups.

    We definitely have the technology to really get people to be more informed and the fun (and hardest) part is trying to figure out the nuances of the interface and service that would resonate with our existing modes of thinking or even begin to change the way we think and process information.

    I’d like see if there is any information out there about how technology effects our brain structure and reasoning skills. Of course i sought out that information yet…

  • David

    Also since my background is somewhat in psychology and I live with a science writer and one of the conversations we always have usually starts with me googling things I feel like I should know and saying ”the internet is shortening my memory and attention span” which usually ends up in a discussion on whether we as people are in fact getting “dumber” or if technology is just allowing us to put our brain power towards other types of things that could potentially be more important than remembering facts. Are our reasoning skills suffering or are we just getting better at pulling resources to make different kinds of connections?

  • Nancy

    Last year, Valentina Camacho for her thesis project attempted to create a website that would broaden your searches to find things you wouldn’t normally get… I think what she did was go to the last related items in a google search. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start.
    I like the magazine THE WEEK because it covers the news of each week, by bringing you excerpts from a variety of news media with differing points of view.

    I would use your site, Andrew!

  • Nancy

    I know I have no idea what is going on on very right-wing sites. Clay taught a class before the 2008 US election on the non-mainstream media.. As I remember it there were something like 100,000 sites calling for the assassination of Obama. I’d never see one. I’ve never seen hate sites against Muslims or any of the sites by radical Islamists again Americans…unless they break through to mainstream media. I’ve never seen any pornography sites (not bragging, just a fact) or any sites about Justin Bieber ( a little bragging there)

  • HanByul

    I like your metaphor, library for the Internet. I also think it is really hard to define the characteristics of the Internet itself. People sometimes do really amazing things through the Internet, but horrible things also happen at the same time. However, the Internet has enlarged the possibility of grabbing the things enormously unlike library. For example, being aware of metro schedule and being informed about global issues were totally separated before, however, these things same happen almost at the same time in these days. By just reloading your twitter timeline, we can get hundreds of different kinds of informations. However, people still tend to follow the people within their boundaries because of boundaries or their natural tendencies.. etc.(Your Amazon’s example is great.. I never thought that that would limit my experience) As you said, we should give more shots to expose more often to people to make those issues to be the part of their lives, and lots of people are making parody and recomposing the serious issues to hilarious things. ( I can think of ‘full of binders’ in last election. Those parodies made me enjoy the election even I was not directly related with the election)