Are we talking more or listening more on the internet?

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Are we talking more or listening more on the internet?

Micah L Sifrysays internet users are more interested in talking than listening. And this is important for the way the internet affects politics.


© Vazja Koman / Getty Images

People think that the internet is best way to communicate and bring greater democracy. In countries where the internet is easy for people to use, they can give their opinions more freely. And in authoritarian countries the internet gives people a very important way to disagree with the government.

The internet has helped many movements for social and economic change, for example, the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. But there is a problem with the internet. It is better at saying ‘stop’ than saying ‘go’.

In the best examples of organizing political change on the internet, something happens which starts large numbers of people coming together in opposition. But sometimes opposing powerful leaders like Egypt’s ex-dictator Hosni Mubarak is not the same as changing the system that gives them so many advantages.

The internet makes it easier to find other people who have the same ideas. But it makes it more difficult for people to join together and take action together. We listen less than we talk. The internet is changing us more than we are changing the world.

Let’s think about email. It is the best way to organise change in politics. The good thing about email is that it costs almost nothing. For one to one emails, it works very well. But when there are many people receiving the emails, there is more chance that people will not understand each other. All un-moderated email lists usually end in arguments. As people are not talking face to face, they can misunderstand each other and become angry and attack each other. Often moderated lists are the same. Possibly the best use of email is to have a big list of email addresses. You can write directly to them as individuals and they can’t answer you or talk to each other. Then some of them will click on a request you make – to sign a petition or make a donation.

There are very few ways for us to do things together and not protest and attack others. Billions of people use email lists, wikis, blogs, and social media. They are a good way to share ideas but they’re not very good at helping us work together to make decisions and agree.

Social media and big email lists are the main ways groups and campaigns attract attention for their ideas But they add more noise to the media system.

No one can win the digital race to build a bigger list or get more likes and shares. It is also stopping us from working together. It is difficult to believe but social media may make it more difficult for most organizations to get attention for their campaigns and ideas.

One study looked at 257 human rights groups between 2010 and 2012 and the ways they tried to attract media attention in traditional ways and with new social media like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. The biggest groups with the most money, like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Oxfam, got half of all the media attention. Only 26 organizations – 10 per cent of the group in the study – got 91 per cent of all the media attention, and most of the Twitter followers, Facebook likes, and YouTube views. The organizations with budgets of over $100 million a year were the biggest winners in both media.

The study’s authors say that social media didn’t help the smaller groups. The poorest ones, with budgets of less than $1 million a year, used social media nearly as much as the richest groups. But the bottom 50 per cent of the NGOs got no more attention than the average individual user of Facebook or Twitter.

So these smaller organizations are trying to get followers online. And they are in a competition with all of the individuals using Facebook and Twitter!

People can only pay limited attention to what is happening in the world. More people speaking and sharing doesn’t mean more attention to what is happening in the world.

What can we do? We must remember that democracy isn’t only for each person to give their opinion but for people to agree.

The good news is that it is possible to make the internet work for democracy. There are online groups working together on real-life problems and in some places they are very big mass and changing the culture of the places they serve.

Changing what we do

For example, is six years old and people in more than 100 cities in the US use it. is a new site and it is easy to use and hundreds of people can have discussions together. Loomio, which started in Aotearoa/New Zealand, is in 24 languages and helping new political organisations in Greece, the Balkans, Spain, and Taiwan. In the future the effect of the internet on politics may be different from now.

If we want, we can use technology to help more people take part in democracy in the future. But we must change what we do and change what we hope for from the technologies which change our lives.

Micah L Sifry is the director of Personal Democracy Media and the author of 'The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet)'. He is at: and his book is at:

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