Earlier this autumn, one of my Facebook friends posted a 17-minute-long clip of commentator Keith Olbermann reciting “176 reasons Donald Trump shouldn’t be president
.” I watched it as I prepared dinner one evening.
Somewhere around number 85, my wife walked into the room and paused to watch it with me. “All true,” she sniffed, “and it won’t make a bit of difference. Olbermann’s preaching to the choir.”
She had a point. Olbermann’s audience had largely self-selected before he had uttered a single word. That’s the way the Internet works: it encourages like-minded people to cluster together around content that reflects shared tastes and values at the expense of genuine give and take. Olbermann and his producers know this. They’re unlikely to have imagined the monologue being seen in Trump Nation and perhaps changing some minds. Rather, it was designed to fan out across networks of people who loathe the Republican presidential nominee to begin with — people like me, and the Facebook friend who posted the clip, and presumably the friend who posted it to him, and so on. As damning as it may have been, Olbermann’s monologue wouldn’t change anything; it would only solidify views that had formed long ago.
We live in a digital paradox. Never before has it been so easy to reach out and connect with others, and never before has it been so easy to organize ourselves into tribes. The more we engage with social media networks, the more we begin to identify with them, and the more they shape our world view. Offline, we have to deal with all kinds of people. Online, we get to pick and choose: friend or un-friend; us or not-us. Algorithms that mine information about us and then herd us together into pre-fabricated online communities only encourage further segmentation.