Over the past few years, there’s been a significant increase in the polarization of people’s opinions in this country. More and more, folks are unwilling to put themselves in other people’s shoes, to see their side of the story or even just listen to what they have to say. Increasingly, we as a society are either unwilling or unable to compromise on important topics that affect the vast majority of us. I’m not sure where or when this started, but I do think much of it has to do with the Internet.
Since it came into wide-spread adoption, the Internet has been a way for people of widely varied viewpoints to express themselves on any number of topics. We can read, post, blog and tweet all from the comfort of our own homes and what we say is seen by hundreds, thousands or even millions of people. More importantly, when we say something online we do so from the relative safety of digital anonymity. Although some people hide behind pseudonyms online, these days it’s more common to see people representing themselves honestly and openly. Just because they do however, doesn’t mean that we “know” them or are friends with them or even have met them in real life and I think that is an important distinction.
When we sit down and have a conversation with our family, friends or even acquaintances, we often censor ourselves for the good of our relationships. We may think someone’s opinion isn’t valid or is something we consider to be foolish, but we probably won’t tell them that to their face. Instead we often try and steer those we disagree with towards mutual understanding, we give and take, we compromise. I love my family very much but I disagree heartedly with many of their political viewpoints. When I get into a discussion about these topics with them, I don’t call my Uncle an idiot or a bozo, I calmly listen to his opinion, and if I’m feeling feisty I’ll attempt to convey some opposing viewpoints. If he listens great, if he entrenches himself and refuses to hear what I’m saying I often change the subject and move on. I love him too much to risk hurting him or his feelings and so I censor myself to some degree. I firmly believe it’s for the best.
But when I frequent political blogs and forums and told I’m an “ignorant liberal” or when I tweet about Apple’s court victory over Samsung and am called a “typical Apple fanboi”, the people that do so have no pretenses about censoring themselves. Indeed, I too am more likely to let loose when I’m exchanging ideas and thoughts with someone I’ve only met online than I would if I were sitting with them face-to-face in a restaurant or coffee shop. Yesterday, Macworld editor Dan Frakes tweeted this about Apple’s original iPhone:
When the iPhone debuted, it was widely criticized for having no buttons/keys. Now people think the iPhone’s design is “obvious.”
— Dan Frakes (@danfrakes) August 25, 2012
As soon as I saw that tweet, I knew Dan was in for an earful. I had tweeted several times on Friday about the $1.01B judgement against Samsung by Apple and was not prepared for the amount of staunch anti-Apple sentiment that flowed into my Twitter timeline as a result. It seems that in platforms, as in politics, people have firmly chosen sides. You’re either with us or your against us and for some reason there can be no middle ground. I make my living using Apple products and have enjoyed them for well over 20 years so I have a strong affinity for technology that comes out of Cupertino. I also like to think that I’m fairly objective and have criticized Apple when I strongly disagree with a position they take. Sadly, some don’t see it this way. Apple is either the perfect corporate citizen who can do no wrong or a demon that is out to destroy open standards and lock all smartphone users into walled gardens manned by underage Chinese workers from Foxconn.
The reality, of course, is somewhere in-between. Apple’s victory over Samsung can be right and just in accordance with U.S. patent law but that doesn’t mean they “invented rounded rectangles”. It also shouldn’t mean that you and I can’t have a friendly discussion on the topic without it devolving into the digital equivalent of the Jerry Springer Show. Admittedly, when we are so entrenched in our positions it is difficult to give up any ground, especially when one feels passionately about something. However, if we are to survive and flourish as a society and have meaningful conversations, we all need to try and make a concerted effort to climb out of our fox holes and meet somewhere in the middle.