Public Opinion and the Internet

Public Opinion and the Internet

Peter Murphy
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-014-1.ch162
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The development of the “World Wide Web” has had a significant impact on the formation of public opinion in democratic societies. This impact, though, has not been exactly that predicted by early 1990’s prophets of the Web, who expected a decentralization of traditional mass media. If anything, the easy accessibility of the Web-enabled Internet (hereafter, “the Net”) has extended the audience reach of traditional network media. Despite this, the Net is fundamentally changing the nature of public opinion. One should be wary of thinking of this change as a technology-enabled extension of the 19th-century liberal public. In the liberal view, the Net is a difficult- to-control free speech medium. It engenders a babble of voices devoted to persuading citizens and governments of the merits and otherwise of laws and policies. Because the Web’s infrastructure of servers is global, dictatorial, or even legal, control of it is difficult to achieve. This is especially true for governments that want to encourage the pragmatic benefits of computermediated commerce. Yet, to see the Net simply as a free-speech medium does not do full justice to its nature. It began life as a powerful document delivery system, and, in important ways, its long-term impact on public opinion derives from that fact. The Web leveraged existing inter-networked computing to enable a new way of creating, collecting, storing, transforming, and disseminating documents and information objects. The frothy activity of instant commentary and interest group campaigning that the Net facilitates disguises the extent to which the logic of the public sphere is undergoing a long-term paradigmatic shift shaped by its origins as a document archive.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Scientific Visualization: Graphical representations of scientific data, usually involving converting numbers into visual elements that can be manipulated by the user.

Humanities Visualization: Graphical representations of humanities data, usually involving text, in forms that are intended to support scholarship and analysis.

Prospect: A type of visualization that tries to represent every item in the scope.

Affordance: This concept was introduced by ecological psychologist James J. Gibson (1979). It refers to all the action possibilities latent in an environment for a particular observer. They are somewhat complicated in that they depend on the observer’s capacities for action, but are at the same time independent of the individual’s ability to recognize the possibilities. Affordances are distinct from functions in that functions tend to be specific opportunities for action associated with the “purpose” of an object, whereas affordances extend beyond the single purpose into all the inherent possibilities.

Recall: The ratio of the number of documents that have been retrieved, out of the total number in the collection that should have been retrieved.

Rich Prospect Interface: An interface that includes (1) a meaningful representation of every item in the collection; (2) generic tools to manipulate the display; (3) specific tools that are emergent from the data available; (4) alternative representations of every item, intended to extend the range of tasks possible; and (5) a means of linking to further information via the representations.

Precision: The ratio of the number of documents that have been correctly retrieved, out of the number of documents returned by the search.

Retrieval Interface: Software designed to enable a user to gain access to specific elements of a digital collection.

Browsing Interface: Software that provides means for a user to investigate a digital collection by looking through the items it contains.

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