The question is deceptively simple: what makes these blog thingies so attractive? Why are they fun to read? The obvious answer, of course, is that they provide us a way to hear the opinions and musings of other people, who (in all probability) we will never meet in real life. But that inherently is nothing novel; various media have been doing that for centuries. The potency of the Internet as a communications forum is that it lets us choose who we listen to - and gives us a tremendous selection.
Consider a newspaper 20 years ago. In all but a small percentage of the larger urban areas of the country, if you didn't like the editorial slant of your local paper, you had two options: bitch about it every morning over your coffee and bagel, or stop reading the paper. The choice was pretty limited. Compare that to the almost ludicrous proliferation of blogs and other personal web outlets of that ilk.
What blogging has done for us is provide a way to pool tremendous amounts of stuff that various people are burbling. This gives us a giant puddle of burble, which we then filter to find stuff that interests us (purportedly this is done by pouring the burble into a series of tubes). Once we locate compatible burbles, we deliver them intravenously using something called an RSS feed. It's all gloriously technological and very trendy.
It may be tempting to suppose that, in this era of informational overflow, we are somehow more educated, open-minded, well-read, or sexy for having read a dozen blogs each morning. I mean, if reading one newspaper gives you X points in the well-read/open-minded/sexy game, reading a dozen blogs must be at least five times better, right? There's bound to be more diversity of opinion and subject matter. Replace "newspaper" with "television news channel" and the factor might spike as high as... well, my calculator crapped out with some error about "infinity", but we'll assume the factor is pretty high.
But is that really true? Are we actually increasing our knowledgeability? Are we genuinely broadening our horizons? Or are we actually doing ourselves a disservice by simultaneously narrowing our views and convincing ourselves that we're doing just the opposite?
Try a quick thought experiment. Suppose you're surfing, say, Reddit, and find a link to Foo's Blog and Grill. It's got a high score, so it must be pretty good, right? You click over to Foo's and start reading. The first entry strikes you a bit odd, but hey, everyone has off days, and this was ranked #5 on Reddit, so it must be good. The second entry is no improvement. By the fifth entry in the archives, you're totally offended - not just offended, but genuinely pissed, and you've already dug out your knife collection and sharpened half of them before you realize that you have no way to find out where Foo lives.
So, do you: (A) bookmark Foo's Bar and Grill as an outlet for conflicting opinions with your own, and a remarkably good way to expand your views on the world, or (B) close the site, rate it down on Reddit, and flame the shit out of everyone you can find who does not express extreme loathing for Foo?
If you're like me, your tendency is more towards (B) than (A). (Actually, if you're like me, you don't even get that far - you realize that you're a programmer, dammit, and you can find out where Foo lives. When you return from brutally murdering Foo three days later, you discover that the power went out while you were away. After rebooting, Foo's site is of course no longer displayed on your machine, and you promptly forget about it forever. But then again, I'm pretty screwed up, so I don't really expect you to be like me. I'd be flattered if you were, though.)
What does this reveal about us? Actually, it mostly just reveals that people are self-absorbed scum and prefer hearing things we agree with. That's not news, at least not to certified members of the Pessimistic Cynics Society. What's more interesting is the intellectual dishonesty.
Now, I'm going to go out on a limb here and just invent some stuff. I don't know this for sure, but it came to mind, and it seems plausible. More importantly, it makes for good reading, even though it's total fictional crap. So take it how you will. That said, I theorize that most (if not pretty much all) people spend at least part of their blog-reading time convinced that they're expanding their horizons, when in fact chances are they're doing the opposite.
What's more enjoyable, reading a blog full of stuff that sounds like ignorant drivel, or reading a blog from someone who has made themself appear to be very respectable, and finding (amazingly!) that you agree about all kinds of stuff? Aside from the occasional fun of flaming people who are clearly morons, I think it's far more rewarding on a fundamental level to experience the latter. Most successful bloggers have done a great job of overinflating themselves, and convincing people that they're important and have lots of important things to say. After all, that's why we snagged their RSS feed. So if you're reading Joe's blog, and you really respect Joe because he's just this incredibly awesome, smart, and good-looking guy, aren't you going to feel good when you discover that Joe happens to agree with your opinion?
It's a shot of happy-juice for the ego. In fact, it's an age-old human tradition. It comes in many forms, most of which are considered reprehensible by society, but pretty much everyone does it to some degree. It's nothing more or less than the same psychological reward of being a suckup.
When we agree with someone who we perceive to be respectable and/or influential, it earns us all kinds of points. We feel good about ourselves - it's the well-known confirmation bias. We look good to other people, too. Since human beings are mind-bendingly lazy, we find it much more convenient to form our opinions of people based on how closely they fit some ideal of ours, rather than actually basing our opinions on the person's real merits. This all happens in reverse, too: if we find out that someone agrees with some other person who we revile, our opinion of that first person drops a few notches. You know you've done it.
That's why I personally am a little scared of the Internet. I think it's stealing our brains. We talk about it as if it's going to liberate us from the overly biased, money-centric media of the 20th century. It'll set us free from those right-wing lunatics over at Fox News (see, lookit - I just earned points with a bunch of people). It'll finally cure the problem of being unable to connect with other people's views. The Internet will make war and conflict obsolete, because everyone can find out about the issue from many varying sides, and reach a mutually tolerable conclusion - or, at the very least, start an edit fight on Wikipedia.
Somehow, I don't think it'll play out that way. The urge of human beings to seek out information that agrees with pre-determined views is simply too powerful. Moreover, that tendency doesn't get nearly the respect it should from people who think they're being objective. To make it all worse, the Internet lets us deftly convince ourselves that we are being objective, when really all we're doing is making our confirmation bias more efficient - and more powerful, since we can feed it from the vast stores of agreeing information on Google.
The Internet is the new statistics - you can make it say anything you want. It is my personal fear that the Internet will not lead to a massively cooperative utopian society, but rather the opposite. People will polarize and congeal into cliques based on their predetermined ideas and opinions, and form increasingly segregated communities. Isolationism and bias will become increasingly potent. We've already seen the classic signs of feuds and turf wars from various online communities - hell, some of them started before "Internet" became a household word.
The next 20 years should lead to some interesting cultural problems. If you thought the raised-by-TV generation was messed up, you ain't seen nothing yet. The raised-by-Digg generation is coming.