Does the Internet make our conversations richer or poorer? This is the question that has driven my research and consulting for the past fourteen years — for most of that time, focusing on how to make the Internet’s impact as constructive as possible, whatever its underlying tendencies.

Cass Sunstein’s has has a major impact on that work. The book was published in 2002, before the widespread use of RSS, but it anticipated RSS in its concern that online media consumption was pushing us towards a world in which people knew more and more about less and less (to steal that longstanding description of academia!) and eliminating the common areas of knowledge that drive water cooler conversation. Instead of people talking about the headlines we all see in the morning’s paper, we’ll each get such customized news that we’ll have little to discuss in common.

For a long time I felt sympathetic to that argument, particularly as the dawn of RSS saw me fill up a newsreader with the feeds of niche blogs — displacing my interest in mainstream news, albeit briefly.  It didn’t take long before the volume of unread news items in my reader became daunting, and I re-embraced the morning paper simply because it seemed like a manageable volume of information. And I felt the return to paper was justifiable on Sunstein’s terms: wasn’t it better for me to know the news that other people were going to talk about?

But I’ve recently returned to the RSS fold, and this time I’m not so sure that Sunstein got it right. Much depends on what you think matters: people, or information.

If you think that a wide range of information is key to civic discourse, than the RSS-fed world is troubling. We choose which topics to aggregate and consume, and we may end up knowing a lot more about iPad hacking or knitting or credit card fraud than we know about the major stories of the day — the stories that we can talk about at the water cooler.

But what if the variety of information isn’t what matters to civic life? What if that common conversational pool matters more for who it connects us to, than what we are talking about?

There’s good reason to think the connections among diverse people are what’s crucial to civic life.  Social capital researchers like Robert Putnam distinguish between two kinds of social capital — the personal ties that build trust and hold communities together: it’s “the distinction between ‘bonding’ social capital (ties to people who are like you in some important way) and ‘bridging’ social capital (ties to people who are unlike you in some important way).”  Both kinds of social capital play a role in community and personal health, economic performance, and other outcomes, but bridging social capital can be harder to come by.

So what does that mean for your RSS reader? The bottom line is that it can be a conduit for building either kind of social capital.

  • If you use your RSS to subscribe to individual blogs and sites… risk falling into the trap described by Sunstein. Unless you’ve conscious to select from a diverse range of sources and perspectives, you’re likely to end up listening to people who have the same interests and perspectives as you do. If these are the people you engage in your own comments and blog posts, you’re “bonding” with people a lot like you.
  • If you use your RSS to subscribe to searches….you are likely to hear from a much more diverse range of voices, particularly if you choose search terms that aren’t ideologically loaded. A Google blog search on a term like health policy is going to yield posts from people all over the spectrum. So yes, your news consumption may be narrow in terms of its topical focus, but eclectic in terms of the people you engage with. That could turn out to be great news for bridging capital.

This is ultimately an empirical question that might be addressed by large-scale studies that correlate social trust with what’s in a person’s newsreader. But that’s a bit wonky, even for me.