Sunstein's book was inspired by the phrase, "The Daily Me," the ability to personalize and customize news offerings on the web in line with our personal predispositions, meaning conservatives can visit Townhall.com for their news, and liberals the Daily Kos. We enter these "echo chambers," and find our prevailing views strengthened and pulled toward the ideological poles. This is symptomatic of the fragmentation of our media.
The author conducted an experience in Boulder and Colorado Springs among liberal and conservative residents of each respective city. Participants were recruited in the basis of their like/dislike of Vice President Cheney. When discussing the issues of gay marriage, climate change, and affirmative action, members of the like-minded groups become even more extreme in their views, as diversity of thought declined in the process. Sunstein contends that our prevailing Internet culture produces similar effects.
At the same time, when we enter such "echo chambers," we come to think of those who disagree with us and enemies and antagonists. This bitter polarization, according to Sunstein, is bad for democracy.
Contrary to the "marketplace of ideas" concept of free speech advanced by former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sunstein advances a competing notion of free speech championed by former Justice Louis Brandeis, who called for governmental maintenance of public forums open to diverse points of view. He works from the premise that we have a civic obligation to hear from people with viewpoints different than our own.
To accomplish this, we must rely upon shared experiences like those offered by a museum open to the public. National holidays like the 4th of July and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day also help us recognize our commonalities as citizens. He credits former colleague and current presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama for understanding this notion. For example, Obama speaks of a feminist who talks her friend out of having an abortion, while at the same time an evangelical Christian helps to pay for an abortion for an acquaintance. By combining red and blue, he helps us to see that we are all a certain shade of purple.
Daily newspapers, weekly news magazines, and network TV news also provide shared experiences, but declining readership and ratings have undermined this common experience where we are exposed to points of view we never would have chosen independently. An op-ed page perhaps captures this phenomenon best, as we can be exposed to the traditional conservatism of George Will, the libertarian leanings of Steve Chapman, and the progressive slant of Paul Krugman in a single dose.
Specific to the blogosphere, Sunstein hopes that individual blogs adopt the ethos of a well-functioning newspaper. Link to viewpoints different than one's own, cover a myriad of issues, and in the process moderate the extremities of our polarized polity. Fanning the Flames lives these values.