How we use the Internet — and for what — has changed dramatically over the past ten years. The same forces that are empowering groups that feel repressed — #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and, yes, #WhiteLivesMatter too — are challenging our ability to relate to one another across identity-based and ideological divides. Here’s what I’d do to change that if you were to give me $50 million:

This is my friend Alfonso, who I first met in 2004, with his two adorable children:

Alfonso is one of the smartest people I know. He grew up with far fewer opportunities than the majority of readers of this blog, though with more opportunities than most of his neighbors. During his spare time he reads academic articles from economics journals, looks after his children as a single dad, and tries to help some of his younger relatives stay out of trouble.

This is also Alfonso:

Some friends, nearly all of them liberal, ask me how I can possibly spend time with such a closed-minded chauvinist. We spend time together because we learn from each other and we make each other laugh. Though neither one of us wants to admit it, we’ve even informed each other’s political views over the years. Our conversations aren’t quite as sappy as this (excellent, powerful) Heineken commercial, though they can get pretty close:

I first met Alfonso the week after the 2004 election, when George W. Bush won the popular vote against John Kerry by two percentage points. I wanted to step out of the elite echo chamber of my liberal university and better understand why anyone would vote for Bush over Kerry. So I invited Alfonso to a debate on my blog in December 2004 about the main issues that convinced him to vote Republican. Here’s how he introduced himself:

As for what makes me a conservative as opposed to liberal. There are many things that all add up to one conclusion. But I would say the heart of my conservatism lies in three things. Abortion, Vouchers, and Capitalism. These are my core issues that keep me in the conservative ideology. I have others, but I wouldn’t classify those as essential. For example, my non-core issues are, I was for the Iraq war, I am against gay marriage, I am a foreign policy hawk, I am a ‘strict constitutionalist’, I dislike the elitism of liberals, I dislike the race-baiting of liberals, I dislike their cultural relativism and I dislike their general anti-Christian views. On some of these beliefs I may hold strong views on, some of them I don’t. Some of these beliefs I may know how to defend decently well, others are only stereotypes I have developed over time. However, they all have one thing in common, they are non-core to me. We can discuss each of these if you like, but please note that I do rest most of my beliefs on my three core issues.

In the following weeks, Alfonso argued that abortion should be illegal, alleging that “abortion is to our time what slavery was to the 19th Century.” I responded with my argument for choice. Then Alfonso argued against gay marriage, which I mostly responded to in the comments thread, though it also inspired some deeper thoughts about sexuality itself. We were supposed to then argue about school vouchers, but we soon discovered that our views are more similar than different. (I’m generally for school choice and Alfonso’s kids now go to public school! Still, we may have a go at one last debate about private vs. public education in the coming weeks.)

When I look back at the comment threads from those posts, I’m filled with nostalgia for what blogging once was and what I thought it would become. Back then, my prime motivation every time I connected to the Internet was to learn more about the world and meet interesting people along the way. Google, Wikipedia, and blogs were incredible new tools — windows into a world of interestingness that I wasn’t getting out of my textbooks, college courses, or conversations with friends. Today, despite my best intentions, I’m more interested in how many likes, retweets and new followers I’ve received and what those numbers say about my self-worth. As an old blogger friend recently put it, “people now perform their relationship with news in order to win the approval of others.”

In our debate about gay marriage, Alfonso and I received a number of interesting comments from a gay blogger from the South named Myke. A year later and the three of us — a Republican Latino, gay Southerner, and coastal White guy — were all drinking beers together and making fun of each other’s sense of masculinity.

Maybe this is a bit of hyperbole, but if our democracy is going to survive, we’ll need a lot more of precisely that — people who are very different coming together to better understand each other. Instead, we’re moving to cities where people are more like us, we’re consuming media personalized to our politics from aggregators like Apple News, and we’re interacting with people online who share and actively approve of our views.

So what can be done? I’ve been thinking about this more seriously after reading an article about a new $500 million fund run by a former colleague from Gates Foundation that looks to fund “big ideas” for “systems change.” A press release says they will make grants of up to $50 million in flexible funds to “initiatives with proven leadership and results that are poised to scale even further.”

So this got me thinking: what would I propose for a $50 million grant to address increasing polarization and divisiveness in our country? Here goes:

  • First, I’d find two well known political pundits to role model how one participates in a conversation with the goal of better understanding each other’s views and the reasons for those views, instead of winning the argument. They would invite on liberals and conservatives, including celebrities and professional athletes, to the show with the explicit goal of finding common ground and the sources of differing perspectives. A podcast would be the ideal medium and I’d push hard to get it broadcast on AM and satellite talk radio. The hosts could be Van Jones and Glenn Beck. Or Jeff Flake and Nancy Pelosi. Or Michelle Obama and George W. Bush. The whole point of the podcast would be to come to a better understanding of why our own views differ from the views of so many other people without trying to change their opinions. The tone would be light and self-deprecating, but also empathetic and respectful. I think the podcast could attract advertising, but would have to be subsidized by some grant money to pay for high production quality.
  • Second, I’d pour a lot more money into the Human Library Project (including maybe a new name?). This is the organization that receives corporate support from Heineken as part of their Open Your World campaign. The project has managed a number of successful partnerships throughout Northern Europe, but it has struggled to really expand its impact and barely has a presence in the US. I’d fund them to team up with TED to learn how to put on a world class, three-day event that challenges our stereotypes and inspires us to seek out the best in others. Imagine such inspiring content and expertly facilitated sessions that can bring together Evangelical farmers with transgendered urbanites, white nationalists with Somalian immigrants, Honduran immigrants with Kentucky coal miners, and have them all come away with a reaffirmed faith in our human bonds.
  • My hope would be for that three-day, cornerstone event to be so transformative for its participants that many would want to replicate it in their own communities and cities throughout the country. The model is TEDx, which has expanded the mission of TED — “to spread great ideas” — by enlisting passionate supporters to apply for licenses that enable them to host their own TEDx events throughout the year. It would have to start small with just ten cities the first year, then 30 more and so on until eventually every major city in every state has had an event to challenge stereotypes and better understand segregated neighbors.
  • But reaching listeners of a podcast / talk radio show and the attendees of TED-style conferences isn’t enough to make a real dent in our divided country. We have to influence how young people shape their own social and political identities in high school and college, and how they form opinions about others. Thousands of high schools around the country have Speech and Debate Clubs, many of which belong to the National Speech and Debate Association. These clubs build a lot of real-world skills for their participants; they must develop logical arguments, understand the nuances of social issues, and speak publicly with confidence and assertiveness. But they’re not enough. They don’t teach participants how to listen better or come to a deeper understanding of why good people with similar values can hold such different political views. A lot of recent social science research — most recently from India — has found that we’re more likely to strive to understand the opinions of others after we’ve collaborated with them on a project with a shared goal. I would explore a partnership with PenPal Schools, the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, and the Obama Foundation in Chicago to test a pilot at high schools, community colleges and four-year universities in the two cities that facilitate a week-long collaboration between students to build trust for a semester-long correspondence that aims to respectfully understand the political views of others without attempting to change their opinions.

What would I stay away from? Social media. The social media reaction to yesterday’s New York Time’s profile of white nationalist Tony Hovater shows why social media is so harmful in our efforts to better understand each other. The vast majority of us use social media to build an online identity of our views and interests based on how we react to the news we encounter. And, of course, to criticize anyone who doesn’t agree with us as stupid and uninformed.

Which is why my last use of the $50 million would be to commission a creative marketing firm to create funny, viral content that pokes fun at hyper-partisanship and inspires us to behave a little more humanely online. Some short videos would reimagine the behavior of hyper-partisan pundits like Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly if they wanted to actually learn from their guests instead of argue with them. Other content would target social media users like you and me to remind us that we can do more online than just seek validation from our echo chambers and argue with our detractors. At a minimum, we could program Twitter bots to reply to vitriolic tweets with funny content encouraging us to take ourselves a little less seriously. Who knows, maybe companies like Facebook and Twitter would be willing to automatically detect language that is vitriolic and hyper-partisan and encourage users to tone it down before pressing publish.

After jotting down these ideas, I realized that $50 million isn’t all that much money to address a problem as complex as online partisanship and echo chambers. These are just a few initial ideas that came to mind. What do you think? What did I miss?

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