r/changemyview: a Digital-Hermeneutics Approach to Dialogism in Online Culture

Speaker 2023

There seems to be a surplus of both trust and distrust in contemporary media culture. On the one hand, we place great trust in the platforms that govern and structure our online lives. We rely on algorithms to organize our lives and make decisions for us. We fall prey to confirmation bias and filter bubbles, which we might characterize as an overly trusting attitude towards (human and/or technological) others. On the other, increasing political, ideological, and epistemological polarization in culture means we can be deeply suspicious of others outside our ideological communities, and trust in experts is waning in certain communities. Radicalizing content and the mainstreaming of conspiracy thought only contribute to a deep-seated distrust of groups outside of the own community, and of things as they seem. Are there ways to move beyond this dichotomy of (uncritical) trust and (unwarranted) distrust, which both often amount to remaining unchanged, towards new forms of intersubjective dialogue in online culture? 

I look for answers to these questions by analyzing a dataset from the subreddit r/changemyview, a discussion forum devoted to genuine online dialogues, where users can post their opinions from the idea that they might be flawed, and with an openness to the understanding of alternative perspectives. How does dialogism come about on this public forum, and does it allow for calibrations of trust and distrust, moving beyond the hermeneutics of suspicion and of faith? I use an approach called ‘digital hermeneutics’ (Van de Ven & Van Nuenen, 2022), which is inspired by Gadamer’s dialogical hermeneutics. It consists of a ‘scaled reading’ on five different scales: platform hermeneutics; contextual reading; distant reading; hyper-reading (concordance views); and close reading. 

Hermeneutics, which, as a philosophical and scholarly tradition, came about as an answer to problems of mediating between concepts of objective reality and the subjective nature of human experience. I propose to update Gadamer’s dialogical hermeneutics for the disciplinary context of digital literary/media studies, with a thematic emphasis on tensions and mediations between the familiar and the strange (hermeneutics as the ‘in-between’), the notion of horizon, and the ideal and problems of intersubjectivity. I foreground the central hermeneutic notions of ‘horizon’ and dialogism primarily in an ideological and epistemological sense, rather than its more traditional historical, geographical, or intercultural applications. Despite discourses pronouncing post-or anti-hermeneutics times, I argue that hermeneutics today has migrated from a range of philosophical theories and approaches in literary studies, to pervasive practices in online culture at large that warrant scholarly reflection. To demonstrate this, I ‘read’ the dataset from r/changemyview on different scales, using a Digital Hermeneutics approach to online discourse. 


Inge van de Ven

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Digital Humanities Tilburg