Echo Chambers, Online Piracy, and the South Carolina Primary: The Week’s Most Intriguing Slate Stories

The week's most intriguing stories.
Jan. 21 2012 7:00 AM

A Facebook Study, Online Piracy, and the South Carolina Primary

The week’s most interesting Slate stories.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer.

The End of the Echo Chamber: A study of 250 million Facebook users reveals the Web isn’t as polarized as we thought,” by Farhad Manjoo. The received wisdom goes that people retreat into social media to hear their own views lobbed back at them by like-minded friends. But in a study published this week, researchers proved that sites like Facebook—which thrives on the “weak ties” through which “novel information” flows—actually expand our horizons. Maybe Manjoo and Johnson should confer to map what’s sure to be a new stage in Facebook acceptance. 

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is Slate’s words correspondent. 

Why Should We Stop Online Piracy? A little copyright infringement is good for the economy and society,” by Matthew Yglesias. Yglesias offers an economic defense of illegal downloads, pegged to recent controversy over the SOPA and PIPA legislation. . Yglesias debunks the entertainment industry’s claim that every illegal download is a lost sale and says that, “Online piracy is like fouling in basketball. You want to penalize it to prevent it from getting out of control, but any effort to actually eliminate it would be a cure much worse than the disease.”   

The Brawl: Gingrich and Santorum shined in a boisterous debate. Can a flustered Romney hold them off in South Carolina?” by John Dickerson. Newt Gingrich seized the first five minutes of the South Carolina debate, but ultimately the night belonged to a steady, eloquent Rick Santorum. Both men argued more forcefully than fading front-runner Mitt Romney, though, which suggests that the Republican race might not have a foregone conclusion after all. 

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Is Azza al Garf Egypt’s Michele Bachmann? What the women of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party have in common with far-right republicans,” by Nina Burleigh. Bachmann and al Garf are “oxymoronic creatures,” writes Burleigh—women who have accrued political power only to shore up the sexist elements in their societies. What disturbs  Burleigh is that, while Bachmann speaks from the American fringe, al Graf represents a mainstream point of view in Egypt, repeating popular beliefs that women belong at home and should hold second-class status.

Conversations with Slate: Simon Doonan on fashion and politics.” The outrageous, radiantly funny Simon Doonan chats with Slate’s Jacob Weisberg about everything from stylish despots to lesbian olive oil to robotic runway models. And in a related piece, he asks: Will Rooney Mara’s petite-chested turn in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo inspire an A-cup renaissance?

The Military’s Push To Green Our Explosives: Environmentally friendly weapons, synthetic biology, and international law,” by Rob Carlson and Daniel Grushkin. The authors invite us to “[i] magine a vat of genetically engineered yeast that produces chemicals for bombs and missiles instead of beer.” That vision—of microbes that are bred to power explosives—may soon become reality as military researchers delve deeper into synthetic biology. But biological weapons are hard to contain, even if they do lessen our dependence on foreign oil. Are U.S. scientists poised to open a door they can’t close?

Tender Young Brains: What kind of childhood stress should parents actually be stressing about?” by Anna Reisman. Just how destructive is the “cry-it-out” method? Although “toxic” stress can impair brain development, there are more benign forms of stress, too, and fretting over those can mean trivializing the real damage done by neglect and abuse. Reisman promises that one night of crying will not blight your child’s life. Night after night of crying with no comfort, though, is a different story. 

R. Money: Can Romney overcome his wealth and connect with middle-class Americans?” by John Dickerson. To win votes, Mitt Romney will have to show both Republicans and Democrats that he understands “normal people” despite his habit of telling stories that serve only to highlight his wealth. What’s more, he’ll need to downplay his own lucre without disowning the idea that getting rich is good—a rallying point for the GOP faithful. 

The Four Stages of Introducing New Technologies: A futurist explains how society moves from fear to acceptance of smartphones, computers, and other advances,” by Brian David Johnson. Step one is predicting the apocalypse. Step two is anticipating the moral decline of your children. And then, somewhere at the end of the road lies bored acceptance. Johnson, Intel’s resident philosopher in future tech, connects the dots. 

Abandoning Ship: an Etiquette Guide: Should women and children go first? Do captains have to go last?” by Brian Palmer. Don’t be caught looking like a boor the next time your cruise ship founders. Here the Explainer demystifies the laws and conventions governing evacuation at sea. For instance, men, you’ll be relieved to learn that you’re not actually required to step aside for the fairer sex or their offspring—but if you don’t, don’t expect a hero’s welcome when you get home.

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