The findings suggest that the attenuation of the news producer-consumer dichotomy is more pronounced on the left wing of the political blogosphere than on the right. The practices of the left are more consistent with the prediction that the networked public sphere offers new pathways for discursive participation by a wider array of individuals, whereas the practices of the right suggest that a small group of elites may retain more exclusive agenda-setting authority online. The cross-ideological divergence in the findings illustrates that the Internet can be adopted equally to undermine or to replicate the traditional distinction between the production and consumption of political information.
Translated into something closer to English, the savants seem to be saying that the left blogosphere is less top down and more individualistic than the right: The left offers a community of voices, the right offers a selection of links by a handful of egotists.Why the proprietors of a website are open and communitarian when they selectively invite other like-minded people onto a blog while they are authoritarian and controlling when they offer links to posts they find interesting is beyond my admittedly limited mental powers to discern. It seems to me that both Daily Kos and Instapundit reflect the political vision of the proprietors; the two methods look like two different ways of promoting a conversation and both seem more participative and less authoritarian than legacy media—but what do I know?Political scientists trying to comment on fast moving contemporary politics sometimes remind me of G.K. Chesterton’s description of a Satanist: the accountant in a brothel. Reality moves so much faster, and is so much more interesting, than the reports the political scientists and sociologists produce that it is hard for the discipline to have any relevance for the process.However, the academics are gamely struggling to make sense of the blogosphere as they work to analyze how it will and won’t change the nature of political discourse and public life. Some, like Matthew Hindman, have argued that the distinction between the policy elite and hoi polloi would not be significantly challenged by the emergence of blogs. The former community of Very Serious People would argue about real decisions of import in elite magazines and conferences, while the vox populi would remain insignificant, corralled to personal blogs read by no one. Others, like Seth Godin and Henry Farrell, took a more optimistic view. They pointed to cases like Barbara Morrill, “a self-described ‘stay-at-home mother of two who spent her time helping with school projects and chauffeuring kids to soccer or lacrosse’ and is now, between chauffeuring kids, a masthead contributor to DailyKos.com with a daily readership of several hundred thousand.” (Obviously, there are examples like this on the right as well, though, equally obviously, most well bred academics would rather get caught eating the fish course with a salad fork than to mention them in public.)Shaw and Benkler say that both schools are correct; leftie blogs break down the barriers between elites and the people, and winger blogs reinforce them.
The right seems to focus more heavily on blogs that filter content produced by others and provide links to it. This may explain why right-wing blogs have been observed to link more often than left-wing blogs (Adamic & Glance, 2005). On the left, by contrast, primary content tends to be longer, consisting or more elaborate reporting and opinion. This may, in turn, be consistent with less linking.
For many academics, the explanation is clear: the difference reflects a values divide, where the left tends to be more individualist-communitarian oriented and the right more hierarchical-authoritarian. Or, to take that sentence out of academic Newspeak and put it in English, a not inconsiderable number of academics think right-wingers are authoritarian leaders and followers sieg-heiling around the Nuremberg stadium, while lefties are accepting and communal—but proudly individualistic—free thinkers who share warm thoughts with each other in interactive, life-affirming ways.(Note to non academy readers: this really is how a surprising number of academics think. Telling inane little moralistic fables that somehow always make liberal academics look wiser, deeper and nicer than those heedless, insensitive beasts beyond the walls is one of the ways the professariat consoles itself for its lack of influence.)Others explain the difference between the blogosphere as reflecting the historical situation when the Age of Blogs began. “During the formative period of the blogosphere (2002 to 2004),” Shaw and Benkler observe, “the American right had control of all branches of the federal government, it had active presence in the public sphere through Fox News and AM talk radio, and it had networks of popular mobilization through churches.” Because the American right was already so strongly institutionalized, the academics reason, there was comparatively little need to for right-wing equivalents of Markos Moulitsas to found a Daily Kos (est. 2002), they argue. You can read the paper here or consider Benkler’s work The Wealth of Networks for more.Most conservatives would dismiss this as cocooning liberal bilge. The right generally thinks the left is institutionalized in the three major networks, CNN, the New York Times, the academic establishment, Hollywood, PBS, NPR, the federal bureaucracy, the major foundations and the mainline Protestant churches. Add the labor unions and the civil rights establishment and, to conservatives, it looks as if it is the left that is embedded in major institutions and controls the “commanding heights” of the American infosphere.The right looks at formative incidents in blogosphere history like the exposure of CBS’s forged “exposé” of then candidate George W. Bush’s National Guard record and sees an army of outsiders and ordinary folks charging the citadel of media privilege. Where the left sees authoritarian rightie elites reproducing authoritarian and hierarchical divisions into a new media age, the right perceives a democratic upsurge against the dictatorial power of a smug and empowered liberal elite.The view from Via Meadia is a little different. From here it looks as if both the left and the right halves of the blogosphere represent a populist upsurge against old elites. The right blogosphere rails against the moderation and general worthlessness of the Republican establishment; the left attacks the Democratic establishment in more or less the same way.The internet has changed who the gatekeepers are. For much of recent American history, gatekeepers had to get voted in by the gatekeeper guild—usually members of the New York liberal elite—to play even a small role in the national conversation. And that’s still the case if we think of some of the public intellectuals often in the news: Nicholas Kristof (Harvard/Oxford); Jeffrey Sachs (the quadrifecta of being an undergrad, grad student, post-doc, and professor at Harvard before moving to Columbia); or Naomi Wolf (Yale/Oxford). “Progressives” might support liberal policies, and think of themselves as democratizing figures, but they are part of and empowered by a public sphere whose meritocratic structure, however democratic it looks to insiders, looks pretty darned elitist and closed to those out there in the cold at East Grantham Community College.Both the left and the right didn’t like the bland centrism that the old establishment promoted: both sides of the blogosphere are in open revolt against the old media and the old journalistic and political establishment. And on both the left and the right, the most successful bloggers are wielding some of the same kind of power and clout that the old establishment used to have.On the web, at least in theory, if people like what you say and like the way that you say it, you can become a big splash without having to depend quite so much on getting a gold star of approval from the old establishment media pooh-bahs. The key difference is that the web is a less capital intensive medium than the old media. It is MUCH cheaper to operate a weblog or maintain a Twitter feed than it is to run a magazine, newspaper or television network. Undercapitalized voices now find it easier to get a hearing, and you can become a major national voice without access to millions of dollars and a large corporate structure.Nobody should be surprised by the anti-establishment approach of most netizens. There is nothing more American than populist rage against elite structures and opinion leaders perceived as out of touch. Benjamin Harris, an anti-Popish publisher recently arrived from London (having uncovered a non-existent Catholic plot to kill all of the Protestants and burn London to the ground) started the Colonies’ first multi-page newspaper, Publick Ocurrences Both Foreign and Domestick. It was shortly banned by the authorities for want of a printing license, but it, too, foreshadowed some of the features blogs—”left” or “right”—revel in today. The last of the paper’s four pages was deliberately left blank, so readers could attach their own news stories to it before leaving the coffeehouse or passing it on to a friend, a practice reminiscent of Delicious or HackerNews today. Benjamin Franklin was an early anonymous proto-blogger in Boston before fleeing to the more welcoming Philadelphia climate where Poor Richard’s Almanac eschewed the snooty and hoity toity language and perspective of the colonial establishment to address the American public in a new way with a new medium. The rise of the blogosphere, left and right, is part of a set of changes in the ways Americans communicate with each other. And because the changes in our times are so deep and so challenging, the emergence of blogging, Twitter and Facebook is unusually disruptive to the old media world. It’s not just that new voices are emerging; the structure of the media is changing rapidly. Newsweek was sold for $1—and many people think the buyers paid too much. It’s not just that the gatekeepers face competition; the gates they are accustomed to are starting to fall down: this is a crisis of gates as well as a crisis of gatekeepers.The internet is a revolution in communications; the media are forms of communication. The internet doesn’t just offer an alternative way to deliver information; it attacks the core business model of print media and the network news organizations.And that is only part of a much bigger economic and social revolution that is roiling American life to the depths. The decline of the blue social model, the crisis of the mass middle class, the erosion of the racial settlement of the civil rights era, the transformation of the international system: we have a lot to talk about these days and the public is reaching for new methods of informing itself about what is going on—and to participate directly in the great debates of our time.The new ease of communication is one of the chief forces driving the social and economic changes in American life—and the ease and cheapness of communication has also facilitated the rise of the blogosphere. You don’t need a printing press to address the public anymore; you just need a network connection. The medium is the message; on blogs we discuss and debate the changes in our society that make blogging possible, and the growing visibility and influence of so many blogs reflects and embodies the changes of our time.One of the frustrations of academic social science these days is that the world is changing faster than academics can parse events, fit them into conceptual templates, ground them in extensive literature reviews, submit them for peer review, revise them and get them into print. By the time an academic publishes something about the blogosphere and others respond, the blogosphere has moved on. Social science may need to spend less time debating the blogosphere in its tedious and old fashioned way—and spend more time reinventing the academic enterprise for a new, leaner, and faster-moving world.The academy, as much as the world of legacy media, is being challenged and reshaped by the information revolution. Like the legacy media, its business model is being challenged and the academy will have to change the way it works in order to remain relevant or even, in many cases, viable.The information revolution is a much bigger deal than many in the academy yet understand. That will change; the ground under their feet has already begun to shift.[image courtesy Shutterstock.]