Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler researches the Internet’s impact on politics, economics and culture. His 2007 book, The Wealth of Networks, analyzed how social production and the networked information economy could disrupt American markets and democracy. The book established Benkler as "the leading intellectual of the information age," according to Larry Lessig, the pioneering professor who created Creative Commons. Benkler’s new research explores the technology, ideology and discourse of America’s liberal and conservative blogospheres. The Nation‘s Ari Melber interviewed Benkler about the study, coauthored with Aaron Shaw and Victoria Stodden, for a recent article. Excerpts from the interview, edited for length and clarity, appear below.
What do you think the most important breakthroughs are in this study?
I think the major thing of interest is that this is the first time we’re getting a more detailed look at the technology of options and patterns of use–the first time we’re seeing there’s a difference between the left and right blogospheres, in terms of technologies adopted and the shape of the discourse, as it were, between left and right. I’d say most of the discussions of the blogosphere in politics, up until now, have claimed to observe a symmetry and talked about the blogosphere as one phenomenon in its relationships to political discourse. What we found is that the story is more complex–as it almost always is.
It is important to emphasize there is a lot of overlap between the two sides. But, it does look like the right wing of the blogosphere developed into a stronger emphasis on individual bloggers with very short stories and links–to other places and particularly to mainstream media. And to the extent that we saw larger-scale discourse inside a group of people talking to each other, it was more of a phenomenon on the left wing of the blogosphere.
I think our study questions the idea that there is somehow a technologically determined effect in political blogging. So different institutional settings and mediascape settings adopted things differently. I think the right–when you think of the blogospshere emerging in 2002 and 2003–the right had control over all branches of government; it had Fox News as an outlet; it had churches for organization; it was plausible to adopt a practice or blogosphere that largely reflects and amplifies that media and discourse space.
I think the left was out of government. Clearly, the churches were not an organizing space, and unions did not have the same kind of scope and reach and civic associations; there was no mirror image to Fox News. The effort to create alternative to talk radio was quite weak, there was a small number of magazines–like The Nation, like The Prospect–but nothing like the mediascape on the right. And then the blogosphere comes along and creates a new alternative.
The study suggests an unconventional lens for viewing the Obama campaign’s web success. Can you explain your approach?
While clearly the Obama campaign’s use of the net was very impressive and self-conscious and brilliant, it very much followed on what was already developing on the left wing of blogosphere, rather than created something new.
There was feedback between practices and levels of participation in the left-wing blogosphere, which then the Obama campaign could tap into. You already had a left-wing blogosphere that had greater user participation, more contributions from non-main authors from a blog, more fluid boundaries between contributions from people at very top of the blog to people who write their diaries on the side. All of these trends made it easier for legitimate peripheral participants to move from periphery to front page–which is currently more common on the left than on the right–these were the kind of things where people said, "How great it was that the Obama campaign gave people autonomy, and gave people control of the site."