The Sociology of Political Blogs: An Interview with Yochai Benkler
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."
So do you endorse blogger Matt Stoller's "crazy uncle" theory of the Internet, which argues that certain ideas and truths are more likely to attract support online?
This is entirely consistent with the interpretation of why the left adopted the practices that it did--which is to say the net is a low-cost distributed platform. If you are shut out of whatever yesterday's major platform is, you can use the net for a work-around. In that regard, it's consistent with the idea that you're going to have relatively more insurgent campaigns, left or right, they find their way to the net. The question is what stabilizes.
It is still the case that Ron Paul is a very different kind of candidate, who may well be drawing people with a different psychological makeup, but I would say Paul's relative success is more consistent with the story about fringes using a distributed network where cores can use the mainstream. In that regard, the Obama campaign was unusual in its flexibility and ability to embrace the distributed platform, even as he became the mainstream or mainline candidate, given that he started out as a fringe candidate.
Somebody who is not a candidate of the establishment, and therefore doesn't have the money and visibility to pass through the broad doorway of mass media, has to find various ways of climbing through the window or coming down the chimney. And that's essentially what the net allows.
Your new research really cuts against link analysis which has defined much of the academic literature about politics online. Do you think we've reached the limits of link analysis?
Link analysis does a lot of useful work. I think what our study shows is that it is like any tool, you only see what is at the level of granularity that your tool can let you see. You can find more complex and, in some sense, contradictory patterns when you are able to look more closely.
For example, the problem is that link analysis treats DailyKos, with 200,000 registered users and over 10,000 active users, as one single entity and, say, Instapundit, one person putting up short posts and links, as one single entity. Link analysis puts them out as two highly connected nodes. These are fundamentally different social and discursive patterns--one is a person speaking, highly visibly, while the other is a practice of discourse among thousands of people.
The next frontier of research is how we move from these kinds of very human-intensive dives behind what the links show and are able to use text or sociological analysis to look at actual dynamics.
Very few studies have tried to go beyond what is easy to do with machines to what is hard to do with machines--text, organizational context--that's what we're trying to do here. This is also a first step toward what I hope will be the next generation of research into the networked public sphere, where the link analysis provides important input, but doesn't play so central a role as the core data of how we build our interpretation.
Recently, American politics online has moved from a focus on blog-driven opinion to social and mass participation sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Do you have a sense of whether blogs are less pivotal in politics than they once were, having been dwarfed by other, easier communication mediums?
First of all, I think these different platforms are different in terms of their internal biases--what they make easy or hard. I would not understate blogs. ActBlue raised close to $90 million in marginal districts; that's hardly yesterday's mashed potatoes.
It's true that the Obama campaign used Facebook and the social network structure, and that gets integrated. But I would not quite so quickly understate what I have elsewhere called the New Party Presses. We can't assume that either any given new pathway--be it Twitter, Facebook or whatever it happens to be--has clearly defined characteristics that will be adopted in a given way. I could easily imagine a situation where because of different practices and different needs, the right activists will adopt a different platform than left activists because it will fit better with what they already have a background in. I can imagine where social networks, particularly with age, become critical, but richer than twitter in terms of what they can do. I don't think our study excludes these possibilities.
What do your findings imply about the new tea party activism?
It's too soon to tell. Sociologically, this is a very new phenomenon. Politically, it's a new phenomenon. It's going to be a really important and interesting case study, but I would not hazard a guess.
Too many things have changed in a single period. That is to say, the political shift in power, the sociological dynamic of rejection of the party that the tea party stands for, the odd mixture of libertarianism, anarchism, religion and broad antigovernment sentiment--at the same time that you're getting Twitter emerging, and more social network use. We haven't got measurements to tell us how these will or won't play out. There is also MSM and particularly Fox News coverage, so it's very hard to tell what the relative role these media are going to play until we get a detailed case study of how the tea party developed.
Finally, while the study's conclusions are worded carefully, it does seem to challenge the conventional arguments in academia and the media that most citizen blogs morph into a new elite, and that Power Law dynamics still prevent most people from being seen or heard online. Do you think the findings shed light on this debate?
There is a possibility that what you'll get is a very expanded elite. We haven't seen 200 million American voters suddenly participating in some Republican yeoman utopia.
What we have seen is a model where things that used to be available only to thousands of people are now probably available to hundreds of thousands of people--maybe low millions. That is to say, let's imagine for a moment that something like one percent of the US voting population, about 2 million people, have relatively easy access to a platform that makes them visible to thousands or tens of thousands of other people. That's clearly new, in that you never had something like this in a mass media environment. It's also clearly far from "everyone a pamphleteer, and everyone a town crier."
The question of how hard or easy it is to move from being a passive reader to becoming someone who can be seen by thousands or tens of thousands of people--that's the direction of change. So when people leading platforms become mainstream, the core question is how detached they become from their platforms and how participatory their platforms are.
The question remains how hard or easy is it for one person from Minnesota to become the primary source of what's going on during the recount for tens of thousands of people a day--how hard or easy it is for that to happen determines whether what were seeing is a simple replication and convergence with the mainstream media model, or a stabilization where you have a much wider basis for people to participate.
Do we have platforms where people can get up in the morning and say, "I care about this subject, I want to spend the next three months to shift the agenda"? That is different from a letter to the editor. Our answer is that it might go either way. Nothing in technology goes only one way.
Editor's Note: You can read more about Benkler and his research in this Nation article.