Tuesday, July 12, 2011

How are new media reshaping politics? Take 1

I've been studying political blogging for a couple years now, and I'm getting ready to bring it all together into a dissertation. That means it's time to move past statistics and data, and start thinking in terms of Big Ideas.

As I see it, the pressing question is "How are new media (including blogs) reshaping American politics?" This is a big question -- one that certainly matters outside of academia. But that won't stop me from writing about it in a dry, academic way. :) To my mind, Matthew Hindman, Yochai Benkler, and Cass Sunstein have put forward the three leading, competing theories for answering this question. This week, I'm going to make a first attempt at responding to and synthesizing their ideas.

Feedback and constructive criticism are very welcome.

Hindman and the Missing Middle

Matthew Hindman is an Internet pessimist. In his book, The Myth of Digital Democracy, he argues that the web has exacerbated the "rich get richer" tendencies of media markets, leading to greater inequality. To back up his assertion, he shows that links and traffic to web pages follows a power law distribution. He also interviews top 40 bloggers and claims that they are overwhelmingly white, male, high-income, and educated. His analysis suggests that the people with big audiences online are no different from those offline. Hindman labels this dramatic inequality between popular and unpopular sites "the missing middle."

However, Hindman's line of attack has two important weaknesses. First, he has no counterfactual. The distribution of online audiences is dramatically unequal, but the same is (and was) probably true offline as well. Certainly, Barack Obama, Michelle Bachman, and Thomas Friedman have daily audiences that are orders of magnitude larger than mine or yours. The same was true of their counterparts before the Internet. Audiences online are distributed unequally, but are they more unequal than those that existed offline, before the Internet? Hindman does not answer this question, and I suspect the answer is no.

Second, Hindman ignores the potential for indirect influence. The Drudge Report is one of the most heavily trafficked blogs* on the Web, but Drudge himself writes almost no content. Instead, the site features links to stories elsewhere on the Internet. How then do we think about Drudge's influence? He inserts no new ideas into public debate, but exercises some ability to influence which ideas get attention. By linking to other authors' stories, Drudge allows those authors to exercise indirect influence on his readers.

Drudge is an extreme case of the common online practice of linking. Linked content intrinsically gives others indirect influence. It is not unique to the online world (think of citations, endorsements, recommendations), but it is probably more common there. Network theory shows us that all else equal, more re-linking leads to more egalitarian distribution of indirect influence. By focusing only on direct readership, Hindman misses this possibility.

The bottom line: Hindman is the skeptic in this debate, arguing that the Internet means business as usual for participation, voice, and influence. He's only right as long as we assume that 1) offline participation is not also unequal, and 2) only direct influence (i.e. readership and web traffic) matters.

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