The Blurring Boundaries of “the Blogosphere” (Or, Research in Internet Time, Exhibit #8571)

I used to study the political blogosphere.  My first three research papers were on the blogosophere.  First I put together a ranked tracking system for comparing elite political blogs.  Then I designed a typology of “blogspace” that separated individual blogs from community blogs, and institutionally-based blogs from personal blogs.  Then I researched the role of community blogs like DailyKos in driving turning Republican political gaffes into substantial political mobilization.

Then I became convinced that there isn’t any such thing as the blogosphere anymore.  Blogging is just a format for typing things and putting them online.  In the early days of blogging (1999-2006ish), the subset of Internet-writers that used this format was small and relatively well networked.  It made sense to talk about “the blogosphere,” because there were identifiable clusters of people using this digital tool, and they had distinct goals, priorities, and values.

But as blogging proved useful, it was adopted by more people, and adapted to a wider set of aims.  Talking about “bloggers versus journalists” stopped making much sense once the New York Times and Washington Post started hosting blogs on their sites.  Talking Points Memo used to be the blog of just-some-guy named Joshua Micah Marshall.  Then he developed a business model and started hiring journalists.  Then his site won the Polk Award for investigative journalism.

And then, of course, we started getting alternate digital formats that better supported some of the purposes that blogs used to be aimed at.  Atrios (Duncan Black) and Instapundit (Glenn Reynolds) were two early influential bloggers who both stylistically chose to writes 20 or so brief posts per day.  They were usually a sentence or two, with a link to something interesting.  Today, most bloggers write longer posts.  A couple sentences plus a link has become a tweet.

Andrew Chadwick calls this rapid dissolution of media genres “hybridity.”  One of the major points he makes in The Hybrid Media System is that our newer, hybrid media system encourages nimble organizations that experiment with a wide assortment of tools and technologies.

The latest reminder of this trend comes from DailyKos.  I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Markos Moulitsas’s post from earlier this month, on traffic surges at the site.  Here’s a key point:

Email action list. We’re no longer just a website, or a mobile site. Our email action list has grown so large, it’s now one of the largest in the (non-campaign) progressive movement. As of the end of August, the list is 1.6 million strong, which means it has literally doubled in size every year for the last three four years. That list gives us the ability to create massive pressure when necessary. For example, check out this report from the Sunlight Foundation on the 800,000 public comments the FCC received on its Net Neutrality plan. Of those comments that Sunlight could directly source to their sponsorship organization, fully 10 percent of them came from Daily Kos, making us the fourth largest source of pro-Net-Neutrality energy (behind CREDO, Battle for the Net, and EFF). has 1.6 million members on its email list.  Those members receive daily updates on breaking stories and popular diaries at DailyKos.  They also receive calls-to-action, urging them to participate in online activism.  I’ve heard that DailyKos is building a field program as well, with a goal of supporting offline organizing.

There’s still blogging at DailyKos.  There will always be blogging at DailyKos.  And there’s still a community of diarists who use DailyKos to publish thoughts, opinions, comments, and reportage.  But it no longer makes sense to talk about DailyKos as a part of “the blogosphere.”  The blogosphere is a concept from ten years ago that seems to have already gone past its expiration date.  DailyKos has succeeded because it has morphed from a community blog into a more complex digitally-mediated political organization.

Just when we researchers get comfortable talking about a digital phenomenon, the phenomenon itself morphs and changes into something new.

Collecting My Recent Posts from Around the Web

In the past few weeks, I’ve been blogging from alternate locations.  Here’s a collection of  links:

August 14, Huffington Post, “Narrative Power and the Predictability of Electoral Prediction Markets.”

September 3, Mobilizing Ideas, essay contribution to their “September dialogue: Ground Wars and the 2012 Election.”*

September 5, Oxford University Press Blo, “An Anatomy of #Eastwooding.”

I’ll return to your regularly scheduled academic blogging shortly, I promise.


*That’s a dialogue about Rasmus Kleis Nielsen’s excellent new book, Ground Wars.  Here’s an amazon link.  Buy it.  You’re welcome.

Research meta-housekeeping: On HuffPo and BAI 2.0

Yesterday morning, I wrote my first piece for the Huffington Post.  I also posted a note to the Blogosphere Authority Index site, explaining that the rankings have been suspended while I tinker with the tracking system.*  There’s a relationship between the two.  Take a look at the toolbar listing under “share this story” in the screencap below:


1,139 people “liked” the story.  480 shared it.  163 tweeted, 63 e-mailed, and 4 Google +’ed.  The post also attracted 14 comments.**

That’s a lot of community activity.  The Blogosphere Authority Index would treat it as very little activity, though.  The BAI algorithm draws upon four types of public data: passive (blogroll) hyperlinks, active (in-text) hyperlinks, total site traffic, and community activity (total number of comments).  When I designed the BAI in 2007, those were the right sources to track.  Content wasn’t easily shareable on Facebook or Twitter.  Both platforms existed, but deep software integration was still years away.

The experience of blogging at HuffingtonPost is different from the experience of blogging at ShoutingLoudly.  There’s no “share this story” toolbar at SL.  I announce these posts on twitter and facebook, but any social media traction they get is strictly D.I.Y.  Facebook isn’t integrated.  And ShoutingLoudly isn’t *quite* the hub that HuffingtonPost is (if AOL wants to purchase the site too, I’m sure all of us authors are willing to listen!).  When I launched the BAI, HuffingtonPost was a blog with aspirations towards being a media operation.  Now, it’s a full-fledge media operation with bloggy roots.

And that signals the reason why I’ve taken the current BAI offline to focus on BAI 2.0.  When I designed the BAI, the goal was to make it “swappable.”  I knew what the best available metrics were at the time, and I knew they would not stay the best available metrics.  The idea was to create a system that could be reengineered without too much headache.

But it’s still a bigger headache than I thought it would be.  The current metrics (sitemeter/alexa for site traffic, blogroll crawls for network centrality, technorati for hyperlinks, and hand-counting/automated counting of blog comments)simply aren’t good enough anymore.  Blogrolls are too static.  They provide a decent map of blog clusters, but no real measure of changes in influence.  Facebook and Twitter have become core tools for sharing and discussion.  They have to be factored into the ranking system.

That’s going to take some time, particularly because it’s practically impossible to automate the data collection on the more-sophisticated sites.  The top sites tend to use customized platforms, which means hand-counting their thousands of reader comments.  I can’t simultaneously run the current BAI and design the next BAI.

So, with apologies to my fellow researchers who want to study the blogosphere in the 2012 election, the dataset is on hiatus (I can already foresee some very disappointed doctoral students in 2014, finding out that the dataset has a hole in it).  The February 2012 snapshot is a decent stand-in for the state of the blogosphere — past research shows that there isn’t a lot of month-to-month fluctuation in the among the elite blogs.  After three and a half years of data collection, though, it’s time to get under the hood and tinker with the mechanics some more.

Blogging at a major site today works differently than blogging at a major site in 2007.  The architecture has changed, and that has to be factored in to how we measure blog influence.



*They’ve actually been suspended since March.  I just got around to posting the note yesterday though.

**That screencap is from yesterday afternoon.  The post now has over 2,400 likes.  Which is probably more people than will read my book.  …I can’t actually decide how to feel about that.

Lessons from the Crash of Americans Elect

As expected, today Americans Elect announced the suspension of their online caucuses.  A weekend of cyber-GOTV from Buddy Roemer only rounded up a few hundred more supporters, leaving him several thousand shy of the 10,000-person minimum threshold.  No other declared candidate was anywhere close.

Micah Sifry notes that there will be lingering questions about what happens with their ballot slots.  Centrist author and longtime AE supporter John Avlon holds out hope that Americans Elect will drum up a “credible, balanced ticket”  from somewhere.  We’ll know more by the end of the week about what the next step for Americans Elect is.  This likely isn’t the last we’ll hear from the organization.

I want to focus on the explanations Avlon gives for Americans Elect, then offer up one key point that continues to get under my skin.  Avlon entertains three explanations for Americans Elect’s basic lack of turnout:

-Third-party candidacies tend to do best when there is not an incumbent on the ballot.

-The Republican primary dragged on.  Mitt Romney is less of an extremist than Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum.

-Ballot security protocols on the AE website were a real chore, creating a genuine challenge to delegate voting.  Avlon writes “In an era of slacktivists used to ‘liking’ something and quickly moving on, this was a serious hurdle.”

There is a little truth to each of the explanations.  Perot and Nader were both more effective when running in elections that lacked an incumbent (though John Anderson in 1980 did better than Nader, while running against incumbent Jimmy Carter).  The bigger issue, which he appears loathe to admit, is that Barack Obama has governed as a centrist.  It’s probably true that if, say, Gingrich had locked up the nomination, there would have been more force behind potential third-party candidacies.  But that’s the reason why Republican party elites mobilized so heavily to prevent that from happening.  And indeed, if you make voting in an online caucus practically as difficult as voting in a real primary, you shouldn’t expect higher turnout  The slacktivism comment is a lazy cheap shot, though.

Avlon goes on to claim “the decision to at least consider a path forward with a bipartisan ticket in 2012 reflects the enthusiasms of the delegates and volunteers.”  This is nothing but wishful thinking. If Americans Elect had delegate or volunteer enthusiasm, it wouldn’t be in this mess.  There is no radical center.  You can buy ballot access in 26 states (you just pay people to gather petition signatures).  But you can’t buy volunteer enthusiasm.

The frustrating thing about Avlon shows up in his conclusion: “Americans Elect may be an idea ahead of its time, but…”  What evidence, if any, would convince writers like Avlon and Thomas Friedman that their faith in the radical center is misplaced?  As I’ve written previously, AE is not an idea ahead of its time; it is a gimmick based on magical thinking about technology!

The problem with all of this isn’t Avlon himself.  He’s welcome to write theoretically-misguided centrist pieces for the Daily Beast.  Our current media environment isn’t exactly plagued by an overabundance of centrists.  The problem shows up when well-meaning big donors spend a ton of money repeatedly tilting at windmills like AE.

Americans Elect had a budget of between $35 and $40 million dollars over the past two years.  Much of that was donated by centrists interested in reforming the two party system.  That’s 30 or 40 times larger than the annual budget of Center for Voting and Democracy (<$500,000 per year).  FairVote is the leading electoral reform organization in America.  It has been running a promising state-based campaign for the National Popular Vote for years, and is well-respected among researchers who conduct electoral systems research.  I imagine that FairVote with a 40-fold increase in their budget could probably find a better use for the money than building a third-party candidacy for a yet-to-be-named candidate.

And there’s the danger.  Observers have the opportunity to learn a lesson from the AE debacle.  We could learn something about how electoral processes operate (*cough* Duverger’s Law *cough*).  We could learn something about where and when the Internet is useful to communities-of-interest.  We could learn something about online political organizing.  Or we could chalk it up to “an idea ahead of its time” and make the same bland mistakes in the next electoral cycle.  In the meantime, more worthwhile ideas and organizations go underfunded.  That renders meaningful social/political change ever more elusive as a result.

The next time someone suggests that the Internet has paved the way for the overthrow of the two-party system, hopefully you’ll remember American’s Elect and cast them a withering glare.



Ablogalypse and Internet Time

Today’s comic from xkcd is titled “Ablogalypse.”  Randall Munroe shares his work under a Creative Commons License, so I’m reposting it below*:

Three things about this chart:

1. Notice that mentions of “blog” haven’t declined much.  People are still blogging.  People are still talking about blogging.  But people are also finding new uses for tumblr sites, and many of those uses are absurdly shareable.

2. We saw a similar process a few years ago with social network sites.  Several public commenters looked at the rise of facebook and suggested it meant a decline of blogging.  Chris Bowers (I think, can’t find the post) responded that instead we were seeing finer-grained niches.  Blogs used to be the only self-publishing game in town (’01-’04ish).  So early adopters used blogs for all sorts of communicative purposes… even ones which a medium designed for instantaneous default-public, default-permanent writing is poorly-suited.  As the social web has developed, new platforms have been created with different affordances.  The more sophisticated users have started to select the right tool for their communications purpose.

3. Tumblr sites are particularly good for fun viral stuff.  Last week’s phenomenon, Texts From Hillary Clinton, is a great example.  Two netroots politic0-types came up with the lolcats-style idea over beers.  A few years ago, they would’ve launched it as a blog.  That would’ve worked alright, but blogs are a little clunky if you just want to post images and short commentary.  So today they use a tumblr site instead.  To the extent that images-and-captions are more viral-friendly (or “upworthy“) than their text-heavy equivalent, we ought to expect a spike in tumblr’s google rankings.

Last Friday at the Midwest Political Science Association Annual Meeting, I gave a presentation of my latest paper, Social Science Research Methods in Internet Time.  It’s essentially an extended rumination on the phenomenon associated with this graph.  New features of the social web emerge fast.  It creates a novel research problem — our most robust social science methods are based in the ceteris paribus assumption that the communications network we sample at time X will be basically the same as the network in existence at time Y**.  I argue that, in the face of the ongoing adoption and adaptation practices, our best research options often involve embracing the messiness, being transparent about our data limitations, and hacking together kludgy research designs that provide some analytic leverage on how the system is evolving, and how it all fits together.  …In light of this week’s comic, maybe I should have added “keep a sense of humor” to that list.


*Please tell me you’re already regularly visiting XKCD.  New comics come out on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  There is no such thing as a person who would enjoy but dislike xkcd.

*Where X = the time when you conduct the research and Y = the time when your research is published.  It’s a reasonable assumption most of the time, and hellishly problematic when it proves unreasonable.

Ontologies of Organizing, Part IV: On Working with Allies

Several months ago, I wrote a post about Occupy Wall Street and “playing well with others.”  My focus at the time was on progressive organizations like DailyKos, MoveOn, and Democracy for America.  The point was that allied organizations needed to find ways to offer support and solidarity without trying to take things over.  I felt they were doing a good job then.  I still feel they’re doing a good job today.

#OWS, on the other hand, could be doing a lot better these days.

In the past few weeks, there have been a number of troubling signs.  The first was the announcement of their May 1st “general strike.”  Laura Clawson, at DailyKos, posted a critique.  Her point was simple enough: what they’re planning is a day-of-action, not a General Strike.  Days-of-Action are judged differently than General Strikes.  A General Strike is judged on the scale of the national workforce.  A day-of-action is judged on the size of your rally, creativity of your tactics, etc.  Laura Clawson is an ally.  She’s someone who would like to be on the side of #OWS, and has been in the past.  But the General Assembly decided instead that they would be better off without the netroots, and without organized labor, on this one.

The second troubling sign came from the #MillionHoodies march last week in NYC, in response to the Trayvon Martin tragedy.  Elon James White wrote a post afterward, titled “How Occupy Wall Street Co-opted the Million Hoodie March.”  The article begins “I now have an issue with Occupy Wall Street.”  Here’s the key section:

With chants of “We are the 99%” and signage to that effect as well, I was a little thrown off. I thought the purpose of this march was to bring awareness to the death of a young boy. Soon after the march started confusion was all around. Which way were we marching? Who was leading the charge? After we walked a few blocks members of the Occupy section of the march started running down the street knocking down trash cans. I was told later that some attempted to knock down police barricades and police scooters used to guide the marchers. I immediately became uncomfortable because that’s not what I signed up for. I wanted to speak out against injustice—just causing general destruction wasn’t on my agenda. Soon some Occupiers started chanting “F**k the POLICE,” one young white male wearing skinny jeans and a Justin Bieber haircut started yelling “THIS IS WAR, WE WANT WAR!” To which a hoodie-clad young black adult said “Hey, uh we don’t really want war, why don’t you tone that down. I’m about to graduate college in a few months.” The white male kind of laughed and kept moving forward yelling something else.

Elon James White is an ally.  He’s one of the most insightful progressive commentators around today.  (He’s also one of my favorite comedians.)  He’d like to be on the side of #OWS, and he has been in the past.  But just as netroots progressives needed to take care in playing well with others when supporting OWS, #OWS activists need to take the same care when supporting Trayvon Martin activists.

Finally, there’s a Gawker article by #OWS activist Mobutu Sese Seko, “Occupy Wall Street and MoveOn Go Together Like MoveOn and 1999.” This one takes the cake.  MoveOn is part of a massive progressive coalition that is planning The 99% Spring, an audacious effort to train 100,000 people in non-violent direct action.  That’s huge.  Charles Lenchner attended the training for trainers last weekend and offers a compelling response to #occupy critiques of the event.  Seko doesn’t like 99% Spring, because it didn’t originate in General Assembly meetings.  So he labels it “astroturf:”

It’s Occupy Wall Street brought to you by, the people who send you 17 emails per week asking you to sign milquetoast petitions or read unctuous defenses of whatever castrated legislation Harry Reid has limply waved at the opposition.

Seko doesn’t actually know anything about MoveOn.  They don’t just send milquetoast petitions.  Really, there’s this even a whole book about how MoveOn isn’t clicktivism (forthcoming! May 30!  Preorder it!).  They’re hardly astroturf, unless we’ve decided to define astroturf as “anything that I personally don’t happen to like.”

MoveOn is an allied organization.  The coordinators of The 99% Spring — people like Liz Butler, an outstanding organizer who I’ve known for over a decade — aren’t astroturfing.  They’re seeking to advance many of the values held by #OWS.  They’ve been careful not to coopt.  But they’re also going to seize this moment.  Telling your allies “help is only welcome if you’ll submit to our endless series of meetings” isn’t a particularly effective way to grow your movement.

Activists like Mobutu Sese Seko are caught in a classic bind.  They would like their movement to grow.  They would like to achieve substantial social progress. But they don’t want to deal with the difficulties and complications that come with growth and success.

Instead, they have wrongly concluded that “our process is our politics.”  The General Assembly isn’t a unicorn.  Its an unwieldy experiment in radical, consensus-based democracy.  Such experiments are not new.  They tend to work a lot better at small-scale than at large-scale.  It is hard not to read Seko as the activist equivalent of an obnoxious bureaucrat: “This massive action is not permitted!  99% Spring didn’t fill out their TPS form!”

I won’t pretend to know what the future of #OWS is.  But I’m sure that Occupy activists have a lot of agency in determining that future.  If they want Occupy to maintain relevant now that the encampments have been broken down and the national spotlight has moved elsewhere, they’re going to need to accept the reality of allies.  Laura Clawson, Elon James White, and MoveOn aren’t going to drop all of their good work and wait for General Assemblies to work out their internal disputes.  Occupy activists are not immune to the need for “playing well with others.”

…If you can’t convince your allies to stand with you, what chance do you have against powerful opponents?

Three Perspectives on Online Virality

There’s a fun anti-Citizens United video that made the rounds last week (see below).  It features big thinkers explaining problems with the campaign finance system, while goofing around with Internet memes —  keyboard cat, geyser videos, kids being cute, etc.



I like the video.  It’s not going to get a million views or radically change American jurisprudence or anything, but it’s a well-executed communications tactic – fun and informative, appealing to the audiences who are likely to engage in further collective action on this topic.

The video got me thinking about the nature of online virality.  For the video’s producers, “going viral” is a premise for a joke.  Specifically, “cat videos go viral, serious commentary doesn’t.”  There’s truth there, but it’s inexact.  The lion’s share (har, har) of cat videos don’t go viral.  Last month, video of an Iowa man giving testimony about being raised in a loving family by two women did go viral.  So one perspective on virality can be described as common wisdom.  As is usually the case, common wisdom has a nugget of truth behind it.  But it’s also very limited and approximate.

The academic research on virality tells us a couple of things.  Kevin Wallsten’s study of the Will.I.Am “Yes We Can” video found that there’s significant interplay between blogs and traditional news media in driving viewership.  Karine Nahon’s research on viral videos in the 2008 election specifically zeroed in on the influential role of a few megablogs (DailyKos and Huffington Post, in particular) in driving viral views.  Put another way, most viral videos don’t trace the path of “David After Dentist.”   When hub sites with a large viewership highlight a video, attention is magnified. The Iowa testimony video was driven by MoveOn promoting it to the frontpage, posting it to Facebook and Twitter, and emailing their 5 million+ list.

But what content can or should a hub site emphasize?  If the choices of a MoveOn or a Huffington Post drive virality, then what influences those choices?  I would call that a third perspective on viral content – the organizational perspective.  Daniel Mintz, a MoveOn staffer and Rutgers alum, kindly agreed to speak to my students last month.  At one point in the discussion, he explained that MoveOn has a simple equation that they use to determine what goes viral.  He drew it on the chalkboard: Virality = (see) x (share) x (come back).  With any piece of content, the organization monitors how many people are clicking on the item to begin with, how many then share it with others, and how many of those others then click as well.  This is data that they can gather, manipulate, test, and act upon.  It informs their decisions, which in turn affect what goes viral, which in turn impacts common wisdom.

None of these perspectives is holistic.  Each has limitations.  And each deals with a different form of virality.  Jokes about the Wallsten/Nahon concept of online virality wouldn’t be very funny.  Studies of mass viewership trends cannot also dig into organizational choice.  The equation that MoveOn relies upon is probably different than the one used by Huffington Post, and necessarily sacrifices sophistication for usability.

Any complete answer to questions about viral content online would have to start with “it depends on what sort of virality we’re talking about…”


On Academic Blogging and Tenure

I’ve just started reading David Weinberger’s newest book, Too Big To Know.*  For those who don’t know his work, Weinberger is one of the big thinkers at the Berkman Center.  I’m a longtime fan… his first couple books provided an influential push toward my current field of research.

In the prologue, he raises the following question:

“…should a professor who is shaping the discipline’s discussion through her mighty participation in online and social media get tenure even if she hasn’t published sufficiently in peer-reviewed journals?”

This gets talked about a lot in the circles I inhabit.  Speaking as a professor-who-blogs, my answer might surprise you:

No.  Or at least, Not Yet.

I do believe that more academics should blog.  Blogging offers both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards to academic researchers. It pushes us to write clearly for an audience, sharpening our writing and thinking.  It provides immediate gratification, sorely absent from the peer-review process.  It raises your profile within the field, which can yield additional research opportunities.  It lets you speak to wider audiences, which can help allay bouts of existential angst and answer difficult questions during holiday visits with relatives.

My own blogging experience has been positive in all these ways.  Most of my peer-reviewed articles have begun as blog posts (“Understanding Blogspace,” “Macaca Moments Revisited,” “Online Political Mobilization from the Advocacy Group’s Perspective,” and “Implications of the Mobile Web for Online/Offline Reputation Management” all got their start at shoutingloudly).  I’ve also enjoyed the experience of attending conferences and being told “oh, I read your blog post last week.”  As a young scholar in a nascent field, it still comes as a shock to learn that someone other than my mother reads this thing!

I generally try to write out an idea when it is fresh.  Sometimes it gets helpful feedback from readers in the comment section.  More often it just forces me to clearly explain what my point is.  After months of losing myself in the research, this provides a lodestone of sorts.  Being able to go back to the initial impetus sharpens the mind and helps you dig an argument out the mess of data.

Perhaps more importantly, blogging helps to shape my research agenda.  The process of writing for an audience leads me to flesh out lines of thought that otherwise would stay murky.  Those, in turn, drive the course of my research.  Being an active blogger makes me a more active scholar.**

That said, we should acknowledge two limitations on academic blogging: it is bite-sized and it is not (yet) a central forum in academia.

1,000 words is long for a blog post.  Most posts are more like 500-750 words.  An academic article, by contrast, will run between 6,000-10,000 words.  Hyperlinks mediate the difference somewhat — instead of devoting column-inches to describing competing arguments, you can link to them online.  Still, peer-reviewed research represents a level of detail that blogs don’t reach.  A good research article delves into complexity in ways that a good blog post cannot and should not.

I have had plenty of ideas that appeared ironclad in 600 words.  It was only when I attempted to write them in 6,000 words that I saw problems crop up.  This is a good thing — nothing sharpens the mind like realizing “huh, I guess I was wrong about that.”  But for this reason, peer-reviewed articles ought to remain the “coin of the realm,” where tenure and promotion are concerned.

Likewise, academia is a slow-moving professional field.  As my friend C.W. Anderson remarked to me, “ours is the only profession that is paid to think slowly.” That is also a good thing, but it means that the discipline is institutionally conservative and tends to adopt new communications media reluctantly.  As a result, while there are some great academic blogs out there, none meet Weinberger’s standard of “shaping the discipline’s discussion.”

Peer-reviewed articles enjoy a privileged position in tenure, promotion, and hiring decisions.  That’s because peer-reviewed articles are where the various disciplines’ discussions occur.  We assign one another’s articles in the classroom.  We cite one another’s articles in our research.  We attend conferences centered around early versions of these long-form research articles.  This may very well change in my lifetime, but it isn’t going to change anytime soon.

So no, I don’t believe an academic who excels through blogging and social media ought to receive tenure on that basis.  Academics ought to blog and tweet, and they can benefit from doing so.  But those benefits ought to translate into improved long-form research output.  If those benefits fail to translate into research articles, I would consider that reason for serious concern.  We are supposed to think deeply and rigorously.  Blogs and twitter can aid such thinking, but they provide a tricky venue if not augmented by lengthier articles that have gone through the (sometimes brutal) process of anonymous peer-review.


*This is a great season to be an internet politics geek… new books Weinberger, Clay Johnson, Rebecca MacKinnon, and Joseph Turow are all hitting the shelves.  I’ll post some reviews to the blog as I make my way through them.

**Within limits.  I blog 2-3 times per week at most.  If I was blogging 2-3 times per day, I can’t imagine finding time for much else.

Network Backchannels on the Right

Justin Elliott has an interesting post up at Salon today.  It concerns “The Freedom Community,” a secret e-mail list made up of conservative journalists and policy-types.  I can’t say much more about the list itself, because it’s secret.  Its very existence has been scrubbed from Google-Groups since he contacted one of its participants with questions.

I’ve written about these Google-Group listservs* before, particularly surrounding the 2010 JournoList/Weigelgate controversy.  These e-mail lists make up a hidden network architecture for the progressive netroots.  There are (probably) thousands of them.  They can be set up (and taken down) within minutes, and Google’s architecture makes them technically impossible to taxonomize.  They’re useful for promoting discussion and debate amongst clusters of networked individuals — people who work on the same thing or have similar interests, but aren’t working for the same organization or based in the same location.  Think of them as watering hole conversations, but digital and more diffuse.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with network backchannels.  They’re a useful and utterly sensible tool.  But one of the interesting things in the JournoList controversy was that conservative activists elevated them to full-fledged Boogeyman status.  The claim was repeatedly asserted that (1) this was proof of a “liberal media conspiracy” and (2) that no such lists exist on the Right.

I took on the first assertion in a paper for the 2010 APSA Annual Meeting, “Beyond Citizen Journalism: Weigelgate, Journolist, and America’s Shifting Media Ecology.”  It’s a silly and outlandlish argument (it persists on Tucker Carlson’s site, the Daily Caller.  That says more about Carlson than it does about the assertion, though).

The second assertion always struck me as unlikely.  “Really, there are no conservative Google-Groups?”  Why the hell wouldn’t there be?  They’re easy-to-create, pretty useful, and occasionally fun, after all.  But since they’re technically impossible to find (you don’t know about them unless they’re “leaked” or you’re invited to join), it wasn’t an assertion I could directly disprove through research.

Well, here’s the proof.  The Freedom Community is a network backchannel.  Apparently its a pretty secretive one (not surprising, given how conservative activists demonized Journolist).  That’s their choice, and I’ll go on record saying that its unlikely its being used for any genuine conspiracies.  But anyone keeping score ought to take note: the Right uses these same Network Backchannels.  They just stay quieter about them.



*Interesting lesson from my copy-editor: Google-Groups apparently aren’t listservs.  In fact, listservs aren’t listservs.  LISTSERV is a registered trademark, and has been since 1986.  I’m baffled by this little factoid.  It’s on a level with “Happy Birthday” being litigiously copyright-protected.

#occupywallst, prepare to be heckled

Apparently, the folks from AdBusters will be descending on Wall Street tomorrow afternoon to, I dunno, create a big revolution.  I hadn’t heard about it in over a month, which doesn’t bode well.  I’m not on the uber-radical listservs, but I’m on plenty of progressive lists.  There has been no publicity beyond the extreme left echo-chamber.

They’ve decided to label it “Our Tahrir Moment,” because they’re, y’know, not very classy. (Egyptian activists spent years risking their lives in organizing protests that set the groundwork for Tahrir.  Adbusters has written a few blog posts, created an independent website, and pre-announced that if they fail,” it’s MoveOn’s fault!”  The analogy offends my sensibilities, I’ll admit it.)

One new addition is that Anonymous has apparently  decided to participate in this thing.  My official academic stance on Anonymous is “I don’t understand this and it is analytically fascinating.”  So who knows, they could make it interesting.  Anonymous tends to pull off big collective actions that I assume won’t/can’t go anywhere.  Color me curious.

Nonetheless, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that Micah White et al’s more-radical-than-though event will be an utter flop.  They’re claiming 20,000 people will show up and stay there for multiple days.  I really, really doubt it.  And in advance of his public announcement that it’s because of “Clicktivism,” I’d like to once again point out that (1) organizing is hard and (2) there is no evidence that this crowd is any good at organizing.

I plan on stopping by the event tomorrow.  Not to participate, but to watch.  Follow me on Twitter at @davekarpf if you want to read my livetweets (which will likely be quasi-heckling).  And I’ll also post some sort of a writeup or reflection to shoutingloudly next week.