How To Deal with a Breitbart “Reporter”

I spent this afternoon at a protest CREDO organized outside the NRA’s DC office.  It seemed only appropriate.

As the protest ended, a woman with a Flipcam approached me, hastily identified herself as being with Breitbart TV, and then launched into a few interview questions designed to provoke an outraged-liberal reaction (“do you really believe only police officers should be allowed to carry firearms?”  “what about the shooting in Oregon last week that was stopped by a citizen carrying a firearm?  Couldn’t armed citizens have saved those children’s lives?”).

I’m proudly confident my interview won’t appear on any of the Breitbart websites.  I didn’t give the “reporter” what she was looking for.  As I walked away from the interaction, I noticed someone in an outright shouting match with another “reporter” from Newsbuster/Media Research Center.  (“I didn’t say that!  Stop twisting my words!”)

As a public service of sorts, I thought I’d outline the steps you should take when dealing with a camera-wielding conservative jackass:

1. Stay calm.  The goal of a rightwing interviewer is to get some material that reinforces their biases about liberals.  You’re supposed to be an angry radical America-hater who doesn’t understand the constitution.  Don’t give them that material.  Use a calm voice and patiently explain what motivated you to attend the protest today.  This is neither a debate nor an argument that you can win.  You win the interaction by eating up their time while giving them no useable material.

2. Stay on message.  This is media training 101, I know.  But it’s even more important here.  My first answer to the Brietbartian was “I think it’s time we had sensible gun regulations in this country.  I think we should regulate guns as much as we regulate Sudafed.”  Every other answer circled back to this same Sudafed point.  I stayed polite about it, so she wouldn’t just give up and find an easier mark.  But I didn’t take any of the bait she laid out for me either.  We attend protests because any reasonable person ought to be outraged at the state of society.  When confronted by rightwing attack-media, be that reasonable person.  It makes you utterly unfilmable.

3. The Interview Ends When You Want It To End.  Around the eighth question, I could see that she was getting frustrated and was trying to push harder.  Most of the other protesters had already dispersed.  So as she started in with another don’t-you-think hypothetical, I politely replied “that’s all the time I’ve got, it was nice talking to you,” then turned and walked away.  Again, the point here is to control the terms of the engagement while giving them no good material to splice later on.

You use similar tools when interacting with real reporters, of course.  But the difference is that, when engaging with real reporters, both sides are acting in good faith.  The real reporter wants to know what the story is, and wants clips that help to animate this story.  Anger can be a helpful visual.  A Breitbart/O’Keefe/MRC “journalist” already knows what the story is (liberals are terrible stupid hypocrites who must be prevented from endangering our freedoms!).  So you deny them the visual instead.  Occupy them, remain pleasant, act reasonable, and then politely finish the interview whenever you like.

It won’t stop the hate-mongers, but it’ll at least deny them some pageviews.  That’s a small victory, and sometimes that’s all we can hope for.

Newspapers and Beyond: The Loss of Beneficial Inefficiencies

Henry Blodget at Business Insider offers the latest evidence of what’s wrong with the news business.  Take a good hard look at the advertising revenue numbers below.  Simply put, newspapers don’t have a readership problem.  They have a revenue problem.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen charts like this.  Pew reported similar numbers in 2009.

In The MoveOn Effect, I talk about the decline in classified ad revenues as an example of a general class of problems: the loss of beneficial inefficiencies. (I also have blogged about it here and here.)  Those classified ad dollars haven’t been stolen away to someone else.  They’ve disappeared.  The old advertising system was inefficient — if you wanted to reach potential customers in Charlottesville, VA, you probably had to broadcast to the whole town, and there were only a few venues around.  Clay Shirky called this “Walmart subsidizing the Baghdad Bureau.”  Online advertising is more efficient — more options for reaching customers (some free), more data on who those customers are.

More efficient communications markets are supposed to be a good thing.  Indeed, plenty of good is coming from the new media environment (Hey, #Eastwooding was fun!).  But we face an unintended consequence when those inefficient markets were providing revenue streams that subsidized public goods.

The most publicly-valuable types of reporting (local news, international news, investigative journalism) tends to also be high-cost, low-return work.  You get higher margins from the entertainment and sports beats than you do from sending a reporter to sniff around at public works subcommittee meetings.  When ad revenues were going up, profit-conscious news conglomerates could afford to pay for public-interest journalism.  Once they cratered, the types of journalism that society needs most were also the types ending up on the chopping block.

This problem is most visible in the news business, where we’re aware of the stakes and can publicly track the data.  But it appears in other areas as well.  Nonprofit advocacy organizations relied on direct mail membership fundraising for 30-40 years.  That wasn’t their only revenue stream, but it was a big, reliable, important one.  The decline of direct mail and redefinition of organizational membership is based in more efficient communication tools.  It’s generally a good thing that organizations can communicate with and hear from their supporters better than they did 30 years ago.  But it also disrupts a beneficial inefficiency that subsidized robust civil society organizations.

As with journalism, this doesn’t signal the end of all nonprofits.  But it does mean that high-cost, difficult-to-fundraise-for work goes underprovided.  It’s easy to raise money for attack ads.  It’s hard to raise money for long-term community organizers.

Think of beneficial inefficiencies as an alternative to the “on the one hand/on the other hand” debates about the Internet and society.  We don’t need to be internet optimists and internet pessimists anymore.  Instead, we need to look at how the new communications environment changes markets and changes institutions, then analyze what social goods are unintentionally challenged along the way.

 

Beck’s new “album” and the Boundaries of Participatory Community

Beck kind of has a new album out.  But only kind of.  He’s partnered with the folks at McSweeney’s* to produce “Song Reader,” a collection of sheet music that fans can play and upload themselves.  Will Burns at Forbes.com raves that “It’s more than an album. It’s an invitation.”

“Beck fans the world over will be drawn to the “invitation” this sheet music presents. Go ahead, grab your guitar, find a friend who plays keys, get your brother to play drums, and then turn GarageBand on and record these Beck songs. And record them the way you want to record them. Be inspired by the imagery in the packaging, be inspired by the compositions, but generate your own takes.”

Burns sees this as The Future.  David Weinberger tweeted “Mind. Blown.”  I’m a little more circumspect.  Bummed out, even.

The exciting thing about this innovative approach is that it draws upon and contributes to participatory culture.  The tools of music production have been small-d democratized.  When I was in high school, it was a big deal if you could get access to a 4-track recorder and record yourself playing.  It was pretty costly too.  Today, it’s elegantly simple.  Beck is sharing his music with a participatory community.  Partnering with McSweeney’s is a nice touch – I imagine there’s a nice overlap between McSweeney’s readers and people-who’d-find-this-cool.

But it’s easy to forget that, even with democratized tools of production, participatory communities are still sharply bounded.  Participatory communities that produce user-generated content are the equivalent of lead-adopter/innovator communities in the diffusion of innovations.  These are tiny slices of the overall populace, but they are also heavily engaged and central to the development of new products or innovations.

 

Beck’s innovation is a little gimmicky, but it’s also a blessing to the lead-adopters.  If you love uploading covers of songs to YouTube, or if you’re a giant Beck fan, this is a nice invitation.  That community will be happy.  They’ll get to play around with his new songs.  They’ll modify, share, and generally play around with the songs.  I’m sure it’ll be a lot of fun.  But it sucks for the rest of us.

I’m 33 years old.  It’s been a decade and a half since I had a band to play with.  Beck isn’t my favorite musician, but he’s in my top 25.  One of my first academic articles was written with Modern Guilt humming along in the background.

I’m a casual fan.  Given the opportunity, I’d buy the new Beck album.  Beck is good writing music, and I’d probably write to the album in the fall. But I’m not going to record the music.  I’m not going to search out the most popular song submissions through McSweeney’s.  His music in particular isn’t a passion of mine.  I care a little, not a lot.

Looking beyond this particular album, I think there’s a lesson here about the boundaries of participatory communities, the limits of user-generated content.  The most-committed fans or community members provide the vast majority of activity.  But their also a tiny fraction of the overall audience.  The finest online innovations (YouTube and Wikipedia, for instance), engage the participators while also appealing to the passive appreciators.  Innovations that presuppose a vast public just waiting to remix some culture tend to have much weaker echoes.

My hunch is that six months from now, folks like Will Burns won’t have seen nearly as much engagement with Beck’s new album as they’d hoped.  That’s just how these online community boundaries work.  But hey, Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime, right?

 

 

*Home of David Eggers, author of that really good book you probably started but didn’t quite make it through.

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.

Thoughts on Eli Pariser’s “The Filter Bubble”

Eli Pariser, the former Executive Director of MoveOn, has a new book out on the social impacts of the internet.  It’s quite good – reminiscent of Cass Sunstein’s Republic.com and Infotopia, in that it is utterly readable, carefully constructed, and critical in tenor.  The important difference between Pariser’s book and Sunstein’s books is temporal in nature: the digital environment continues to evolve, and Eli highlights some elements of that evolution that rightly should concern all of us. Essentially, we’re dealing with a different online environment in 2011 than we were in 2001, and Pariser’s book is a nice guide to the current threats and opportunities coming out of that space.

I had one big “ah hah” moment in the course of reading the book.  “Multidimensionality can be outstripped by improved point prediction.  And that would be a bad thing.”  Allow me to riff on that a bit below:

“Multidimensionality” is a shorthand that I often use when teaching Sunstein’s work.  In Republic.com, Sunstein introduces the concept of the “Daily Me.”  First envisioned by MIT Media Lab’s Nicholas Negroponte, the Daily Me was a personalized web portal, in which each individual received news and information customized to their interests.  Sunstein raised concern about the Daily Me, suggesting that it could produce “cyberbalkanization,” in which competing ideological communities only receive news that reinforce their own points of view, leading in turn to further radicalization.  American democracy has never been calm and deliberative, but we at least have historically been divided through divergent interpretations of the same events.  In the world of the Daily Me, we don’t even interpret the same events – our news becomes hypercustomized instead.

The Daily Me is a provocative concept.  It’s also clearly limited in two respects.  First, the concept is anchored in a time period when personalized web portals (Yahoo or MSN landing pages) were viewed as the future of the internet.  The developmental path of the internet veered off in a different direction.  Web 2.0 took off, and we increasingly spent our time at sites that feature user-generated content and community activity.  When I log on to the web, I check gmail, 3 blogs, and facebook.  Corporations are behind each of these spaces, to be sure, but they’re different corporations than in 2001, and they’re inviting me to engage in different activities than Yahoo and MSN were.  Rather than a hypertargeted news feed, there’s the socially-derived postings on my facebook wall.  So, for that reason, the Daily Me is a bit dated.  Sunstein himself noted this in Republic.com 2.0, where he suggested we’ve developed elements of a “Daily Us” instead.

The Daily Us can still provide reinforcing views and divergent news agendas though.  Take a minute to scan the blog posts at DailyKos and HotAir, the top political blogs on the left and right.  Depending on the day, you’re likely to find that they aren’t just using different frames to discuss the days news, but instead are talking about different news topics altogether.  Members of these communities, then, are still at risk of cyberbalkanization.

“Multidimensionality” mitigates the cyberbalkanization problem.  Simply put, members of a political online communities have non-political interests as well.  I may only interact with liberals on DailyKos, but I have several libertarian friends through Yehoodi and there are a few Republicans who are active Washington Wizards fans as well.  As a member of several communities-of-interest, I’m exposed to people with cross-cutting views on politics, broadly defined.  Our personalities, interests, and affiliations cannot be reduced to a simple one dimensional (left-right) spectrum, because we also build social capital through a variety of hobbyist communities.  The answer to online communities is …more online communities (cue the recitations of Federalist 10).

For those reasons, I’ve long been convinced that we don’t need to be all that concerned about cyberbalkanization.

And then I read Eli’s book.

The core of Pariser’s concern is well explained in his TED Talk.  Eli is a progressive.  He also has other hobbies and interests.  Thus, he consciously has developed conservative friends, and is tied to them through facebook.  One day however, he noticed that he was no longer seeing their updates in his news feed.  Facebook’s algorithm had recorded that he didn’t click on those links very often.  So it “optimized” his experience by removing those updates.

On the surface, that’s a small issue.  A progressive doesn’t see headlines that weren’t all that appealing to begin with.  But it points to a much bigger problem.  Even at the social layer of the web, multidimensionality is viewed as a type of inefficiency – an engineering problem to be solved.  For the engineers and the third-party advertisers, the goal is better point prediction.  Through improvements in automated filtering, they can reduce the incidental knowledge gains that come through membership in multiple communities.  Facebook, ideally, would like to only show me sports-related updates from my Wizards fan-friends, and only show me politics-related updates from my netroots friends.  Advertisers, ideally, would like to know which elements of those subcommunities most fit my profile.  It’s an engineering problem to them, with an engineering solution.

Of particular concern is that this personalization is going on without our knowledge.  Even if I don’t want it to happen – even if I’d like to hear the contrarian opinions of blues dancing Ron Paul fans – large social media hubs are going to treat those voices as noise and try to remove it.  Unless I decide to put outstanding effort into “fooling the filters,” I’m going to be stuck solely with reinforcing views.  And that increases the threat of cyberbalkanization.

I’m tempted to call this another example of the “beneficial inefficiencies” problem.  Multidimensionality may appear as an engineering problem for social media purveyors and the third-party advertisers who pay them.  But it also serves to mitigate some social problems.  As the social web continues to develop, cyberbalkanization could easily reemerge as a substantial threat.  In short, multidimensionality can be trumped by improved point prediction.  And that would be a bad thing.

It isn’t easy to conduct academic research on this sort of “point prediction.”  The engineers and data industries operate under copyright protection, proprietary data, nondisclosure agreements, and trade secret rules.  This is non-transparent data, and there are strong incentives for the companies and engineers to keep it that way.  Pariser’s interviews with Yahoo and Google engineers, as well as his conversations with dozens of social scientists, represent a substantial step forward in understanding the current digital environment.

I’m impressed with Pariser’s book.  It’s well worth reading, and explains these concepts with greater clarity and better examples that I’m providing above.  It’s a nice departure from the normal “cyberskeptic” book (Jaron Lanier and Nicholas Carr providing two recent examples).  It’s well-balanced, thoughtful, and serious.  In a rapidly changing medium, it helps highlight what the Internet has become, where it may be heading, and why that matters.  Pariser asks us not to fear, criticize, or dislike the digital landscape, but to help make it better.  As he notes in his conclusion, “the Internet isn’t doomed, for a simple reason: This new medium is nothing if not plastic.”

Indeed.

AT&T/T-Mobile Merger: Less Competition, Higher Prices

I was dismayed to learn that AT&T is trying to buy T-Mobile for a whopping $39 billion.

AT&T can use the extra towers to improve reception in very crowded metropolitan areas, but the decrease in competition and likely resulting increase in price is a big problem.

People who sell a product charge what the market will bear, but if the market isn’t fully competitive—if customers have few options to take their money elsewhere—then customers can’t punish high prices or poor service, and providers charge more for less.

The wireless market is already not competitive for two important reasons. First, providers lock in customers with a combination of contract law and technology. They claim contracts and handset locks are necessary to recoup the costs of subsidized handsets, but why don’t they all charge less for month-to-month service on unsubsidized handsets? (T-Mobile is still alone in offering such a discount.)

Second, the industry is already an oligopoly, with so few major competitors that they already have the power some power to charge inflated prices. The standard measure of an industry’s competitiveness is the Herfindahl–Hirschman Index, or HHI.

To calculate an HHI, you take the square of the percentage of each firm’s market share. A firm with 20% share adds 400 points (20 x 20) to the HHI. According to Department of Justice antitrust guidelines (which, unfortunately, the DoJ and FTC have stopped following), if the HHI is over 1,000,  the market is moderately concentrated—that is, not fully competitive. If the HHI is over 1,800, the market is highly concentrated and thus non-competitive. If a market is already over 1,000, then any merger raising the HHI by 100 points or more is presumptively a problem for competition.

To see how bad things are already, and how much worse they would be after the proposed merger, we should calculate the HHI for the wireless industry, both before and after. First, here are the ComScore market shares for each carrier as of March 2010:

Table 1: Market Concentration in the Wireless Industry, March 2010

Carrier Share, % Share Percentage, Squared
Verizon 31.1% 967
AT&T 25.2% 635
Sprint 12.0% 144
T-Mobile 12.0% 144
Tracfone 5.1% 26
Totals 85.4% 1916

 

This is what a noncompetitive oligopoly market looks like. We already see this in a lot of important ways—suboptimal cell service, attrocious customer service, stubbornly high prices, and charges that are often exponentially larger than the marginal cost.

The prices for text messaging in particular are a great example of “price gouging” and illustrate the industry’s tacit collusion (pdf). The cost for the network provider of handling a text message is virtually zero, since the messages are small enough to fit into the “control channel,” or the tiny bit of data that your phone and cell network are exchanging even when you’re not talking or using mobile data.

In a truly competitive wireless market, a customer would drop a provider who charges up to $20/month for something that’s actually nearly free to provide. Imagine if McDonalds sold hamburgers at their current prices but charged $0.20 for each french fry—or $20 for all the fries you can eat. Potatoes are cheap, so we’d be offended and take our money elsewhere, because the fast food market is highly competitive.

In mobile telephony, however, there almost is no “elsewhere” to take our money, especially if you need reliable nationwide coverage. The number of players is small enough, and customers are locked in enough, that there is little opportunity to punish this price gouging.  (Thankfully, free messaging-over-data via services such as Google Voice allow customers some opportunity for arbitrage, but expensive data plans and technological know-how limit this opportunity to to the most economically and technologically well-positioned customers.)

So the bad news of an uncompetitive market is already here. Now, let’s see what the market might look like after an AT&T/T-Mobile merger. Here’s that table, assuming that all T-Mobile customers stay with AT&T (and most will have to for some time, thanks to their two year contracts):

Table 2: Approximate Market Concentration Following AT&T/T-Mobile Merger

Carrier Share, % Share Percentage, Squared
AT&T plus T-Mobile 37.2% 1384
Verizon 31.1% 967
Sprint 12.0% 144
Tracfone 5.1% 26
Totals 85.4% 2521

 

A substantial number of T-Mobile customers will switch to Verizon or Sprint, but the HHI would still be in the mid-2000’s, and no scenario makes this market more competitive than today’s market. In short, customers and regulators should be worried.

Now imagine what happens when it’s specifically T-Mobile that goes away. They have long been the cheapest option, offering the worst service among the big four in exchange for much cheaper prices. They’re the only company that has experimented with discounted pricing for month-to-month customers. Inexplicably, they’re still the only major US carrier to deploy UMA, which allows voice calling over wifi. (I’d love to use my Verizon minutes to make and receive calls over my home wifi router; instead, I’m forced to take the chance that I’ll drop yet another call in my first-floor apartment. Can you hear me now?)

T-Mobile offers several unique features in the otherwise troublesome wireless market, and AT&T is unlikely to keep many if any of them. Ma Bell just wants the customers, towers, and spectrum. If they wanted to sport UMA or cheaper pricing, they could have offered them years ago.

The current cell market is already highly concentrated, so we get service that is overpriced, with limited features and a quality of service that does not justify what we pay. If federal regulators allow AT&T to buy T-Mobile—which, unfortunately, is practically a given—the market will be even less competitive.

This merger means less choice and still-higher prices for something like the service we’ve long since been promised. If you have a lot of stock in the telecom industry, however, it’s a big win.

 

Book Blogging: Moore’s Law and Politics

Note: I’ll be spending the next few months writing a book about the new generation of internet-mediated political groups.  This post will be my first “book blog,” in which I try out new ideas that I’m planning to include in the manuscript.  Book blog pieces will be less tied to the politics-of-the-day, and will be a bit lengthier.  They also give readers a window into the broader project as it develops.  As such, feedback is particularly appreciated.

I’ve written once before on this blog about Moore’s Law, the surprisingly accurate 1965 prediction that computing capacity would double every 18-to-24 months.  What I’ve noticed recently is that, while Moore’s Law is common knowledge within the tech community (you see it mentioned in almost every issue of Wired magazine). it’s much less well-understood in the political and social science communities.  Those crowds are aware, of course, that their computer from 4 years ago now seems ancient, slow, and lacking in storage space, but it appears to me that the deep political implications of Moore’s Law (which I’ll be calling “Moore’s Law Effects” in the book, unless someone wants to earn their way into the acknowledgments by suggesting a catchier name!) have largely gone overlooked.

I checked through the indexes of several major internet-and-politics books and, sure enough, there’s no mention of Moore’s Law.  Bruce Bimber’s Information and American Democracy, Matt Hindman’s Myth of Digital Democracy, Bimber and Davis’s Campaigning Online, Phil Howard’s New Media Campaigns and the Managed Citizen.  I’ll check a few others on Monday when I’m in the office, but I’m pretty sure there’s no mention of it in Kerbel’s Netroots, Davis’s Typing Politics, Chadwick’s Internet Politics or either of Cass Sunstein’s books either.  …These are good books I’m talking about here — award-winners that rightly deserve the praise they’ve received.  I’d be thrilled if my book ends up half as good as many of them.  Yet Moore’s Law doesn’t earn a single mention, nor does it show up in most of the influential articles in the field.  It just hasn’t entered the discourse.

The one exception I’ve found is a Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy working paper by Zysman and Newman that eventually became the lead article of a co-edited volume, How Revolutionary is the Revolution.  It’s a political economy treatment of the digital era as a whole and seems pretty promising (amazon should have it to me by mid-week).  I really enjoyed the following quote in the working paper: “…Information technology represents not one, but a sequence of revolutions.  It is a continued and enduring unfolding of digital innovation, sustaining a long process of industrial adaptation and transition” (pg 8).  That “sequence of revolutions” line is what I think we’ve largely been missing when talking about digital politics.

Take Bimber and Davis’s Campaigning Online for instance.  They conducted first-rate research in the 2000 election cycle on citizen access to campaign websites.  The central finding was that, by and large, the only citizens who visit such sites are existing partisans.  The sites are useful for message reinforcement, rather than message persuasion.  As a result, Bimber and Davis conclude that the impact of the internet on political campaigns is pretty slight.  Web sites simply don’t reach undecided voters, so they aren’t of much use in determining election results.

Their book was released in September, 2003.  By that time, the Dean campaign had already attracted overwhelming media attention, leading observers everywhere to rethink the importance of mobilization.  It was an unlucky sequence of events, having a definitive work on the internet and American political campaigns come out just as the Dean campaign was overthrowing everything we thought we knew about the internet and American political campaigns.

Here’s the thing, though: Bimber and Davis weren’t wrong. The Internet of 2000 wasn’t particularly useful for mobilization.  John McCain raised a bit of online money around his primary, but online bill paying was still in its untrustworthy infancy, and the social web was still restricted to the lead adopter crowd who had heard of Pyra Labs.  The suite of technologies making up the Internet changed between 2000 and 2003.  It changed again between 2003/04 and 2006.  [Pop quiz: what was John Kerry’s YouTube strategy in the ’04 election?  (A: YouTube didn’t exist until 2005.)]  And it continues to do so.  The internet of 2010 is actually a different medium than the internet of 2000.  The devices we use to access it have changed.  Cheap processing power and increasing bandwidth speeds let us access video and geolocational aspects that were prohibitively expensive and technically infeasible or impossible in 2000.  We’ve traveled through five iterations of Moore’s Law, and that means that the devices and architecture of the earlier internet have been overwritten (html to xml being just the tip of the iceberg).

The internet is a sequence of communications revolutions, and that is entirely because of Moore’s Law.  It makes the internet different than previous revolutions in information technology.  Consider: as the television or radio moved from 10% household penetration to 80% household penetration, how much did the technology itself change?  I’d argue it wasn’t much at all.  A television set from 1930 is fundamentally pretty similar to a television set from 1960.  The major changes of the 20th century can be counted on one hand – color television, remote control, vcr, maybe a couple others.  It is frequently noted that the internet’s penetration rate has been faster than these previous communications technologies.  But what rarely gets mentioned is that the internet itself has changed pretty dramatically in the process. (Need further convincing?  Watch the 1995 movie Hackers and listen for the reference to one character’s blazing-fast 28.8 kb modem.  LolCats and YouTube aren’t so fun at 28.8kbs speed.  Or read James Gleick’s 1995 New York Times Magazine essay “This is Sex?” in which he explains that the internet is a terrible place for pornography because search is so complicated and the pictures upload so slowly!)

Transitioning into the political sphere, it bears noting that every election since 1996 has been labeled “the internet election” or “the year of the internet” by a set of researchers and public intellectuals.  The paradox, of sorts, is that they have been right every time.  2012 will be different than 2010, 2008, 2006 2004, 2002, and 2000.  It will be a different medium, in which users engage in modified activities, and this will create new opportunities for campaigns and organizations to engage in acts of mobilization and persuasion.  The cutting-edge techniques of last year become mundane, encouraging organizations to maintain a culture of ostentatious innovation.

Now I’m not suggesting that the internet exists in some state of quantum uncertainty, where we can predict basically nothing in the future based on the past or present.  In fact, as Rasmus Kleis Nielsen points out, the tools that will have the biggest impact on campaign organizations will be the ones that have become mundane, reaching near-universal penetration rates and no longer subject to a steep learning curve.  (As we recently learned with Google Wave, e-mail is much a settled routine at this point.)  Indeed, one of the lessons here may be that we are on much safer grounds when studying individual internet-mediated tools that have reached near-universal adoption (within a given community).  The techno-centric studies of facebook, youtube, and twitter that are a recent fad of sorts are on much weaker ground, because those tools are themselves still pretty dramatically changing thanks to increasing adoption and the ongoing influence of Moore’s Law.

The other thing it tells us, however, is that we should focus attention on the new organizations and institutions being built out of the digital economy.  The continual waves of innovation made possible by Moore’s Law mean that existing industries do not solely need to adapt to a single change in communications media.  Rather, an existing market leader who hires the best consultants, purchases a fleet of state-of-the-art hardware and software, and spends two years developing their plan for the digital environment will suddenly find that the internet has changed in a few important ways, their hardware and software is outdated, and the plan those consultants developed has collected more dust than accolades.

Communications revolutions (or changes in “information regime,” if you prefer to avoid talk of revolution) create a classically disruptive moment for various sectors of the economy.  Rather than advantaging existing market leaders, whose R&D departments let them lead the way in sustaining innovations, disruptive moments tend to lead to the formation of new markets that undercut the old ones (this is classic Christensen).  Startups do better under those conditions, because they have low operating costs and no ingrained organizational routines.  And while individual areas of the internet eventually give way to  monopolies (particularly if we lose net neutrality and let major firms capture markets and tamp down on competition),  those monopolies aren’t as secure as they were in previous eras.  Just ask AOL, Compuserv, Microsoft or Yahoo. The wrong policy decisions can still basically kill the internet, but Moore’s Law creates a scenario in which ongoing disruptions continually advantage new entrants, experimenting with new things.

That, frankly, is why my focus has been on the rise of these internet-mediated advocacy groups.  It’s because they represent a disruption of the advocacy group system.  They embrace ostentatious innovation, keep their staffing and overhead small, and otherwise continue to act like a start-up (and are often founded by technologists with a background in startup culture).  They fiddle with membership and fundraising regimes, and develop new tactical repertoires unlike anything found among the older advocacy groups.  And Moore’s Law suggests that the internet is still in a state of becoming, that the emergence of these new institutions is much more substantial than the mass behavioral patterns found among citizens in the internet of 2010, which may very well be altered as Moore’s Law allows the internet to become something else in 2012.

Moore’s Law, disruption theory, and new developments at the organizational level.  That’s what I think has been missing from our understanding of the internet and American politics thus far.

What do you think?

On Breitbart: Norms, Laws, and Accountability in American Journalism

[Update: read Jay Rosen’s account and analysis of how this all turned out.  I agree entirely.]

There’s a post I meant to write after the Shirley Sherrod incident this summer.  Instead it became a lecture that I give to my students in my Media, Government, and Politics seminar at Rutgers.  Given ABC’s announcement last night that he’ll be involved in their election night coverage and analysis, I think it’s time I share the perspective.

We are governed by laws and by norms.  There’s an important difference.  Laws are written down.  You break the law, you face a lawsuit.  Particularly in 21st century litigious America, the power of law can be used equally as sword and as shield (cough, cough, copyright).

Some things can’t (or shouldn’t) be legislated.  Freedom of the press, for instance, is a First Amendment guarantee against government regulation of the press.  We have journalist shield laws, for instance.  There are exceptions — libel and slander, fighting words — but in general we have a strong and well-intentioned tradition of giving the “fourth branch” the freedom to keep the other three branches of government accountable.

Norms are informal agreements.  You break a norm, you face shunning from the community that holds that norm.  “You’ll never work in this town again,” that sort of thing.   For decades, the internal norms of the journalistic profession have been an effective ward against certain types of behavior.  If you falsify a story or plagiarize, you’re done in the profession.  Fired and unhireable.  What’s more, these norms are enforced in a public manner, creating a set of cautionary tales.  Journalists are taught about Janet Cook and “Jimmy’s World,” for instance.

The tools of digital media — the ones that allow me to write this blog, post video to youtube, and post photos to flickr — allow for a beautiful mashup culture, but also a dangerous collapse of context.  Selective editing allows any amoral jerk with Final Cut Pro to create a fake news story out of whole cloth.

Our laws aren’t going to be very useful in stopping such activity, because law is both sword and shield.  The boundaries between journalist and citizen are necessarily fuzzy, and mashups ARE political speech, and should be protected as such.  But that leaves norms to do the heavy lifting of mitigating against false scandal-mongering.

And that brings us to Andrew Breitbart and his protege, James O’Keefe (himself a Rutgers alum).  O’Keefe’s ACORN tape was a perfect example of the collapse of context.  Use a hidden video camera, collect hours of footage of people reacting to awkward questions, then splice the best bits together and announce “scandal.”  It worked, and there was no public reckoning when the truth of the matter came out.  The norms against falsifying stories simply did not operate.  O’Keefe became a star.

Breitbart attempted the same gambit this summer with the Shirley Sherrod video.  Take a half-minute clip out of a 40 minute speech, trumpet that you’ve found a racist in the Obama administration, and let the pageviews just flow in.  The Obama administration overreacted, firing Sherrod before the truth could be known, but that was in response to a perceived reality — that this was going to be *the* story in the news cycle, regardless of how flimsy the evidence.  Breitbart’s gambit didn’t work very well because it was too easy to find out just how selectively the story had been edited.  He did a hack job of his hackery, and so *that* became the story.  Even Bill O’Reilly condemned the actions on Fox News.

At that point, the question really became “how will the journalistic community react?”  At issue is whether any norm of professional accountability is still at work, or whether it’s all just controversy and pageviews.  Breitbart is a public figure and the Sherrod incident was a high-profile event.  Our laws aren’t supposed to govern this one (Breitbart has found enough of a gray area, noting that he just promoted the tapes, but didn’t edit them himself); our norms are.  So if the journalistic community reacts by making him a pariah, then that sends a strong signal about the boundaries of acceptable behavior.  Falsifying a story may make you famous, but there can be serious costs.  If, on the other hand, a few months later Breitbart is back in the news with no mention of his track record, then that also sends a strong signal.  It says that celebrity, controversy, and page views trump everything else.  Getting caught in an elaborate lie only increases your name recognition, and the industry rewards fame more than anything else.

There are conflicting reports about what Breitbart’s role on ABC News will be this Tuesday night.  ABC says it will be “exceedingly minor.”  Breitbart’s own site, bigjournalism.com, says he’ll be “bringing live analysis from Arizona.”  Mediaite says that his inclusion will make it “must-see tv” on Tuesday night.

On Monday, I’ll be updating my students on this.  I won’t be watching this “must-see tv.”  I’ll watch another station.  But what I’m going to tell my students is that ABC is making it clear that, as far as they’re concerned, you should skip the “Media Ethics” class and take “Video Editing” instead.  The only defense we have against the malicious exploitation of the collapse of context is a set of community norms that mitigate against the worst excesses presented by digital communications technology.  Those norms have to be stronger than the drive for a few more pageviews, otherwise the mainstream press becomes identical to the tabloid press.  And those norms are most important in response to high-profile events where the community signals that an activity is out-of-bounds.

ABC, to paraphrase a much younger version of Jon Stewart, “you are hurting America. Please stop hurting America.”

The Tea Party Conundrum: How Can You Be Expelled from a Movement with No Center?

The latest news on the Tea Party is, unsurprisingly, pretty bad.  The National Tea Party Federation expelled Mark Williams, the head of Tea Party Express, on Saturday after the racist screed he’d “satirically” published to his website.  I won’t reward his site with any additional google-juice, so instead I’ll recommend this article by Eugene Robinson on the matter.  My take on Williams’s “satire” (in which he pretends to speak for african-americans and says that slavery was “a great gig” and that they’d like to “get back to where we belong”) is adequately summarized by Robinson: “That’s not satire, it’s hate speech.”

That the Tea Party Federation expelled Williams demonstrates that someone in that crowd possesses at least a modicum of common sense with regards to damage control.  It also doesn’t make one whit of actual sense.  What has Williams actually been expelled from, exactly?

The Tea Party “Movement” has no core.  There is no central document, no charismatic leadership (excepting Republican leaders like Palin, Bachmann, Armey, etc), no clearly-defined borders between in-group and out-group.  The National Tea Party Federation is one of dozens of organizations to hoist the “tea party” banner.  It holds no greater claim to the mantle of movement leadership than Williams’s own Tea Party Express does, though.  As far as I can tell, the two have been equally involved in setting up tea party rallies across the country.  Other groups like the National Tea Party Convention are for-profit operations, pretty blatantly trying to make a quick buck off the tea party meme.

All of this noise points to a real problem for researchers and public intellectuals trying to take the tea party seriously.  There’s been some solid work done with surveys, but those by their very nature capture tea party supporters rather than tea party participants.  Take it from a longtime environmental organizer: there’s a huge gap between the throngs of people who will state from the comfort of their home phone that they agree with you and the motivated partisans who will actually show up to an event.  Surveys can’t tell us what this “movement” stands for.  Leaders can’t tell us either, because the tea party leadership is indistinguishable from Republican/conservative thought leadership.

Furthermore, in the ever-increasing echo chamber of present-day media ecology, it becomes almost impossible to separate tea party as a meme from tea party as a movement.  Any conservative fundraiser not invoking the tea party frame needs to have their head examined.  That language has more gold in it than Glen Beck’s dwindling advertising base.  Looking at Tea Party Conventions that receive wall-to-wall coverage but only bring in 500 participants, I have to wonder if the tea party is more media phenomenon than grassroots uprising.

That’s not to say that there aren’t grassroots conservatives mobilizing in opposition to Obama today.  There are, and they self-identify as part of a “tea party movement.”  But we had outbreaks of grassroots conservatism under LBJ, Carter, and Clinton as well.  When the Democrats control the White House, we get an upwelling of grassroots conservatism.  Something isn’t a new “movement” if it as predictable as the tides.  And as far as I can tell, the difference between this tea party and the 1990’s grassroots conservatives lies in echo-chamber amplification — Fox News talks about them nonstop, so does MSNBC.  The Washington Times and the Washington Post both spill plenty of ink on the topic, as do DailyKos and Redstate.

And all of that media attention means that Mark Williams probably hasn’t been kicked out of anything at all.  No one can stop him from continuing to claim to be a tea party movement leader.  There’s a slight chance that Fox News will stop booking him in order to help distance the Tea Party from charges of racism, but if someone offered an even-money bet as to whether he’ll be booking gigs at conventions and on political talk shows within the next 6 months, I’d bet the answer is yes.  His Tea Party Express has just as much claim to the mantle of “tea party movement” as any of the other organizations out there… which is to say that no one has much claim to that mantle to begin with.

Coverage of the Tea Party is the equivalent of high-fructose corn syrup in our political media diet — filling, cheap, unhealthy, and everywhere.