The sociology of political blogs: the left and right blogospheres

Previous studies of the blogosphere have used link analysis to suggest a symmetrical relationship between twinned left and right blogospheres. Yochai Benkler's new research overturns this theory, suggesting left-leaning blogs feature more in-depth analysis, use more complex platforms, and raise more money. Source: Berkman Centre for Internet and Society

By way of the invaluable Eszter Hargittai comes news of Yochai Benkler’s latest research on the blogosphere.

Eszter writes:

Yochai Benkler, Aaron Shaw and Victoria Stodden of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society have just released “A Tale of Two Blogospheres: Discursive Practices on the Left and Right” showing some significant differences in types of blog platforms used (with different affordances), co-authorships and levels of participation among blogs of different political persuasions. Here is one example of specific findings (based on analyses of 155 top political blogs):

Over 40% of blogs on the left adopt platforms with enhanced user participation features. Only about 13% of blogs on the right do so. While there is substantial overlap, and comments of some level of visibility are used in the vast majority of blogs on both sides of the political divide, the left adopts enabling technologies that make user-generated diaries and blogs more central to the site to a significantly greater degree than does the right. (p. 22.)

In an interview with The Nation, Benkler explains a little about his research. The interview is full of insights, such as this one:

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.”

And this one:

… 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.

You can see the full paper as a PDF here.

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