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February 9, 2004

The Political Effects of Blogging: Call for Indicators

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Posted by Ross Mayfield

Tim Oren and I have been going at it in disagreement about the impact of participatory media on the political scene. So we met at Joanie's in Palo Alto for breakfast, to see if we could construct an interesting and meaningful bet that could be resolved in the context of the primary and/or general Presidential election.

We came to the conclusions that:

We can't construct a meaningful bet on the issues, which would be resolved by the 2004 elections. Even exit polling is too blunt an instrument to analyze the effects of the Internet as medium on the political process or electoral outcome. Questioning re Internet usage does not discern how the net is being used, which may make a difference. A single question does not control for other indicators of likely voting preference, and even if we could get the polling organizations to cough up their raw cross-tabbed data, the sample sizes would be insufficient. Finally, a vote for a candidate in one race is simply inadequate to test the propositions which we think are interesting... We do agree that there are two propositions that are important and worth testing - though we disagree on one likely outcome. We do not have measures (or aren't smart enough to recognize them) which test these outcomes. Therefore, this mutual post is a call - in the spirit of Winds of Change's call for indicators re the war on terror - for suggestions of indicators that can be tracked. Other than allowing us to run a futures market betting pool, this can have a practical outcome, as it may be possible to create metrics which could be based in evolving blog analysis tools such as Technorati (or platforms such as [plug] Socialtext [/plug]).

Proposition the First: We agree that the advent of participatory media (blogs, wikis, etc.) will make a difference in the political process. Due to the low entry barriers compared to prior media, they allow more diversity of opinion, agility in organization, and a faster and more articulate cycle of policy debate. In more detail:

  • Individuals and groups with views that are not mainstream, or reflect issues with low awareness, are able to publicly air them without recourse to the limits - in access and implicit points of view - of big media.
  • The net provides a medium in which like like-minded people can find each other and organize around issues and candidates, either virtually or to stimulate face to face groupings.
  • The aggregate readership and authorship of political and related (foreign and military affairs, technology futures) blogs already exceeds that of conventional political and foreign affairs magazines and columns. Many authors and readers are in positions of official influence or unofficial opinion leadership.
  • While the medium creates the potential for self-limited 'echo chamber' groups, it also offers the potential for public articulation and interactive discussion regarding nuanced policy points, offered by neither the mass media or political journals. Recognizing that much of the interaction (90%?) is at the level of simple contraction and name-calling, nonetheless high levels of analysis can be reached. These can be particularly influential when articulated publicly by those whose views and interests do not fall along trivial party alignments. We mention as particular examples Andrew Sullivan, Michael Totten,. and Roger Simon (add your favorites)
Therefore, we believe that within four years the blogosphere, taken as a whole, will achieve a level of influence on policy articulation in the United States at least the equal of the present-day think tank and pundit system. while allowing greater openness to interested citizens. (What do you think?) We seek a way to measure this influence.

To give an example: It might be possible to use textual analysis to track the passage of key phrases from their origin in blogs into use in official party or governmental position papers and debates, as well as the mass media.

Proposition the Second: We disagree whether participatory media have any valency regarding parties, candidates, or persuasion on particular issues. Tim believes:

  • Participatory media do not inherently advantage any party, or side of issues. For every Glenn Reynolds there is a Josh Marshall, for every Democratic Underground a Free Republic.
  • Like any new medium, there is the potential for rivals to win or lose based on their capability to utilize the medium, much as television was a factor in the Kennedy/Nixon race, but this is a transient effect.
  • The notion that participatory medium give advantage to any particular viewpoint is at best wishful thinking in the form of technological determinism, and at the worst the type of arrogance symbolized by the words 'sheeple' or 'idiotarian'.
  • Caveat: Processes once established defend themselves. There is likely to be valency in favor of preserving an open Internet not interdicted by big media, government, or official punditry.

Ross believes:

  • The low cost of personal publishing brings volume to social editing and filtering that threaten and will be co-opted by established media. Just as third party candidate issues are co-opted by the other two. This is the strength and weakness of success.
  • The cost of group forming is falling precipitously. This allows new constituencies to form, deliberation to construct fit memes, and most importantly, for heretofore un-fundable issues to compete.
  • The cost of media production is falling (e.g. MoveOn.org's TV Ad contest) will impact even broadcast media (Sarnoff's Law)
  • There is a bell curve of opinion and power law of resources. Decreasing transaction costs (e.g. Internet fundraising) pulls them towards each other.
  • Just as commoditization of underlying technologies (Moore's Law and Metcalfe's Law) unleashed a decade of growth in the technology industry, the disruption of social software that enables group forming (Reed's Law) benefits the party that is scarce in resources more than the one that holds abundance.
  • Truth is implementation

We seek indicators that will measure which of us is right, and let us settle our dinner bet as well as determine the future of the Republic.

Today at the Digital Democracy Teach-In we found Jonah Seiger's work to be the closest to what we are looking for.

Comments (5) + TrackBacks (0) | Category:


COMMENTS

1. Ross Mayfield on February 9, 2004 10:13 PM writes...

BTW, please put your pointers and suggestions for sources and resources here

Permalink to Comment

2. ABliss on February 10, 2004 10:16 PM writes...

If I have a chat to a stranger I can never really know the effects of that conversation, can I? Because of the complexity of the mind, even the stranger cannot quantify the effects of a specific piece of information flow.

If someone writes a book and then distributes it widely, it is not possible for the author to know the exact effects of his messages. Why should it be different online?

Without knowing what people are reading or hearing on an individual basis, and therefore not knowing the overall effects on a population, it would be as impossible to do this for conventional literature as it is for blogs.

Permalink to Comment

3. Seth Finkelstein on February 11, 2004 5:15 PM writes...

One indicator I use myself, is the "reply inequality" measure (informally, "smear power").

Define this, as if someone wants to reply to a given message, what is the ratio of:

(number of people who see the original message - number of people who see the reply)
divided by total audience [assume complete overlap to make calculation simple]

This should count only first-order effect, not second-effect such as being seen by someone with a greater audience, who then takes up the cause.

One naive statement is roughly to assert that, with *The Internet*, the "reply inequality" measure become *ZERO*.

That is, everyone who sees the original message will see the reply, because they can do so in theory. This is total nonsense.

So, for example, if we have

Popular website with an total audience of 100,000
and a person who, without a blog, has an audience of 10
but by running their own blog, has an audience of 100
then we have two ways of looking at this, either:

a) That person has become "10 times more powerful", or
b) The "reply inequality" measure has moved for them
from "0.9999" (100,000-10)/100,000
to "0.999" (100,000-100)/100,000

It is my contention that the second option is the most meaningful, and that for everyone but a comparatively tiny fraction of people, the reply inequality measure against large-audience sites does not change significantly.

Permalink to Comment

4. Joel Greenberg on February 13, 2004 1:48 PM writes...

We need to look outside of the blogosphere, the web, and technology to measure the effectiveness of blogging on politics. Our measurement should be no different than those currently being used in politics and PR, such as:

1) Polling. If opinion polls show change over time on a topic bloggers are particularly hot on, then blogging may have affected that change.

2) Awareness Studies. The workhorse of PR and advertising. Maybe we could get a company like Gallup or The Pew Trusts interested doing a longitudinal awareness study on a topic that's currently hot in the blogosphere, but not yet in the mass media. Then, we may be able to show cause and effect, somewhat.

3) Counting mentions. A media service could count the number of times bloggers are mentioned in the mainstream media. The higher the count over time, the more we can assume bloggers are making an influence.

4) Legislation. If a blogger's the only person talking about a specific topic and is generally recognised as the driving force behind a movement to make a change in society, then we can assume that blogging had an effect. Call it the Elle Woods Effect.

5) Count the number of times (and length of time spent) mainstream media talk about bloggers, either in a positive or negative light. The more mentions, the more influence.

6) Readership. Simply count the number of readers to blogs and compare to other media. This is probably the easiest of all to do.

Despit the above, "influence" is one of those things that's hard to quantify. There are too many variables. We'll need to judge based upon "a preponderance of the evidence," not upon "beyond a resonable doubt."

Permalink to Comment

5. Seth Finkelstein on February 13, 2004 2:29 PM writes...

"1) Polling. If opinion polls show change over time on a topic bloggers are particularly hot on, then blogging may have
affected that change."

Or bloggers may merely be reflecting that change themselves, echoing it.

"3) Counting mentions. A media service could count the number of times bloggers are mentioned in the mainstream
media. The higher the count over time, the more we can assume bloggers are making an influence."

The A-listers get mentioned. The A-list has some influence. That's not the same as "bloggers" (in total)

"4) Legislation. If a blogger's the only person talking about a specific topic and is generally recognised as the driving
force behind a movement to make a change in society, then we can assume that blogging had an effect. Call it the Elle
Woods Effect."

I have had an effect on the DMCA (1201 exemptions). Let me tell you, "blogging" had NO EFFECT. There was a notable effect where Slashdot "editor" Michael Sims got used as evidence by my opponent to the 1201 exemption (long story), but I doubt that's the sort of effect you mean.

"5) Count the number of times (and length of time spent) mainstream media talk about bloggers, either in a positive or
negative light. The more mentions, the more influence."

Two words: "Michael Jackson"

"6) Readership. Simply count the number of readers to blogs and compare to other media. This is probably the easiest
of all to do."

Agreed. But take into account what they are reading, so you don't get "10 million people read about cats and dates on BLOGS - so Howard Dean will be President".


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