Balkinization  

Friday, January 23, 2004

JB

What I learned about blogging in a year

On January 10th, Balkinization celebrated its one year anniversary. That is when the blog began; my first substantive post was not until January 13th. In this posting, and a few later ones, I hope to share some of the things I learned about blogging and Internet speech generally from my experience as a blogger.

The development of the blogosphere mitigates, to a considerable degree, two key concerns about freedom of speech on the Internet. University of Chicago legal scholar Cass Sunstein made both of these points eloquently in his book Republic.com. The first concern was that the public sphere would become fragmented because there were so many speakers, no common sources that everyone was exposed to, and new filtering technologies allowed people to filter out the speech they did not like and only read the topics and opinions that interested them. The second concern was that people would become increasingly extreme in their views because there is no Internet equivalent to the fairness doctrine. Liberals would listen only to liberals, conservatives would listen only to conservatives, and the resulting ideological division would produce ideological polarization with increasingly extreme positions, further fracturing the public sphere and preventing democratic deliberation. For this reason, Sunstein at one point suggested requiring people with websites to include links to people with contrary views, or, if that posed constitutional difficulties (it would) at the least giving tax or other incentives for people to add links to others. Sunstein imagined a sort of Fairness Doctrine in Cyberspace. When it was pointed out that Cass didn't have any such links on his own site, he promptly placed a link to Richard Epstein and Catharine Mackinnon on his home page.

In hindsight, both of Sunstein's concerns about freedom of speech seem overstated and his proposed remedy seems not only ineffectual but beside the point because it misunderstood how the Internet differs from traditional mass media. The development of the blogosphere helps us see why this is so.

Let me preface my remarks by noting the obvious: Not all political speech on the Internet occurs through blogs or though technologies similar to blogs. But a very significant amount does. Indeed, I'd say that the blog and its cousins (including threaded discussions and comments sections on political websites that allow for links) are the most characteristic form of Internet political commentary. So paying attention to the blogosphere tells you a lot about how the public sphere is actually playing out on the Internet.

Sunstein assumed that speakers on the Internet would in some respects be like radio and television broadcasters who could simply deny access to viewpoints they did not agree with. That is why he wanted to transpose the Fairness Doctrine into cyberspace. That is why he put links to Epstein and MacKinnon on his own website. He was working with the paradigm of broadcast television, a unidirectional non-interactive and non-participatory mass medium in which it is relatively easy to exclude speakers.

But most bloggers who write about political subjects cannot avoid addressing (and, more importantly, linking to) arguments made by people with different views. The reason is that much of the blogosphere is devoted to criticizing what other people have to say. It's hard to argue with what the folks at National Review Online or Salon are saying unless you go read their articles, and, in writing a post about them, you will almost always either quote or link to the article, or both. Ditto for people who criticize Glenn Reynolds, Andrew Sullivan, or Kos, or Atrios. If you don't like what Glenn said about Iraq, you quote a bit of his posting, link to it, and then make fun of him. These links are the most important way that people travel on the Web from one view to its opposite. (And linking also produces a good check on criticism because you can actually go and read what the person being criticized has said.).

In addition, most bloggers have blogrolls which include a wide variety of different sources with very different ideological views. If you check my blogroll, you will see that it contains both lefties and righties, and among the righties, a fair dose of libertarians like my favorite freedom loving gang at the Volokh Conspiracy. Because I am a lefty, I probably have more lefties than righties on that blogroll, but what's important is not whether there's a perfectly proportional distribution but whether there's a substantial variety of different views. There is, and I would wager that my blogroll is not at all unusual in that respect. The customs of the blogosphere produce this pluralism.

Nevertheless, one might object, this argument is premised on the idea that the blogosphere has customs of linking that encourage give and take. What is to guarantee that these customs will continue? Obviously bloggers could give up their customs, and stop linking to each other. But I doubt this will happen; the customs make sense given the way the technology works. And worrying about whether people will or won't continue to link absent a government regulatory apparatus that encourages linking completely misses the point about how Internet speech works: The fact that these customs developed says a lot about the health and vibrancy and pluralism of the public sphere in cyberspace. What is perhaps equally important is that the production of these customs of cross linking was spurred on not by an initial government requirement or a program of tax incentives, but by the design of weblogs themselves. Here is a key example in which architecture matters greatly to the production of a more democratic culture on the Internet. What we should be worrying about is not government programs but the government of programmers. We should be applauding and promoting Internet technologies like blogs that promote interactivity, participation and give and take.

The other fear often expressed is that Internet speech will become more extreme. There is a lot of extreme speech on the Internet. And there is a lot of personal invective, too. The Internet is not a debating society held in the Senior Common Room. It is often quite raucous and unpleasant. But the reason for this is *not* the group polarization mechanism Sunstein is concerned with-- the notion that people of different views aren't talking to each other so they gravitate to increasingly extreme positions. The reason why Internet speech is often sharp and unpleasant comes from the fact that people are talking to each other but are *distanced* from each other. It's very different saying something nasty to someone in a blog posting and saying the same thing to their face. (It's even easier to be nasty when one is anonymous, but even non-anonymous postings on the Internet give people greater license to vent than in-person interactions.).

Even if Internet speech has its share of heated and unpleasant exchanges, the blogosphere has also shown, I think, that fears of group polarization produced by the Internet are overstated. It's important to distinguish distribution of viewpoints from polarization of viewpoints. The Internet allows for a much wider distribution of ideas to be expressed than in the traditional unidirectional mass media, but that is not the same as increasing group polarization. Indeed, wider distribution along multiple dimensions is the opposite of polarization, which is an increasingly tight bimodal distribution along a single dimension.

We should also distinguish extremism among relatively small groups (like neo-Nazis) from society-wide group polarization. The Internet does allow like-minded people with extreme views to find each other. But that is not the same thing as group polarization in the Internet as a whole. If the concern is that *a small group of people* with extreme views will be able to meet others of similar views on the Internet and that their views will become even more extreme in the process, that may well occur. In that case, however, what you are really worried about is that people with extreme views might find each other in the first place and recruit other impressionable people, and preventing *that*, I would submit, is a blatantly unconstitutional goal. If the concern, on the other hand, is that *society as a whole* will become more polarized as a result of Internet speech, I think the fears are greatly overstated. The blogosphere continually provides a check on people's more extreme claims. It continually throws people together who have clashing views. Its architecture allows a wide dispersion of views to contend, a phenomenon which should not be confused either with an echo chamber or with group polarization.

I'm not trying to be a Polyanna here. I'm not claiming that no group polarization effects could ever occur on the Internet, or that Internet speech is necessarily going to make the world a better, safer place for democracy and/or reasoned discussion. What I am claiming is that fears that the Internet was going to produce a significantly greater tendency toward group polarization seems wrong. I think, in fact, that people's fears and anxieties about loss of control over the traditional public sphere governed by mass media have been projected onto the Internet.

A final concern that Sunstein raised is the loss of a common public culture-- and in particular a common culture for discussion of public issues. This was supposed to be caused by two factors: (1) the proliferation of Internet sites so that there are no common sources of news and opinion; and (2) the possibility that large numbers of people will tailor their news through the use of various filters. These fears, too seem to me to be greatly overstated, and for two reasons. First, the tailoring of news based on subject matters (sports, gardening, fashion) occurred long ago in the traditional mass media, and the tailoring of news for particular ideological constituencies does not seem to have developed on the Internet in the way that Sunstein imagined. We now have a conservative news network, Fox News, but Fox is not a website; it is a cable channel. We cannot blame the Internet for Fox News. More to the point, the sources from which Internet news feeds are drawn still seem to be dominated by a relatively small number of traditional mass media corporations, including AP, UPI, Fox, CNN, and the major networks and newspapers.

It is important to distinguish news commentary from news sources. *Commentary* on news comes from all over the place, but the actual *production* of news and the work of reporting and journalism by news organizations seems still to be relatively constricted. Economies of scale are the most likely reason. There are lots of bloggers who write commentary, but very few bloggers that go out and report their own stories. That may change in time, but there is reason to believe that economies of scale in journalism are not temporary. Thus, Internet speech does not seem to have displaced mass media organizations as a *source* of the vast majority of news reporting; rather it has used the mass media as a substrate; it gloms onto the mass media and uses it as a source for commentary, while mass media organizations like CBS, the New York Times, and Reuters run websites and provide news feeds that provide the Internet and its commentators with grist for their mills.

In sum, people who want to read only conservative commentaries on the news can easily do so, but for reasons having to do with how journalism is produced the Internet has not yet produced the widespread adoption of a "Daily Me" that blocks out everything extraneous to our ideological interests. The closest thing (in the view of many liberals) is Fox News, but that development is not, as I have noted before, something for which the Internet can be blamed.

The second reason why the fears of the fracturing of the public sphere seem overstated is the nature of network topologies. The Internet, and in particular, the blogosphere, has a scale free topology. As the Internet expands, and more links are added, a larger proportion of links are made to a relatively small number of sites. The result is that, over time, a relatively small number of sites receive the lion's share of links. They are hubs in the network that forms the Internet's public sphere. Go to The Truth Laid Bear and look at the blogosphere ecosystem and traffic rankings and you will see what I mean. A handful of blogs have an enormous number of links to them and a considerable amount of traffic, and as you go down the list, the number of links and amount of traffic rapidly diminishes after the first dozen or so sites, until you get to a fairly flat curve.

As long as the Internet, and in particular, that portion of the Internet where people get their news, has a scale free topology, Sunstein's fear of an unacceptably fractured public sphere is overstated. Indeed, the problem may be precisely the opposite of the one he imagines: A relative handful of news sites, or a relative handful of bloggers may have a very large amount of power over public opinion because they are the key hubs or nodes in the network of Internet public opinion. That, in some ways, is similar to (although not identical with) the condition we had with the traditional mass media. While the dominance of the traditional mass media in the public sphere was created by government's control over the air waves (in the case of radio and television) and economies of scale and the effects of local advertising (in the case of newspapers), the dominance of a small number of hubs or nodes in the public sphere on the Internet is caused by power laws that apply to certain types of communications networks, of which the Internet is a particularly salient example. To be sure, the concentration of influence over public opinion on the Internet is much less than we had in the traditional mass media. But is not at all clear to me that this is necessarily a bad thing.



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