Thursday, November 05, 2009

Critiquing Matthew Hindman's "The Myth of Digital Democracy"

Guest Blogger

Micah L. Sifry

[Micah Sifry from the Personal Democracy Forum spoke at the Yale Information Society Project Tuesday night on digital democracy discussing Matthew Hindman's new book, The Myth of Digital Democracy. These remarks are also cross-posted at]

Here's a rough draft of what I'm going to say at tonight's "Digital Democracy Debate" with author Matthew Hindman at Yale. Let me know in the comments if you think I've missed anything or gotten anything wrong.

Hindman is the author of "The Myth of Digital Democracy," which argues that a) the internet is just reinforcing elite voices in politics rather than opening the process to more diverse voices, b) that we live in a "Googlearchy" ruled by search engines that concentrate attention on just a handful of "winner-take-all" sites, and c) that the idea that the internet is empowering more ordinary people to be active participants in the process is basically a myth. You can read shorter versions of his argument in his recentinterview with NPR's On the Media, or this article he wrote for the Berkman "Publius" Project last year. Or read his book. It's well-written and provocative, even if it's basically wrong.

Let's stipulate from the start that Hindman is right about the following:
-Politics is a relatively low level concern of American web users--though it’s really silly to compare how often people visit political sites to pornographic sites (see pp. 60-61 of his book), as if there should be any relationship—what’s more important to note is more and more people are going online to obtain political information, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, and a growing proportion also create and share political content online with each other;
-most web users don’t know how to use search well and generally rely on the top results they get when they search;
-there is a power law distribution of attention online and web traffic to political sites is highly concentrated;
-successful political bloggers tend to be highly educated and upper middle-class; and
-the biggest sites, whether we’re talking about Google, Yahoo, or the HuffingtonPost, all demand significant capital investments. If you’re goal is to be the next Google, there’s a big barrier to entry.

Had Hindman taken this set of assertions and simply titled his book, "The Myth of Digital Media Equality," I think we'd have little to argue about. The web, like life, isn't fair. Early movers and people with more capital have an advantage over everyone else. Joe and Jane Sixpack still have less representation in the political debate than Daddy Warbucks and his lobbyists. The web hasn't transformed us into an egalitarian utopia where every person is equally valued.

Still, the societal changes being powered by people using the internet are making American politics and media more small-d democratic. Not perfectly so, but what we have now is better than what we had before.


1. Ten years ago, the only people who could effectively speak in the public arena and be heard were either already famous, wealthy, or under the employ of some other wealthy entity. The pathways to break into that public arena were tightly constrained: go to the right schools, know the right people, etc. Or fall into a well.

Today, while there is no guarantee that you will reach millions of listeners, you don’t need millions of dollars, or the right connections, or fame, to reach millions of people. You do need a compelling message, and this is not something everyone has the ability to make. But the barrier to entry into the public conversation is much lower.

To take a pretty unusual example, a middle-aged homeless man using the handle “Slumjack Homeless” can write a comment on a blog post on a relatively low traffic site explaining why he prefers the streets to shelters, and end up featured on the New York Times and BBC websites. A college student named James Kotecki with a cute way of reviewing political videos can become a star on YouTube. A Twitter user named Amanda Ross can rally her friends to launch a grassroots fundraising campaign that, within weeks, raises a quarter million dollars via home-grown events in 200 cities. A campus activist named Farouk Olu Aregbe can create a Facebook group with a million members supporting a presidential candidate, etc. An 80-year-old man can email his 50 closest friends a video of Barack Obama on the campaign trail and have more influence on their votes in a few minutes than it would have taken him if he had to speak to each one personally face-to-face. You get the point.

2. The Internet is a freer and more interactive medium, and the result is a richer and more diverse public conversation. Yes, it’s true that many top bloggers, as Hindman points out, have high levels of education and often come from elite schools. But he is ignoring two crucial differences about political blogging.

First, bloggers are their own men and women. Whether they are true independent start-ups or part of the new wave of more professionalized and professionalizing sites, bloggers are functionally different than old media workers in a number of ways. The independents—the Atrioses, Glenn Reynolds, and Josh Marshalls of the blogosphere, are all entrepreneurs. They are their own bosses. Being your own boss means you are freer to speak your own mind. It’s not surprising that these bloggers have earned large audiences—there has always been strong latent public demand for red-blooded journalism and opinionizing, just not much of that was offered by the old, big corporate media.

And even the bloggers who now work for media conglomerates—the Karen Tumulties and Joe Kleins and Ben Smiths of the world—are subject to the readers and competitors in ways that old media workers never were. Tumulty, who is one of Time’s national correspondents, recently told me that her readers were making her a better reporter. Klein has also been changed by having to deal with comments from readers who expect more accuracy from him than his editors demand. And it isn’t just being exposed to commenters (who can make you smarter or show how dumb you are); it’s knowing that you are in competition with other bloggers who are more transparent and interactive—that is what is changing the medium in a small-d democratic way—regardless of how concentrated the traffic may be.

Blogging about politics, unlike the old days of oped columns and talking heads, means being in constant contact with your readers, who collectively exert tremendous influence on the public conversation through their ability to comment, rate and share blog posts. These are all critical functions of the new media system that Hindman completely ignores in his book.

Finally, there’s still quite a bit of variability in who makes it to the top of the political blogosphere. A glance at the current top political blogs on Technorati’s list will show many newcomers—most of them from the political right, I might note. (There’s no reason to assume the online political arena is as fixedly tilted to the left as Hindman writes in his book; today, there’s much more energy on the right. In England, that’s been the case for years.)

3. Focusing on linkage patterns and traffic is interesting, because it’s relatively easy to study. Just get the data from Hitwise, as Hindman did in his book. But it tells us as much about how political power is made and lost and remade as looking for one’s keys under the lamppost does for the guy who actually lost them over in a dark alley.

Here's why: the number of visitors or readers a site has does not equal its influence. If that were the case, the political Right would have been much stronger online between 2000 and 2008, when its top trafficked sites were places like Free Republic and Powerline. But such rightwing sites never evolved into the kind of online collaborations engines that we now associate mostly with the left netroots, precisely because the bloggers running those sites didn’t care about sharing attention with their community of readers.

DailyKos and Firedoglake are qualitatively different online sites than sites like Free Republic or Powerline or even They are switching stations for action, not just opinion—sifting the news and pointing readers to all kinds of tangible political activities. There’s a lot more going on on DailyKos than meets the eye, and anyone who simply equates that site with its founder, Markos Moulitsas, is missing the big picture. Hindman gets at some of this in the essay that was circulated in advance of today’s talk [“Closing the Frontier: Political Blogs, the 2008 Election, and the Online Public Sphere”--email Ben Peters at bjp2108-at-columbia-dot-edu to get a copy], but even then he fixates on the professionalization of Kos’s editorial team without recognizing how different the site is from a traditional news site or blog.

DailyKos is more like a virtual city than it is just a national blog. Kos’s personal contribution, contentwise, is about 1%, in terms of words written, of all the content on his site. Likewise, he probably gets a similarly small fraction of the overall number of comments posted on his site every day. The site gets several thousand diary posts a week, and these are read and rated by thousands more. It’s also not just focused on national politics; there are all kinds of sub-communities buried inside it focused on more local concerns. There’s even a progressive gardening club that “meets” every Friday where people share pictures and news of their gardens. To talk about a site like DailyKos in the same breath as an old media entity like the Washington Post is to compare apples and oranges.

4. The web is flattening, somewhat, the financing of politics, and to a modest but real degree, reducing the importance of large, maxed-out donors on who can become a viable candidate for office.

At the highest level, we’ve seen an important shift towards smaller donors, according to a careful analysis by the Campaign Finance Institute. Obama had more than 400K individual contributors, more than Bush and Kerry combined in 2004. And the percentage giving under $1000 were 53%, compared to 40% for Bush and 44% for Kerry. [Details here.]

The Democratic hub Actblue has channeled more than $111 million in contributions to more than 3000 Democratic candidates since its founding in 2004, with a median contribution of $50. The small-donor shift isn’t as important in down-ballot races as we’d like, but it definitely is making it easier for candidates and members of Congress who want to take a more maverick approach—from Joe Wilson to Alan Grayson.

5. As an abundant medium, the web puts far less of a premium on the sound-biting of politics, and indeed often rewards rich political content. I've written about the rise of the "sound-blast" plenty of times and won't repeat that here, but it isn't just about the fact that Obama's second-most viewed video on YouTube is his 37-minute speech on race. Lots of popular political video clips tend to run anywhere from one to three minutes long; we should recognize this as a tremendous improvement in the public discourse.

6. Politics online is about far more than just what the blogosphere is focusing on at any given moment. Hindman makes much of the face that blog writers and readers trend older than you might expect given how much the net is dominated by young people, but that leaves the wrong impression. For younger web users, posting and reading blogs is far less important than sharing information on social network sites and posting and sharing videos. As Pew recently reported, "Some 37% of internet users aged 18-29 use blogs or social networking sites as a venue for political or civic involvement, compared to 17% of online 30-49 year olds, 12% of 50-64 year olds and 10% of internet users over 65." As I noted back in September, the net appears to be spreading out participation in politics beyond the usual elites. Quoting from the Pew study:

Taken together, just under one in five internet users (19%) have posted material about political or social issues or a used a social networking site for some form of civic or political engagement. This works out to 14% of all adults -- whether or not they are internet users. A deeper analysis of this online participatory class …suggests that it is not inevitable that those with high levels of income and education are the most active in civic and political affairs. In contrast to traditional acts of political participation—whether undertaken online or offline—forms of engagement that use blogs or online social network sites are not characterized by such a strong association with socio-economic stratification.

7. I'm out of time but I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention the power of data and transparency to foster a more accountable political process. As Clay Shirky has said, information isn't power--disproportionate access to information is power. When we make vital political data freely accessibly online, instead of requiring people to fly to Washington and search out a basement office to look up a printed document that is technically public but barely accessible, we drastically shift the information balance in the direction of ordinary citizens. Hindman doesn't deal with this issue at all in his work. He might note that not every ordinary citizen is using the web to watchdog the government, and he'd be right--but the point is that we don't need millions of participants to help engage in sunlighting the process, we just need enough to focus attention where it's now missing. Frequently "enough" just means a few dozen or a few hundred, but the result is a real shift in power away from entrenched interests.

To conclude, let me just suggest that it is dangerous to make conclusive statements about such a young and dynamic space. Four years ago, YouTube was just starting. Two years ago Twitter was just starting. Now something like 30 million people now have iPhones, and by 2012 the number of Americans with some kind of smartphone will probably be double or triple that. We are just beginning to scratch the surface of what happens when you combine real-time web access with location services with tools that you can carry anywhere in your pocket. While Hindman is right to warn us about how information and attention may be concentrated online, I'd much rather see the glass as half full rather than half empty, and most important, a trend that is moving in the direction of greater meaningful participation in the process for more people.

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