July 01, 2004

Technologies of Political Society

Laura of the excellent Apartment 11D is thinking about the political effects of weblogs. They have an effect on the functioning of a public sphere of political debate and opinion. What kind of effect? How is it different than the coming of the party-oriented daily newspaper, or the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century intellectual world of the political pamphlet?

Wonderful questions. If I were here, I would be delving back into history--Savonarola, Machiavelli, the formation of the Dutch Republic, the mobilization of elite opinion against Charles I, Swift, Addison and Steele, et cetera rather than into Hannah Arendt and Carole Pateman. But that's a matter of taste: my taste is (as I've said before) for the history part rather than for the moral philosophy part of the curriculum:

Apt. 11D: "I'm working on a paper on the politics of blogging. As it often happens, I've taken a long detour down one section of the paper because it interests me. I've been wrestling with the question, is blogging a new form of political participation. Our survey partially answers that question, but it also needs some political theory. So, I've been reading Carole Pateman and Hannah Arendt to find out how they defined participation and how well blogging fits in with their ideas.

Though their definitions are vague, there is definitely a notion that participation means people talking and acting in the public realm. The classic example is a New England townhall meeting where all citizens came together to make decisions based on their self-interest, values, and the community good. Others look back to the Athenian polis as another place where there was maximum participation.

So, is the blogosphere a public space, like the New England townhall meeting? Is it a place where individuals can debate ideas and policy proposals and have some impact on political officials? Over the past week, I've spent too much time researching this section of the paper that will probably get edited down to a page or two.

In the meantime, I got an e-mail from my downstairs neighbor in Apt. 11C. She stumbled across my blog and sent me the link to hers. While my neighbors are all very nice people, we don't know each other well. Mostly, it's just a smile and a wave in the hallway. Maybe we'll stop and chat for a second about the noisy guys who park themselves in front of our building all night. Now, because of our blogs, Apt. 11C and I suddenly know a lot about each other. In the real world, we were strangers.

There are definitely problems with the blogosphere. It is a poor substitute for a noisy room where people interact face to face to debate political and personal matters. But in our busy, individualistic world, it might be all we have.

Posted by DeLong at July 1, 2004 07:11 PM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post
Comments

James Crabtree and Will Davies (at Will Hutton's iSociety project) have written pretty extensively on the possibilities of bringing together communities in architecturally-dissociating environments (i.e. apartment blocks) through blogs and message-boards:

http://www.renewal.org.uk/issues/2004%20Voulme%2012/Invisible%20Villages.htm

http://www.theworkfoundation.com/research/isociety/publications_presentations.jsp (Software for skyscrapers)

I have a leaning towards the tracts of the late 17th century as a historical/political model here. But to be honest, the world of blogs is rather like the men feeling the elephant: grab hold of a different part, and it's a completely different beast.

Posted by: nick on July 1, 2004 08:37 PM

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Brad, don't you mean "If I were her," not "here" (unless you're being existential)?

Posted by: Paul on July 1, 2004 09:19 PM

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I'd say the blogosphere is a public space like Times Square at three in the morning: there are crazies around, and it takes effort "To make this fort assume/The furniture of home." There's a lot of homemaking and bartending -- and a certain amount of bouncer work -- involved in maintaining an Internet presence. The Net is an inseparable part of the big world. It's not a polite, homogenous New England village isolated by miles of pines and maples. Especially with the availability of all sites and message boards to Google, it has become a place where backwaters are never really safely obscure, and that means everyone has to be a little streetwise -- a little bit braced against the possibility of unpleasantness. That's not really true about (some) communities that gather physically.

About the pamphleteers as models: sure, writing manifestoes on a weblog is like pamphleteering, but the process of maintaining a site's atmosphere is something really a little different, isn't it?

Posted by: Martha Bridegam on July 1, 2004 10:03 PM

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I think whiskey bar(billmon) has the best idea, although it has been subverted as he notes. The reason why a blog succeeds is that it refines the orginal premise. In this case someone starts a discussion and people refine the discussion. The only trouble with the blogosphere is that like other forums it becomes a discountenanced din in which people no longer feel they are heard.
In the case of a blog as opposed to the pamphleteer the discussions are recorded and available for many to view. This allows the open dialog to affect those who are not afforded the opportunity to enter the discussion, but who can benefit from an unfettered discussion.
If people can get past the point of hearing their own perspective presented the blog is a superior means of discussion. The main benefit is hearing others ideas to truely refine our own thoughts.

Posted by: RC on July 1, 2004 11:09 PM

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The brief version of my take on this is that as much as other forms of social interaction, blogs establish feedback loops, and feedback loops are the constituents of society and "collective intelligence". What provides a new quality beyond real-time oral exchange is the different time structure of the discourse. Blog entries & discussions are archived, both when evolving and afterwards, often even indefinitely. The real-time property of the actual exchange is still somewhat there, but there is more opportunity for complete reference and joining the discussion late.

By the same token, blogs also go beyond the one-way information flow of broadcast media. In fact, they represent a hybrid between broadcast, written work/print media, and real-time interaction.

I'm also under the impression that renowned pundits or the press are picking up themes and sometimes even specific points discussed on blogs, often without apparent credit. I'm not sure there is generally causality; perhaps the internet community is just quicker to react to events. But I believe some factor of influence is there, even if small and mediated through levels of indirection (friends telling friends what they read on blogs etc.), making blogs part of large and powerful feedback mechanisms. In that regard, one important aspect is the potentially large exposure of individual insights and presentations in relatively unfiltered and unadulterated form.

Posted by: cm on July 1, 2004 11:11 PM

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RC: Good point about the refinement aspect. But there is not only refinement, but people are also making cross-connections with other phenomena, and cross-references to other blogs or pieces of information (but perhaps that is included in what you call refinement).

Re the noise effects, that is part of human "mass" interaction. "Public" situations always attract self-performers, wisecrackers, and provocateurs; a high volume of contributions also naturally exceeds the human mental capacity. I hope that with time people will wise up and not take as much of the troll-bait; that will keep trolling in check. On this blog I have already seen it happening, without naming known names.

Posted by: cm on July 1, 2004 11:49 PM

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"Brad, don't you mean 'If I were her,' not 'here' (unless you're being existential)?" - Paul
Ah, I was wondering about that one for a bit. But in that case, oughtn't it read "If I were she" more properly?

On a more serious note, I would argue that blogs are rather unlike the town hall meetings and Athens in that those environs brought together disparate people whose commonality was only one of geographical coincidence, as opposed to blogs, which transcend almost any locality, but tend to disproportionately attract people who feel similarly to the author (More so or less in those who actually comment, for blogs that have comments? I don't know.), thus reinforcing extremism and polarizing an arena that's already been quite divided. Town hall meetings, on the other hand, brought one face to face with "the enemy", and in a way that you know that that's another human being who feels differently than you, where electronic communications in general (not just blogs, but also e-mail, newsgroups, bulletin boards, etc.) let one dissociate the others posting from their humanity, giving rise to the behaviours of trolling and flamewars. Positive feedback sets in, as bloggers support those who agree with them already, encouraging the others to feel more secure in their beliefs, so they in turn give back more encouraging comments to their fellows. And hence I end up here, instead of posting on Andrew Sullivan's site or something like that.

Posted by: John Owens on July 2, 2004 01:21 AM

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John Owens: You are right about positive feedback, but it is not that one-dimensional. Like-minded people attracted to each other in this way can and do still hold quite disparate views, and the like-mindedness is mostly at a fundamental value level. Frankly, honest discourse requires some common ground. We are not holding campaign debates or shouting matches.

I also don't see the extremism thing. Extremism is largely a subject matter issue, not one of consensus. For example, some people are discussing social policy issues here, but I don't see us drifting into egalitarian territory.

What you describe as polarization I would rather describe as gaining confidence, but then maybe that is what you mean. The "enemy" I don't buy, but you were using scare quotes, so I suppose you mean people of a not like-minded sort. Right? Well, adversity exists in blogland. And in a physical setting you can as well evade people with whom you do not wish to converse, or avoid places where you don't feel at home.

Posted by: cm on July 2, 2004 02:01 AM

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IMHO, blogs are much closer to talk radio than anything else. The blogger sets the topic and tone and can screen out all but like-minded opinions, as is done at Instapundit, Sullivan etc. Billmon has now cut out comments completely, because they are unmanageable. Apt 11D refers to the possibility that the Usenet worked better than blogs in the community sense, but many usenet groups, at least those unmoderated, were also overwhelmed with off-topic comments and bickering and spam as more people got on line. None of this is like a town meeting, and the bloggers' screening ensures that it becomes the like-minded talking to each other. But perhaps the entire blogosphere, bloggers voicing their own views, could be likened to a town meeting.

Posted by: paulo on July 2, 2004 06:03 AM

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John Owens, I've an analogy to counter the polarization issue - one I think reflects blog-reading reality a bit more accurately. That's because the implication is that polarization isolates, and messages never spread. And I've come to doubt that.

Hold the beach ball with one hand, and keep it there with a finger or two of the other hand. The image is there, now for the explanation.

The surface of the ball is the entire spectrum of positions - not a line, not even a sheet, but a complex surface where if you go far enough you find yourself merging with the other side. What your hand covers is your 'comfort region' - the viewpoints with which you at least accept if not completely agree. The finger on the other side is the polar opposite - the position which to your mind is somewhere between "idiot" and "enemy". Most people read the positions they are touching - their broad acceptance out of pleasure and agreement, and their narrow opposite to prepare, react and respond.

Everyone's hand covers a different section, and the handprints overlap. Most people share information through their 'hand coverage'. That is, if someone posts info under my thumb, I'm quite likely to share it with the groups under my pinkie. (*sorry, I know I'm stretching the analogy, but I think it's still carrying better this way*) What's under my pinkie may be under your forefinger, and you share that with more groups under the rest of your hand. A strong, well-written message may then spread across most of the ball - not through confrontation and skilled rhetorical skills, but through listening to similar minded people (even if the original post was halfway around the ball from you.) Oh - one last stretch of the analogy. If the message under our opposite finger is strong enough we share it as well, this time with a subtext of condemnation, but shared as well. The thing is it still spreads.

Just some thought. Kirk

Posted by: kirk_spencer on July 2, 2004 06:06 AM

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I would say that blogs really approach Habermas' conception of the public sphere, which he say epitomized in 18 century coffeehouses where citizens would debate the issues of the day. Habermas sees the public sphere as distinct from public institutions--it is more a realm of debate and discussion, which seems to fit the idea of blogs which only exist on the internet.

Posted by: cordelia on July 2, 2004 06:23 AM

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> Brad, don't you mean "If I were her," not "here" (unless you're being existential)?

I thought "here" was intended metaphorically to mean "in this sector of blogspace, trying to come up with something cogent to add to this topic."

But you're probably right that it's a typo.

Posted by: Paul Callahan on July 2, 2004 10:11 AM

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Great topic. I'll pick it up from the point near the end of the exerpt where Laura writes:
"Now, because of our blogs, Apt. 11C and I suddenly know a lot about each other. In the real world, we were strangers."
The real world's established forums/structures for discussion/communion are not satisfying some needs. The coffee house is sometimes a long way away. The town hall meeting is not what you need to talk about. The ---Group is too small and confining. The Book Club has the same people every 2nd Wed night at 7:30pm.
Plus, its raining.
The press/media is having trouble holding our fickle attentions --perhaps for good reasons. Blogland may be satisfying some of those well, human needs and bringing us a little closer together.
It has its limitations though -for instance right now I want Graydon to appear and talk about the Great Plains Ape. But will he? I doubt it.
But atleast there is a chance that he'll see the thread in a few days...
Blogland has some staying power that other forms don't.

Posted by: calmo on July 2, 2004 11:20 AM

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I like Arendt's view of public and private lives as an analogy. There is no public space in this country for discussion of any issue. How can a person be complete without some participation in the issues of the day, asks Arendt? But where do we do that in America. Our politicians do not listen to us. Our business leaders do not listen to us. The mere idea that I might have a sane thought on a public issue is not only laughable to them, it is utterly irrelevant.

Commenting gives us a small window into the public space. Our readership and commentary are a factor in our Host's position, even being considered for the mighty Lehrer, and that exists because people in the worthless mainstream media know that he actually has readers who think, and who no doubt would tune in if he were on the air. Same for Yglesias and Atrios and others. And this commentary gives each of us an opportunity to sharpen our own views for the more personal interactions with friends and clients, if we choose to use it so.

As for the town hall image, that seems less accurate. We do not have many from either extreme. Most of the people who post here know way too much to be simplistic enough to suit the extremes. This feels a lot more like a dorm room early in the evening, with a bunch of people closing their books and gathering to talk about the stuff they studied that day, before getting on the serious business of ... whatever.

Posted by: masaccio on July 2, 2004 02:46 PM

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kirk_spencer re 6:06 am Jul 2 04:

Very interesting metaphor, and one that I think does a great job in not only illustrating your POV on this, but does so in a manner clear enough for others to follow. I also suspect it is one of the closest to reality descriptions of the blogosphere I have ever encountered. Thank you very much for sharing it.

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