Politics and Network Effects

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The Positive Value of Network Effects

General / Framing points

  • What's our baseline?
    • We have a perception of social apathy, etc, that we're setting this all up against.
    • But that's US-centric - how big is our context here?
  • Technological determinism
    • Are we talking about whether the technology can vs cannot do something, or are we discussing our uses of it?

Benkler's Claim

"The basic claim is that the diversity of ways of organizing information production and use opens up a range of possibilities for pursuing the core political values of liberal societies -- individual freedom, a more genuinely participatory political system, a critical culture, and social justice." - Benkler, Wealth of Networks, pp. 7-8

Distinct but overlapping points:

  • "Individual Freedom"
    • Ability to self-broadcast
    • Trust networks - social interpretation of the news w/ peers.
      • But see Sunstein's "Daily Me"
    • Counter-argument: is the technology really a significant enough force to bring about change in this area?
    • Counter-argument: if there are still secret police who will show up when you post something critical on your blog, how is your freedom increased?
      • But, the arms race: a fixed number of censors can't read an exponentially increasing number of blogs.
      • Also, the internet crosses borders. It's harder to filter a blog hosted elsewhere than to shut down a printing press in country.
  • "Genuine Participation" -
    • Timeliness: immediate response of bloggers, YouTubers to media comments.
      • Counterpoint: who really does this? Are we just taking the word of a different set of quasi-authorities?
    • Easier to reach under-served groups, e.g. the blind (far easier to re-code websites to deliver to a braille reader, than to re-print physical lit in braille). Or, bilingual households, or youth outreach.
      • Much higher youth participation in 2006 than 2002 - related to online use? Not clearly so, but possible.
      • Complication: few sites actually use, e.g., braille translation.
    • Feeling more involved might lead to higher participation, c.f. blog with no readers.
    • Distributed lobbying / political action
      • e.g. [MoveOn.org http://www.moveon.org/], but it's not quite there yet. Or is it? C.f. Ned Lamont.
      • But regardless of fundraising, new people are brought into the process.
      • Hard to show causality sometimes; war was unpopular anyway.
  • "Critical Culture" - access to media, individual's ability to respond.
  • "Social Justice"
    • Impact of, e.g., self-broadcasting: as more voices are heard, their political influence will increase.

Some Counterarguments

Reformatting Politics 1: The Internet is Not That Free

  • An underlying presumption of the Benkler approach is that the Internet is a sort of "grass roots" network.
    • In fact, ARPANET was a military project; the academics glommed on there at some point.
  • Many people do participate in the Internet, but how meaningful is it?
    • who just visits a blog once and never comes back?
  • P. xxi: calling the Internet a tool for democracy forecloses debate as to the real function of the technology & its impact on democracy.
    • The usual suspects are just using a new tool to do their same old work.
    • Internet is a neutral technology: it could easily be put to non-democratic ends. E.g. voter suppression, misinformation, astroturfing, news and blog filtering.
  • Post-democratic Governmentality (end of Ch. 1)
    • One view on the use of networks by, e.g., NGOs is that the era of the nation-state is coming to a close.
    • As individuals, NGOs, corporations, and others increase in influence, state power decreases.
      • This may seem nice if the government in question is totalitarian.
      • But what if it's democratic? Many of the newly empowered parties are less accountable.

Reformatting Politics 2: Info. Networks and Non-representative Democracy

  • P. 26 quote: "The challenge is to imagine and enact a nonrepresentative democracy whose technics of organization are internal to the logic of networks."
    • The networking tools can be made to serve an entirely different end than democracy.

Shirky's Power-Law Argument

"Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality ", or, if no one reads your blog, did your freedom of speech really improve?

  • Blog readership follows a power law distribution: very few blogs get the lion's share of readers, and there are tons of blogs that no on reads.
  • The internet is no big deal; this is how other media (TV, books, music) work as well.
    • So, how much of an impact can the Internet have on participation in politics & democracy.
  • Institutional biases of political campaigns
    • Even if it would be valuable for politicians to reach out to the "long tail" blogs, campaigns have an institutional bias against reaching out on a disaggregated level like that. E.g., troubles with staying on message -- c.f. the Edwards blogger fiasco.
  • Counterpoints
    • There's still very little barrier to entry to the huge-readership level, and huge readership need not be "sticky." If other blogs are more useful, they can rise up.
      • But does this attack the underlying point? Just because you won't always be on top doesn't mean there's no top.
    • But, compare Atrios (150K readers) to a top-20 circulation newspaper (~same): Atrios takes 2 people to run! So the participation has been cracked wide open, in a lot of ways
      • But but, the underlying media structure hasn't changed. Still, it's interesting to get more people involved.
      • And will people cycle in and out of the top end of the power law? And again, was it really not this way in other media?
    • Casual nature of "long tail" blogs
      • When the readership is small, tone is more conversational. More genuinely socially networked?
      • And, now there is a record of lots of these conversations.

Sunstein: "Daily Me"

  • One facility of the Internet is to allow you to choose which information you receive. Past a certain point, this can lead to the echo chamber effect and actually cause minds to become more closed, not more educated.
    • One of the important points of general interest news is that it gives our society a common touchstone and taking-off point for discussions.
  • The militia problem
    • People who think more extreme things tend to flock together. If the network facilitates that, is that a good thing.
    • Or, replace "militia" with "terrorism"
    • Or, less seriously, Fox News, Daily Kos (or TownHall), how much am I really learning by re-reading it daily? What am I missing by not checking elsewhere? Confirmation bias.
  • Factionalising of political sides - people on one side spend too much time haggling w/ each other rather than working to get things done
  • Counter args:
    • The 3 major networks sucked! The content was not that valuable.
    • the filtering is not that good
    • Re-intermediation: browse the web through NYTimes, CNN
    • And anyway, it's not like we live on the Internet, people are still exposed to a wide diversity of media and other influences.

Power Law vs. Daily Me

  • Interaction of the Shirky article & the Sunstein chapter - are they compatible?
  • If we're congregating around these major blogs, then it seems like Sunstein has less of a point.
    • But even if so, does it affect the Militia Problem?