7. Political Freedom Part 2: Emergence of the Networked Public Sphere

From Yochai Benkler - Wealth of Networks
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Table Of Contents


Summary of the chapter


Basic Tools of Networked Communication

Networked Information Economy Meets the Public Sphere

Critiques of the Claims that the Internet Has Democratizing Effects

Is the Internet too Chaotic, Too Concentrated, or Neither?

On Power Law Distributions, Network Topology, and Being Heard

Who Will Play the Watchdog Function?

Using Networked Communication to Work Around Authoritarian Control

Toward a Networked Public Sphere


Sources cited in the chapter

Other relevant readings

Case Studies

Supporting examples


Thoughts on Link Powerlaws and Blogs

From The Conversational Middle: Maturing of the Blogosphere

Early on in the development of the Blogosphere, people like Clay Shirky and Joi Ito saw how linking structures led to a powerlaw effect, where bloggers with the most links had more broadcast power than other bloggers, similar to traditional media forms.

Evidence of those kinds of linking patterns can be seen here at the State of the Blogosphere report from October 2004, where counts for the NY Times and MSNBC were in the neighborhood of 17 or 18 thousand links, and top 100 bloggers like Boing Boing and Instapundit had 6 or so thousand links.


At that point in time, Technorati tracked 4 million blogs and 400 million links. What has changed over the following year and a half is that the blogosphere has grown to where Technorati tracks 33 million blogs and 2.2 billion links. As of January, 2006, the NY Times has 55,000 inbound links and CNN has around 53,000 but Boing Boing has 18,000 and Instapundit has 5,600 links (they are no longer the number 2 blog, as that position is now held by Engadget at 15,600 links) you can see that while the blogosphere has grown 7x and the links 5.5x, the inbound link counts of the top blogs and media has grown 3x.


Also, take into account that Technorati changed its methods of link counting last August, 2005, after several things occurred: (Robert Scoble complained about its link counts in comparison to Bloglines which counts every link since it started counting, Mary Hodder reported on how link counting worked across 5 blog search services as well as other's reports of frustration with the Top 100 and A-list counts where sparce posters' links were favored over frequent posters' links). So Technorati changed from counting just links on the top pages of a blog (those posts that linked but dropped off the front pages were dropped from front page link counts) to any link that had occurred in the past 6 months. Technorati still counts one link only per blog, no matter it's location on the blog posts or blogroll, no matter how many links come from one blog, but all link types age out after 6 months. So these statistics for the later time frame are different and not exactly comparable, but let's do it for the sake of argument here.

So, what does this mean? Well, since there are 5.5 times more links that occured over this 1.5 year time frame but fewer links occuring at the same rate to the top media properties (blogs and traditional media), it means that there are more links made to non-A-list bloggers than bloggers further down the power law curve. These links are occuring at a higher rate in what could be called the "conversation middle of the power law curve" (the curve for link counts), than those A-listers at the top are receiving.

A year and a half ago, there was far more interest in the top of the power law, or the existence of the power law curve at all. The evidence now in the Spring of 2006, as the blogosphere goes main stream, it that the conversation and power is moving more to the middle, at least as link counts go, to more personal conversations rather than pointers to a few top media sites or the blogs that are act more like broadcasters. The broadcast model for blogs means that many more links go to a top blog, than they were able to link back to, because it was just physically impossible for a single blogger to link out to an equal number of that blogger's inbound links. Those top bloggers are 1-to-thousands in their distribution. So inbound links counts for those bloggers would have thousands of inbound links as opposed to far fewer outbound links to others.

From link February 2003, here is one distribution curve showing bloggers inbound link counts in the Shirky article on power law curves:


But the conversational middle theory, then, and now, is represented by a model of 12-to-12 for the distribution and receiving of links, or 50-to-50 at higher levels, or for larger blogs, maybe 500-to-200, depending on the size of the conversation verses those listening and linking back. And now the mainstreaming of the blogosphere supports this hypothesis a bit more.

As modified from Chris Anderson's Long Tail article here is a representation of what the conversational middle model:


Some bloggers have been frustrated by Technorati's link counting methods and particularly the Technorati Top 100, because they have felt that ranking across the entire blogosphere emphasized something that did not favor those further down the power law curve. Instead those kinds of link rank systems favored the topic blogging activities on tech stuff and politics, and bloggers on other topics and with other linking styles found there was a lot of interest in figuring out ways to reveal topic communities lower down that power law curve.

The maturing of the blogosphere with less broadcast distribution and more conversation between people spread far and wide is even more subversive to tradtional media, and a more democratic way of bringing together people who want to discuss interests they have in common. Certainly there are still bloggers who are more highly read with more inbound links that resemble broadcasters in some ways, and who traditional media will consider to be more like themselves, but still, there is a shift to conversation with more symmetric linking patterns, and that is positive overall.

The next challenge is how to see how small conversational communities and the attendant tools that sift these conversations can use more than one or two digital gestures, like links and link counts, to create topic awareness of blogger groups with more than just the early adopter or blog-tool favoring metrics that post categories or tag indicators do now. These metrics too are subject to power law curves and the current uses of only one or two at a time still only reflect top bloggers, or early adopters, in these lists, just as link counts did before in emphasizing the top over the conversational middle. When the tools of exposure change, the conversational middle will become accessible and apparent not just to those in and around a particular conversation but to those outside it.

Key Concepts

Future research considerations

Substantive effects on legislation

Professor Benkler’s analysis focuses on how the Internet will change the “procedures” of politics – the mechanisms by which politicians and citizens will exchange and debate ideas. One interesting area for future study will be how the Internet will change the “substance” of politics – the policies enacted by government. Will the Internet shift politics to the left or to the right? What types of laws will be enacted as a result of the “new media” that would not have been enacted under the “old media”? Since the “new media” is, well, new, it is hard to empirically assess the answers to these questions, but one can speculate about the possibilities. Here are five such speculations (please contribute more!)

1. Greater emphasis on legislative protection of free speech

The Communications Decency Act passed in an era when there were far more Internet content consumers than content contributors. As more people contribute content to the Internet (consistent with Benkler’s vision), they will be more inclined against Internet censorship. More generally, as more people acquire the self-affirming ability to propagate their views, they may respect free speech to a greater extent and be less willing to deny it from others.

2. Better technology policy, such as copyright and patent law

In the mainstream media, those who create content (writers) tend to be different from those who are technologically adept (technicians). On the Internet, the content providers are the same as those with the underlying technological skills to put it online, and thus are perhaps more interested in technological issues. As a result, there may be more dialogue online than in the mainstream press on issues such as patents, telecommunications, and copyright. Anecdotally, the Grokster Supreme Court decision last year got as much blogosphere treatment as the Ten Commandments decisions – even though the Ten Commandments commanded (so to speak) much more mainstream media attention. Given that small interest groups currently drive copyright and patent policy because of the lack of broader public attention, increasing public discourse of these issues might have a salutary effect on technology policy.

3. Less pork

One of the reasons there is so much “pork” in congressional bills is that the “old media” does not have the expertise or interest to carefully evaluate these bills. As a result, the bills do not get any scrutiny, and Congressmen can feel free to insert these provisions without political recourse. The Diebold incident noted by Benkler demonstrates how the radically decentralized Internet can analyze complex issues in a way the old media cannot. Increased scrutiny on pork – leading to less pork – might be the result.

4. Decreased incumbency advantage leading to more populism.

Currently, 95 % of incumbents get reelected to the House of Representatives, in part because of the inherent cost of running political campaigns. The Internet undoubtedly makes it easier to advertise and run a political campaign. This might reduce the incumbency advantage, and might even lead to greater political populism as entrenched incumbents must directly appeal to voters.

5. Less prejudice against stigmatized groups

In the old media, people acquired information from two sources: first, from people they knew, and second, from TV or radio news anchors, whose physical appearances (in the case of TV), voices, and personal characteristics were calculated to appeal to as many people as possible. In contrast, when people read blogs, they do not see the faces, or hear the voices, of the bloggers. Frequently, the blogger is completely anonymous.

This might reduce prejudice against minority groups, both in politics and in daily life, in two ways. First, people uncomfortable around members of a minority group might be more willing to read a blog written by one, than watch one on TV or interact with one in real life. If they then find that the blog is appealing, it may implicitly reduce their prejudice toward people in those groups. Second, if they read a blog anonymously and then discover it is written by someone from a group which they stereotyped, their views toward that group might shift.

For instance, Andrew Sullivan is a gay conservative who wrote an influential blog in support of the Iraq war. Many people, especially in conservative states, might not know any gay people, and no gay person is likely to become a network TV news anchor anytime soon. Sullivan’s blog might thus have been their only opportunity to read and comment on the views of a gay intellectual. It’s possible that these interactions unconsciously reduced people’s hostility toward gay people.

Thoughts on File-Sharing, Transnationally

“Wealth of Networks” discusses in some depth the unique opportunities created by the internet for speech and collaboration, two vital ingredients to individual engagement with the political process. Americans generally regard the internet as a free and open space, but regulation of the internet could limit the utility of cyberspace for political activities. America and other nations have enjoined peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing programs such as Napster and Grokster under copyright infringement theories. These measures may restrict future activities and innovations important to political activism through the internet, yet it seems that few Americans have viewed the file-sharing decisions as more than just the prevention of music file exchange. This American attitude is not universal and is strongly influenced by several basic facts about American society: first, that America continues to experience a significant “digital divide,” and second, that America has a relatively mature democracy in which political activism is not widespread and internet freedoms are not closely associated with basic notions of political liberty. In contrast, South Korea has an unusually high rate of internet access and a relatively young democracy. We should expect that Korea will take a different and more permissive approach to its regulation of online file-sharing technologies.

America and Korea have both seen steady litigation over popular P2P file-sharing programs. In America, Napster, Aimster, and Grokster were all enjoined from distributing their programs by the courts. (A