Wednesday, January 28, 2004

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Damn that Jack Balkin!!

Jack Balkin celebrated his blogiversary by writing not one, but two great posts about whether the blogosphere is an example of what Cass Sunstein called "cyberbalkanization" in the tendency for those engaged in political debate to ignore other points of view. I've heard some bloggers refer to this as "cocooning."

Balkin argues that the case of blogs falsifies this hypothesis:

[M]ost 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.)....

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.

In his second post on the topic, Balkin then goes on to effectively critique the Sunday New York Times article on cyberbalkanization that I linked to here.

Balkin's posts are so good that Henry Farrell and I will have to cite him in our own blog paper -- as we're making many of the same arguments.

posted by Dan on 01.28.04 at 03:47 PM


To be fair to Sunstein (it's hard because I disagree with his thesis about the effects of the internet on public discourse), the phenomenon of bloggers linking does not disprove his thesis because it leaves out the readers and whether they tend to read sites across the spectrum or cocoon. Even taking the linking argument on its own, one would have to distinguish between links that simply link and links attached with an argument or even merely a comment.

posted by: Norman Pfyster on 01.28.04 at 03:47 PM [permalink]

I agree; it's further compounded by the tendancy by some bloggers to distort, misrepresent, or just make up stuff about the 'other side'. While the bloggers themselves may be reading across the lines, they may merely be looking for ammunition to feed their stay-at-home readership (like that mixed metaphor?) to convince them how right they are.

OTOH, I would argue that this isn't the case for most major blogs today. But it could happen.


posted by: Carleton Wu on 01.28.04 at 03:47 PM [permalink]

Norman's point is dead on: it's the consumers who are the victims of balkanisation - and indeed the daily blog update can feed ones biases in a particularly pernicious way. ever read Andrew Sullivan's letters page? that place is tres tres balkan. interestingly, it's balkaness is most marked in the fact that many of AS's readers obviously completely disagree with his positions on homosexuality/gay marriage - but love reading him because most of his posts pander to right-win prejudice. he's 'allowed' to be gay in a way most people aren't by the base.

posted by: mark nuts on 01.28.04 at 03:47 PM [permalink]

Ok, quick poll for the Drezner audience then:

1) Do you generally follow the links and read the opposing viewpoint?

2) Have you changed any of your views as a result of reading the opposition blogs?

For me, the answer to the first one is "yes", and the answer to the second one is "kind of". I don't think my specific, already-well-thought-out views have changed much, but on the issues I was kind of fuzzy about, my receptiveness to the other side's arguments has increased quite a bit.

posted by: Dave on 01.28.04 at 03:47 PM [permalink]

I love criticism, but unfortunately I have little time to view opposing blogs, so I don't often read them (Dan's trustworthy...).

Also, I know this is completely off the topic but if anyone has any takes on whether the words "under God" should be struck from the Pledge could you please e-mail them to me (NOT post them) at

posted by: David V on 01.28.04 at 03:47 PM [permalink]

I do think balkanisation happens in the blogosphere, partly because of bloggers commitment to advocacy (how many times have you seen Glenn Reynolds link to a piece critical of his nutbar idea to replace the Saudi royal family with a Hashemite king?) but mostly because blog readers tend to find comfort in reading views in agreement with theirs.

My question is, how is this different from what happens with opinion magazines and their readers? I see a pretty bright, straight line between the print edition of National Review and The Corner, for example. Most of these magazines like to brag about how they "challenge" readers, but realistically readers challenged too often go read something else. It seems to be the same in the blogosphere, except that things move faster there.

posted by: Zathras on 01.28.04 at 03:47 PM [permalink]


May I suggest a mention of Usenet, as well?
The alt.politics groups, particularly. Seems to me that's a bit of a cereal bowl.. (Filled with fruits, nuts and flakes)... that seem oblivious to all facts. Same Phenom as you mention, on steriods... possibly the stronger for having been established longer. Indeed the trend as you mention seems to go back to the BBS days... and I've run a few in my time.

posted by: Bithead on 01.28.04 at 03:47 PM [permalink]

"Ok, quick poll for the Drezner audience then:

1) Do you generally follow the links and read the opposing viewpoint?

2) Have you changed any of your views as a result of reading the opposition blogs?"

Your question is somewhat peculiar. Dan Drezner's blog is unlikely to consistently attract anyone on the hard right. Still, I'll give it a shot. I most certainly do read opposing viewpoints. And yes, sometimes I change my mind if confronted by a more convincing argument. My reading tastes are so diverse that one would be hard pressed to guess my political orientation if they perused my personal library. I own at least one of Cass Sunstein’s books. The earlier Paul Krugman is among my favorites. Then again, I’m a theological modernist who advocates for the decriminalization of mind altering drugs---and also supports President George W. Bush (I prefer Senator Joseph Lieberman, but he doesn't have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning his party's nomination). Go figure.

Professor Sunstein’s thesis is embarrassingly dumb. The Internet increases our reading options. Most people will take advantage of the opportunity. I simply do not perceive this alleged Balkanization as a legitimate threat. On the contrary, the exact opposite is actually the real situation.

posted by: David Thomson on 01.28.04 at 03:47 PM [permalink]

Blogging is simply an extension and expansion of the traditional American love of political expression, pointed out by Tocqueville. If you read his description of how politically-oriented newspapers were proliferating in the Jacksonian and later years (and likely before), you would probably expect the blogging phonomenon to have occurred. How individuals react specifically to political expression of this sort is probably less important than that it occurs, and it probably does drive our political culture in a basic way, just as newspapers did in the pre media monopoly era.

posted by: John Bruce on 01.28.04 at 03:47 PM [permalink]

Is this another effect of blogs - by the time you finish that blog paper, all of the points will have already been made by other people? Or is this another point which will be addressed in your paper? Or will it be answered in this comment thread before you write it in your paper?

I have a headache.

posted by: Independant George on 01.28.04 at 03:47 PM [permalink]

I think there's another important aspect of blogs that I want to call something like 'serendipitous centrifugalism'--the tendency for people to follow their fancy into areas they didn't think much about before. You find out about parts of the world, the global economy, or social issues you hadn't paid enough attention to before, often finding your assumptions inadvertently challenged in the process.

No one blogger reflects my range of interests or (still turbulent) ideological undercurrents, so I'm likely to encounter items I disagree with or that challenge my assumptions here and there, whether I am looking for such challenges or not. When visiting Instapundit, for instance, I generally take very little interest in his frequent posts on gun rights, but I have to admit that, over time, he has managed to wear me down a bit on gun control issues. I've at least loosened my ideological moorings on those issues.

posted by: Joel on 01.28.04 at 03:47 PM [permalink]

John Bruce = Case closed

Well said, sir.

posted by: TommyG on 01.28.04 at 03:47 PM [permalink]

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