Wednesday, July 21, 2004

previous entry | main | next entry | TrackBack (11)

The power and politics of blogs

Longtime readers of are aware that I've been trying to exploit my hobby (blogging) for professional gain (peer-reviewed publications). Towards that end, Henry Farrell and I have been slowly co-authoring a paper on blogs and politics.

We've completed our first draft of "The Power and Politics of Blogs." Henry ably summarizes our key arguments:

(1) Blogging is politically important in large part because it affects mainstream media, and helps set the terms of political debate (in political science jargon, it creates ‘focal points’ and ‘frames’). Note that we don’t provide an exhaustive account of blogs and politics - some aspects of blogging (fundraising for parties, effects on political values in the general public), we don’t have more than anecdotal data on. There’s plenty of room for other people to do interesting research on all of this.

(2) Incoming links in the political blogosphere are systematically skewed, but not according to a “power law” distribution, as Clay Shirky and others have argued of the blogosphere as a whole. Instead, they follow a lognormal distribution. We reckon that the most likely explanation for this is that offered by Pennock et al. - they argue that not only do the ‘rich get richer’ (i.e. sites that already have a lot of links tend to get more), but that link-poor sites stand a chance of becoming rich too. Late entrants into the political blogosphere can do well in the political blogosphere as long as they’re interesting and attract some attention - bad timing isn’t destiny.

(3) Because of the systematic skewedness of the political blogosphere, a few “focal point” sites can provide a rough index of what is going on in the blogosphere - interesting points of view on other sites will often percolate up to them as smaller blogs try to get big blogs to link to them, by informing them of interesting stories. Thus, we may expect that journalists and other media types who read blogs will tend to all gravitate towards a few ‘big name’ bloggers as their way of keeping up with what is going on in the blogosphere as a whole.

Both bloggers and blog readers are encouraged to download it and tell us what you think.

Be warned, however: this paper is primarily intended for a scholarly auduence, which means there's some jargon that might appear confusing but is -- like most jargon -- a form of shorthand for fellow professionals.

Most of it should be pretty digestible, however. Read it and post your comments below or over at Crooked Timber.

Finally, a quick thank-you to Henry -- I've tried co-authoring papers in the past, and it's been a disaster. This paper was a breeze.

UPDATE: More scholar-blogger research from Glenn Reynolds. With experimental evidence no less!

More seriously, this report by Jeff Jarvis from his Aspen Institute experience with Big Media machers supports one of our paper's hypotheses. In particular:

I gave a spiel on technology and the newsroom -- about more than just weblogs, but it turned into a discussion of just weblogs -- and at our closing session, half the [media macher] participants said they were awakened about blogs and even frightened of being left behind in this blog thing. In previous sessions like this, I've heard half the big media guys dis and dismiss blogs, but there was none of that here, none of it. The curiousity about blogs ranged from cautious to cordial to rabid. These big media guys (not unlike the mullahs of Iran) realize that blogs are here to stay; we are a force to be reckoned with; and now they're reckoning what to do about it.

UPDATE: Tyler Cowen offers constructive criticism and calls the paper a "mini-classic."

Dean Esmay offers a long critique that boils down to:

[T]hey seem to have missed the most obvious point of all: that our poltical discourse in America has always been influenced by a comparatively tiny number of voices.

Dean points to small-circulation political magazines as evidence for this recurring pattern in American political history.

I think I can speak for Henry as well as myself when I say that we are aware of this fact. Indeed, what we find interesting is that this phenomenon has been replicated for the blogosphere. However, compared to blogs, these kind of publications generally posses two advantages. First, a lot of elite media journals have been founded and operated by those who were already politically influential and well-connected. Second, these journals needed to have sufficient resources to pay for minor things like salaries, distribution, and printing runs.

Neither of these conditions holds particularly well for blogs. No doubt, some pioneer bloggers -- Andrew Sullivan most notably -- have been well-connected. But this is not true of most of the influential bloggers. As for material resources, some bloggers are now able to earn some scratch, but this is an effect rather than a cause of their success.

What's interesting is that despite these differences, and despite the low barriers to entry, the blogosphere looks like a similar link on the oipinion chain.

posted by Dan on 07.21.04 at 06:27 PM


There are arguments that log-normal distributions are in fact almost the same as power-law distributions:

posted by: Suresh on 07.21.04 at 06:27 PM [permalink]

I've only read your summary, and looked at the figures -- but the reason you give for log-normal over power-law isn't that convincing. I.e. the two features of scale-free networks are that they (1) grow (i.e. new nodes are added over time) and (2) preferential attachment (highly linked nodes are more likely to get new links). This doesn't mean new blogs will neccessarily languish. Look forward to reading the rest of it later.

posted by: Jor on 07.21.04 at 06:27 PM [permalink]

Late entrants into the political blogosphere can do well in the political blogosphere as long as they’re interesting and attract some attention - bad timing isn’t destiny.

There are other factors involved. One major one is, frankly, being able to tell people what they want to hear.

Let's say there's this blogger - we'll call him Blogger A - who's been blogging for almost two years. And, there's another blogger who gets lots of hits, Blogger B.

Blogger B has linked to A's coverage of things like "peace" protests. However, Blogger B has consistently refused to link to stories about, say, terrorists coming over our southern border disguised as illegal aliens, preferring instead to occasionally say things like "I'm pro-immigration!"

As a result, Blogger A is forced to, oh I dunno, leave comments on other blogs to get the word out or something.

(And, no, Blogger B's initials aren't "DD." And, yes, there are other Blogger B's, however, they all tend to think like Blogger B. It's not a conspiracy, but it certainly is a bit of a mutual admiration society.)

posted by: The Lonewacko Blog on 07.21.04 at 06:27 PM [permalink]

being able to quantify political weblogging is pretty neat, like you can model the "blogosphere" in silico!

it'll be really interesting if the US really is bifurcating along political lines, ie a level of bipartisanship develops such that one can be persecuted for one's beliefs, eg you can be fired for your political views, and if technology is accelerating/the catalyst for this process by enabling their respective "echo chambers" :D

posted by: greg nowell on 07.21.04 at 06:27 PM [permalink]

er, homopartisanship :D sorry! btw

posted by: gpn on 07.21.04 at 06:27 PM [permalink]

Have you seen the Blogosphere Political Compass Project?

posted by: Puddle Pirate on 07.21.04 at 06:27 PM [permalink]

So, I skimmed most of it, and to refine my earlier comment, the data definitely looks log-normal, but the argument for why its log-normal (instead of scale-free) isn't so good. Although, its pretty irrelevant, as Suresh pointed out, teh effects are from either topology are mostly the same.

There were some good anecdotes on how blogs effected the media -- interesting contrast between Lott and Sanatorum. I also liked the idea that the topology forms to solve a coordination problem -- although its speculation, it something I hadn't thought of at all. I think you nail the reasons why the media is starting to pick up on blogs -- although not neccessarily in the correct order :).

On the down side, I'm not sure how much I buy the blogosphere's hierarchy serving as a filtering mechanism on blogs below in the food chain and as a fire alarm for the media. This definitely does happen -- but I'm not sure that this is the primary function of the heirarchy. I mean if you look at the majority of links from the hub blogs -- I'd bet money that they are mosly to the NYT, WSJ, FT, Economist, etc. type publications -- i.e. typical media. Although they link down, and their is cross-talk, -- it feels to me there are more links to traditional media the big guys than the down the blogosphere. Analyzing link patterns from the major hubs would be interesting. The people at the top are definitely filtering info from readers and other bloggers, but it seems that the majority of the time the links are to big institutionsn rather than down the chain.

posted by: Jor on 07.21.04 at 06:27 PM [permalink]

Re point 2).
From purely anecdotal evidence. The rise of both Wonkette and Michelle Malkin would appear to support the idea that new entrants can rapidly become link rich.

posted by: Tim Worstall on 07.21.04 at 06:27 PM [permalink]

As I understand it, Wonkette accumulated link capital from the Nick Denton connection, ie, a mothership blog gateway.
Michelle Malkin profited from linkage first and second hand to the former and latter respectively.

posted by: Dave F on 07.21.04 at 06:27 PM [permalink]

>The curiousity about blogs ranged from cautious to cordial to rabid. These big media guys (not unlike the mullahs of Iran) realize that blogs are here to stay; we are a force to be reckoned with; and now they're reckoning what to do about it.

Not to be too gloomy, but I can see a the political blogosphere shutting down if all the mainstream news outlets on the Web start being "paid subscription only".

When the readers of the political blogs have to pay to read every link on a blog, that will cut down on the readership considerably IMO. If bloggers try to get around the problem by cutting and pasting stories into their blogs instead of linking, they will then be caught in copyright violations.

Take for example the once respectable but now totally left-scewed Christian Science Monitor. Their online edition is soon going to be available by paid subscription only. They say it's a financial decision but I actually think it's because they don't want to hear any more of the flak they get from their the readers who rag on them for their extreme left bias--a bias which they laughably deny (No, we're not left-leaning; okay maybe Clay Bennet is our cartoonist and we gave Michael Moore's 9/11 our top rating of 4 stars -- but you still can't say we're not "moderate"...)

I see other online news outlets going the same route. When all the mainstream press have gone to paid subscription, they'll have no one to watch them and keep them accountable. Each mainstream news outlet will become like a gated city, being able to preach their biases interruptedly to their blind readers who swallow every word they say hook, line and sinker.

This dismal prospect really worries me.

posted by: Joanna Smith on 07.21.04 at 06:27 PM [permalink]

Jeff Jarvis is definitely on a roll. This from the article you link:

These big media guys (not unlike the mullahs of Iran) realize that blogs are here to stay.

And this apt metaphor from the following day:

Without efforts at transparency -- revealing bias, agendas, process, and mistakes and turning news into a conversation -- then journalist-priests will continue to try to hide inside the cathedral walls while their public is busy posting 95 theses to the door and using this new medium to start new churches.

It's very clear, Our blogs are here to stay

posted by: Sissy Willis on 07.21.04 at 06:27 PM [permalink]

One more point: When media outlets on the web go to paid subscription, I think it's highly likely that the majority of paid subscribers to any given paper will be those who agree with that particular paper's editorial slant. So, in effect, the paid subscription gambit is good way for papers to maintain mutual admiration societies between themselves and their readers--because only readers who don't perceive the paper's editorial distortions will pay money to read those distortions every day.

posted by: Joanna Smith on 07.21.04 at 06:27 PM [permalink]

Interesting stuff, but I'm wondering why you do not differentiate between poliblogs with discussion capabilities and those without. It seems to me that blog readers sort out into two groups (not mutually exclusive): those who want to know what the cognoscenti think (equivalent to sitting in on an editorial staff meeting, or watching the "News Hour"), and those who want to get into the trenches with fellow newsjunkies and hash out the latest stories (more akin to having coffee with random, but unusually smart and well-informed) room of strangers and near-strangers.

As someone who gravitates toward the latter blog, I have been approached offline by people who either liked or hated my posts, want a date (how desperate is that?) or want to interview me for some story or project (for instance, I made the first paragraph of a Business Week Europe story after mouthing off about boycotting French wine last year).

Do big media types just want to hear what Instapundit or Drezner have to say, or do they go to LGF and read the (sometimes psychotic) comment threads? That would be a question worth asking, don't you think?

In the end, I think the critical question is not how blogs influence the traditional media, but whether they have a ripple effect beyond their small readership. I hear a lot of crap about how blog readers are a vanguard of sorts, influencing opinions of those around them. But no one ever asks how or even if this is possible. In my case, I have a couple of friends and one husband who regularly ask "what do the blogs think of X story?" I give them my somewhat skewed take on things, we laugh, two days later their opinion is still almost entirely shaped by traditional media.

I'd say that those of us who troll around the blogosphere regularly are influenced by what we read and write there; those outside the "circle" are not. And that is, and will continue to be, the vast majority of the world.

posted by: Kelli on 07.21.04 at 06:27 PM [permalink]

Why should what you argue is the influence of 'blogging' have anything to do with the medium rather than the individuals who do it? Why wouldn't the media be interested in what a Chicago IPE Professor or a Tennessee Law Professor (for example) have to say on a particular issue without having to go through the hassle of arranging an interview? It's not surprising that experts and individuals inside politics can affect politics. Influential bloggers are influential people independent of their blogs (though perhaps disproportionately so as a result of the practice).

posted by: BC on 07.21.04 at 06:27 PM [permalink]


I take your excellent points about what is happening with some media outlets (i.e. trying to simultaneously make some money off web readership and perhaps close off unwanted readership/hostile commentary via blogs). Personally, however, I have had horrid experiences with virtual subscriptions and will not pay for any news source that I can't hold in my hot little hands. The format of even the best designed webpage is simply not conducive to getting a good return on time spend reading it. If you hold a paper or magazine, you can scan pages and flip around; online you are far more likely to miss a story you would have read, had it been more prominently displayed. That, really, is the value of blogs: if I read the NYTimes or WaPo online, I probably STILL missed a good piece or key quote. Until media outlets (and perhaps hardward designers) succeed in making the online reading experience much closer to its old-fashioned counterpart, no one stands to gain from forcing their readers to pay their way. They'll just walk.

posted by: Kelli on 07.21.04 at 06:27 PM [permalink]

For anyone really interested in network effects & the math behind them, I offer my blog, where I run NetTraq, a weekly listing of all papers on self-organization, network theory & related subjects. Stop by & say hi!

The Self Organization Project
"we've got math on our side"

posted by: Tim Keller on 07.21.04 at 06:27 PM [permalink]

Speaking of the difference between good and bad blogs, has everyone here contributed a nomination for this week's Worst of the Web?

posted by: Ryan on 07.21.04 at 06:27 PM [permalink]

The rise of both Wonkette and Michelle Malkin would appear to support the idea that new entrants can rapidly become link rich.

I believe Wonkette was helped by a) advertising, b) being mentioned by the Pope, and c) being mentioned by anyone else who for some strange reason or another supports the Denton Empire.

I don't know when Malkin started blogging, but wasn't it recently? If so, she was already a well-known columnist and author.

posted by: The Lonewacko Blog on 07.21.04 at 06:27 PM [permalink]

Heh. Wonder how much a full-color banner ad link from Instapundit costs...

posted by: Some Guy on 07.21.04 at 06:27 PM [permalink]

I generally write in telegram form as a form of economy.

Agree with Kelli re many of us are smart and want to discuss news/topics topics with other smart types.

Have noticed some dogmatists and/or academic non-reality here.

I avoid the blogs for those who "vent" with others of left or right leaning or those who need to hero worship any so-called big name on a blog.

Lonewhacko--recommend you link up with some of the newer border sites(American Patrol,Secure Borders, ) out there. I read them. Most here ignore the problems and costs of massive immigration.
The liberal blogs totally ignore immigration problems and costs. They would be quite surprised
that 75% of the adult taxpaying voters want immigration stopped, illegals out of here, etc.

posted by: Alex on 07.21.04 at 06:27 PM [permalink]

Thanks for doing this, Daniel and Henry, and for posting the draft. One thing you might make more of is that in a very short time, weblogs have raised the standard for opinion writing, such that a typical op-ed page or columnist frequently pales. This would be more embarrassing to the editors of these pages if more of them read weblogs, but they haven't heard the news yet.

Another point I would mention is this: Journalists and a lot of political scientists treat information acquisition ("the news") as step one, and opinion formation as the logical step two. But a different view holds that argument is what engages people and causes them to seek information. Blogs put this notion into practice.

The clearest expression of this second view is in Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites, chap. 9, "The Lost Art of Argument." Here is a TechCentralStation column that makes reference to Lasch. Cheers.

posted by: Jay Rosen on 07.21.04 at 06:27 PM [permalink]

Nicely done.

Another use of blogs that is reallly growing is for business purposes.

An MBA student at University of New Brunswick, St. John, is conducting an online survey about business blogs.

He asked me to spread the word. Please head over and take the survey.

posted by: Anita Campbell on 07.21.04 at 06:27 PM [permalink]

A few general comments:

1. I don't think the real players (WP etc.) will go to a subscription format until at least after the election. Also passwords are often shared, and at least for some sites available on the web.

2. People who regularly read blogs are generally people who are 'engaged'. They may be comparatively few in number compared to the mm's audience, but they're visiting a blog because they're interested, and they're paying attention. What percentage of the mm's audience is actually paying attention? My guess would be less than 50%. The editorial pages go unread, families are talking while Dan R is blathering, CNN is background noise etc. For that reason I think blogs have a greater influence than the raw numbers would suggest.

3. For those of us who are often annoyed at the mm, blogs serve 2 purposes: (a) they can be shared with family and friends, and to some degree lend credibilty to a point of view and/or provide FACTS that the mm has chosen to ignore. (I've found that thanks to blogs I can win an argument, or at least stop someone from ever mentioning the topic again.) and (b) they're wonderful forums for 'letters to the editor', published on a real time basis, not two weeks later, if at all.

3. Every successful blog I've read is honest. They be wrong, but they're honest and they admit their mistakes. They also are not pompous and don't talk down to their audience. (How can anyone read the NYT's editorials???) They are a continual breath of fresh air in the miasma that is our mm.

posted by: max on 07.21.04 at 06:27 PM [permalink]

Heym I think you guys are onto to somthing. See my post below to Henry's blog site.

Needless to say I believe the American people are hungry for real information that the mainline media has failed to report. Without objective reporting the American people can't make informed decision in the presidential election.

The media has failed to educate the American people on the War On Terror. The American people need to understand this is a war of ideologies and cultures. This is a war against transnational terrorists who share a common bound of Islamofascism. Their fanatical religious mission is to kill or convert everyone of us.

In the end this is a war they will lose because Islamofascism is a failed idealogy. The question is at what cost to the free world. Our media's "rooting" for the enemy only emboldens and prolongs this war. They don't understand our freedoms and interpret our public debate as a sign of weakness. In fact our freedom is at the core of why they hate us so much.

The media is reporting a distorted view from Iraq, with its "doom and gloom." For a sense of perspective read the reports (blogs)coming from native Iraqis. These brave souls are the true foreign correspondents of this war. Their perspective is much different than what is being reported here.

Iraq was on the verge of having nuclear capability just not in Iraq (Try the tunnels in Libya). Our media has failed to report or refute this story because they are too focused on not finding WMD in Iraq, "Where's the beef?" They have been unable to see the forest for the trees.

The danger is the free world will fail to take action to disarm Iran before it achieve nuclear capability. Iran is playing a game of "talk talk tan tan" while at the same time working feverishly to construct their own nuke. The strategic consequences of this are unimaginable.

Waiting mrdy in the wings is Pakistan. There is a rising There is a rising Islamofascist movement in northwest Pakistan. Pakistan already has nuclear capability which could fall into the hands of the Islamofascists. Fortunately the trigger locks are being recoded as we speak.

The fate of the world as we know may rest with the Israelis. In the recent comments by the IAEA's director, Israel may have been given the green light to neutralize Iran's nuclear program just as they did in Iraq in the 1980's.

Now have we heard one word about this in media whether true or untrue? I rest my case. Go figure!

Here's an interesting thought as to the potential political power of the blogosphere. Bloggers can focus the world's attention on Iran. The ruling theocracy every day is growing smaller and smaller. The "Joyless Generation," is growing more restless by the day. If the light of the free world shines on Iran its represive government may implode. Yes, there is a metaphorical reference here to the, "Trilogy of the Rings."

The media is no longer the only provider of information.

Ron Wright, Moderator
HPSIG Forums Site

The media as we know it may be replaced as the main source of information by the Blogosphere.

See two recent pieces on our site:
(2nd reply under this topic)

The blogosphere just may be the key element necessary to implode repressive regimes. The free flow of information now transcends political boundaries and without the constraints and biases of media editorial and conglomerate boardrooms.

The endless power of the truth and objective information is what is needed to crush the failed ideology of Islamofascism we are at war with. The power of the great lie no longer controls. Final solutions can no longer occur in secret.

posted by: Ron Wright on 07.21.04 at 06:27 PM [permalink]

Post a Comment:


Email Address:



Remember your info?