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Weblogs and the Public Sphere

Andrew O'Baoill, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

In this essay I assess the potential impact of weblogs on the public sphere, using a model based on the work of Jürgen Habermas to provide an ideal against which we can measure the efficacy of weblogs as a public space. Specifically, I posit that inclusivity of access, a disregard for external rank, and the potential for rational debate of any topic until consensus is achieved are necessary criterion for meeting Habermas's model of an idealized public sphere. I assess the current standing of weblogs and suggest developments that could improve the ability of weblogs to meet this ideal. There are a number of structural impediments in the current implementation of weblogs-both in terms of production and reception-that seriously damage any claim of the blogosphere to be a strong public sphere. The time commitment required if one is to build reputation and integrate oneself into online debate serves to skew the distribution of those involved in blogging, and in particular of those who gain prominence within the blogosphere with academics, journalists and certain other professionals over-represented. The influence of personal networks and of an A-list of bloggers in shaping who gains future attention is problematic, as is an inability of current generations of reading and ranking technologies, such as search engines, to take account of negative appraisals of sites to which one links. Geographically-bound issues are less likely to gain ground than those with a general appeal. Future generations of reading, searching and aggregation technologies must address these problems if weblogs are to continue to develop as sites of public debate.

 

Introduction

In this essay I assess the potential impact of weblogs on public debate. Looking at aspects such as the impact of preexisting, off-line, personal networks and the nature of story propagation I identify some ways in which weblogs fail to meet an idealized model for public space, and suggest areas where improvements might be made. The term weblog covers a multitude of approaches and styles with many weblogs dealing with matters of purely personal interest (Ó Baoill, in press). I will here, however, generally be restricting my examination to those weblogs which deal with issues in the political/legal domain of the public sphere-one of three (along with Art/Culture and Science/Technology) identified by Habermas. The public sphere and concepts of public space in general have, as Seyla Benhabib has noted, an "intimate rootedness in the domain of political life" (Benhabib, 1992, p. 89). They describe those places and situations in which people meet to discuss matters of public concern. The work of Jürgen Habermas in this area is perhaps the best known, and from his study of those places that featured "organized discussion among private people that tended to be ongoing" (Habermas, 1997, p. 238) he identifies three key features. These are that participation is open to all (there is a principle of inclusivity), all participants are considered equal (social status or rank is disregarded), and any issue can be raised for rational debate (Habermas, 1997, pp. 238-239). Together these three factors provide us with a minimal model of how we would wish debate to be conducted in a public sphere, and I will address each factor in turn to identify some of the strengths and weaknesses of the structure of public debate in the social space created by weblogs, the blogosphere.

Inclusivity

Richard Davis identifies three impediments that "Internet democracy places … in the way of civic participation", to wit: technological literacy, time commitment and additional financial resources (1999, pp. 179-182). Those promoting the weblog are proud of the fact that it is so easy to use, with a typical claim being that "anyone who can e-mail or buy online can blog" (Crowley, 2003). Many of the available tools, especially entry-level platforms such as LiveJournal, require little technical knowledge and the level of skill required for a basic installation is significantly less than was necessary to maintain even a relatively simple website a number of years ago. With attractive templates readily available, even novices can present a sleek appearance to the world. Moving from the technology to the content, however, the time commitment required to produce a quality weblog becomes evident. The major task here is not actually in writing but in reading - the burden involved in keeping up with the detail of news output is well recognized (Mills, 1956; O'Hehir, 2003). Bloggers are more likely to be drawn from those have the time to devote to keeping up with information sources that may provide good weblog material. Even amongst those in a position to undertake the task it may not be an attractive proposition. Clifford Stoll, for instance, bemoans the fact that "simply keeping track of this electronic neighborhood takes a couple of hours every night" (Stoll, 1995, p. 2). Given the daunting task of keeping up to date with even some specific topic one must view with skepticism claims that

People searching for viewpoints on a topic of their choice will have the opportunity to see every group's position on that topic, not just the views of the major groups. In effect, the nets have become a sort of virtual village green, on which any idea can be discussed and addressed on its merits. (Rash, 1997, p. 100)

Rash believes that the Internet removes barriers to both information transmission and reception, allowing unlimited interaction. On the contrary, some believe that the very abundance of information will serve to exacerbate divisions in levels of political involvement:

The gap between the politically active and the inactive will grow larger. The Internet will offer greater advantages to a political elite while simultaneously erecting another barrier to participation for those who are uninterested and uninvolved. (Davis, 1999, p. 183)

The prospect of spending the requisite amount of time browsing potential sources and contributing to debates with other bloggers may dissuade some from involvement. When combined with recent research on the digital divide indicating that 24% of Americans "have no direct or indirect experience with the Internet" (Lenhart et al., 2003) and that "in general, the Internet population is younger, wealthier and more educated than the offline population" (Rodríguez, 2000, p. 21) the potential for structural exclusion is evident, though perhaps no more so than other volunteer-based media forms. Consider, for instance, the response of a prominent blogger, Eugene Volokh, to a new blogger who wonders how one generates attention and links to one's weblog:

Blogging is more of a meritocracy than many other media are, but it's still hard to get noticed, even if your material is very good. My coconspirators and I had an edge: We know quite a few of the big guns personally, and our academic credentials give us extra credibility. (2003)

Personal contacts may add you to their blogrolls (permanent lists of links on their front pages) ensuring improved ranking on Google and blog-specific indexes such as Blogdex, and may link to specific stories of yours, helping you build readership. Even if somebody overcomes the cultural barrier of not knowing other bloggers, access to equipment is still a problem. While a weblog gives an individual autonomy to post what they want, given the lack of an editorial process, it also places the burden on an individual to provide the resources necessary to produce the weblog. At the publishing end this is not necessarily problematic-much software is freely available, and some hosting can also be obtained for free. Should a weblog become more popular, or if the blogger wants to use a specific domain name, costs do arise (though they should still be below $200 a year for most sites). It is also clear that an Internet-enabled computer is necessary in order to blog, creating a barrier for those without one, notwithstanding the availability of public computing sites (K. Williams, 2003). The existence of weblogs seemingly written by homeless individuals seem to provide the exceptions to prove the rule.

An important step in the development of a media form is the identification of viable funding models. It is instructive to ask whether it would be possible for weblog authors to develop economically self-sustaining weblogs, permitting perhaps the emergence of professional bloggers. MSNBC and others have introduced weblog-style columns, but does this defeat the independent nature of weblogs? Many sites have introduced tip jars, using services such as PayPal and Amazon Associates, though the evidence would suggest that these rarely produce sizable sums (R. Williams, 2003). A number of weblogs have instituted what they refer to as pledge drives-obviously derivative of the public broadcasting concept. However, these tend to be open-ended, casual affairs, without the targets of the original. The call to action ("We provide a valuable product. Give us money.") may sound similar to the traditional pledge drive, but several elements are missing. There is often no target amount. This arises because the drive is seen as an income opportunity rather than being necessary to keep the site running. This is the case with Glenn Reynolds's Instapundit pledge drive in 2002, reputed to raise several tens of thousands of dollars. There are exceptions, of course, and the most prominent is Chris Allbritton's Back-to-Iraq project. Here we had a professional freelance journalist who solicited donations to fund a trip to Northern Iraq. He had a set goal ($10,000), an attractive project, and premiums for contributors (early access, via email, to articles). Similarly, Joshua Marshall has raised significant cash to finance reportage from New Hampshire prior to the presidential primary (Jesdanun, 2004). Since these are early examples of attempts to raise money online in this manner they may be good predictors of more general viability of such projects, and the desire of fellow bloggers to support the general concept of weblog-based projects seems to play at least some role. However, this notwithstanding, these cases do demonstrate that funding of this sort- even if only on an occasional basis-is possible.

Rank

I mentioned above Eugene Volokh's reference to his real world relationships with other prominent bloggers. Such factors, insofar as they have an effect, breach Habermas's criterion that outside rank should not be a factor within the public sphere. Note that we are talking about outside rank here-the reputation that a contributor builds within a public sphere can be properly taken into account, as it contributes to the warrant that a person is seen to issue with each speech act. However, hopes that weblogs might provide such an open system, where reputation is built in an open ongoing basis, seem to be undermined by the intrusion of outside relationships such as Volokh describes. Weblogs, to the surprise of some, have seen the emergence of a small loose group of A-list bloggers, whose traffic and in-bound links are far in excess of those of most other bloggers, and around whom much coverage of weblogs in traditional media is based (Park, 2003). Jason Kottke has found that links to weblogs, just like on the web in general, follow a power law distribution-that is the top ranked weblogs have far more links than those further down the chain (Kottke, 2003). A similar study by Clay Shirky (2003) of a sample of 433 weblogs found that "the top dozen (less than 3% of the total) accounted for 20% of the inbound links, and the top 50 blogs (not quite 12%) accounted for 50% of such links."

So why does this happen? In some cases the reason is clear-some of these people are highly active, were involved with the development of weblog tools, and consequently have been blogging for quite some time. They have had longer to build up their reputation and their membership, and have provided more output to which one can link. The pre-existing personal networks of these prominent bloggers are also, however, an important factor. Given the personal informal nature of weblogs it is not unusual to welcome a friend who has started a new weblog with a post from one's own site. Where the originating weblog has a large readership this will obviously push traffic to the new weblog that those without such contacts will not so easily receive. Incidentally the concentration of media publicity on members of the A-list means that that those encouraged by such coverage to visit weblogs for the first time will often start from one of these few entry points. Should a reader decide to start from an index-Blogdex, Popdex or whatever-they are more likely to encounter one of these already popular weblogs than any others.

As Clay Shirky recognizes, "It's not impossible to launch a good new blog and become widely read, but it's harder than it was last year, and it will be harder still next year" (2003). Reaching an audience is, of course, a necessary step in becoming involved in a debate and having one's ideas have an impact on it. Unlike when one launches a 'zine in the real world, there is no store counter space that can be used as a base in the online world. Such publicity points as there are-directories of leftwing or pro-peace blogs for example-are so overburdened by numbers that the level of publicity from such sites is inconsequential. To break into the consciousness of the blogosphere one needs to already have a reputation off-line or get significant numbers of links from already prominent bloggers, preferably over a short amount of time. So while the possibility of anonymity afforded by the weblog allows one in theory to live or die by words alone, the growing cadre of celebrity bloggers and the intrusion of real-world networking have resulted in an intrusion of external rank in a manner that skews the involvement in, and impact on, debate that an individual can have.

Also, the page-ranking systems, such as that of Google, the dominant search engine, which are meant to reflect the reputation of a particular page or site, cannot in general recognize negative links. This means that every link to a website-even where such links are from posts that criticize that site-pushes up the rank of the target site on Google or weblog-tracking tools such as Blogdex in proportion to the ranking of the originating site. One prominent example that highlights the complexity of determining reliability and authority is that of The Drudge Report. Matt Drudge's regular updates of insider news from Washington are heavily linked-to, but many of those linking are aware of the speculative nature of many of the stories. Just because it is considered by many to be required reading does not necessarily mean that it is regarded as more authoritative than one of the next-tier outlets that each attract a smaller audience, but existing ranking systems do not readily recognize this. A more sophisticated integration of the Habermasian concept of a speech-warrant will hopefully occur in future generations of the search tools available to us.

Rational Debate of Any Topic Until Consensus Is Achieved

Charges of a concentration on ephemeral issues are perhaps the most common criticism made of the quality of debate on weblogs. The worry is that in the constant desire for new data-be it new sources to which to link or the constant need for anecdotes and entertaining memes-blogging provides a distraction, but little true insight or productive results. This criticism is, of course, not new, and is a common criticism of the mass media in general (McChesney & Nichols, 2002; Mills, 1956; Phillips, Tomorrow, & Project Censored (U.S.), 2002; Pilger, 1998). The importance placed by many weblogs on breaking news not only leads to greater risks of faulty information being published but, given the layout of weblogs, can foreshorten debates. The use of separate comment threads on each individual weblog post means that each particular thread can be quite short, being supplanted by the newest news item, and preventing the "rational debate until consensus is achieved" that Habermas would wish for, and which might be better approximated in other online forms such as the wiki.

While there is some good analysis on weblogs, much of it is derivative of stories first carried in the mainstream professional press. Take for example the story of Trent Lott, often held up as an example of weblogs coming into their own and breaking a story. True, weblogs kept the story alive, but it is instructive to follow the early genesis of the story. While there was an early posting on a popular weblog, the comments were then covered in two different professional publications (Slate and the Washington Post) before they gained widespread attention online. Indeed, many of the early links on the story were to the Slate article rather than to Marshall's piece (Blogdex; Glaser, 2002).

While weblog coverage ultimately served to feed and develop the Lott story, with weblogs often carrying the same links in a copycat or meme propagation fashion there are obvious conclusions that can be drawn regarding the type of stories that propagate well among weblogs (Schofield, 2003; Scott, 2002). First, any story about weblogs or a related topic ranks highly, persists, and will reappear when the story is regurgitated by another media outlet. Writing about weblogs, or other topics of general concern to many bloggers, such as intellectual property or online controversies, seems the surest way to gain linkage. It is of course not the only way, but it is noteworthy that many of the A-list bloggers are particularly known for their interest in blogging as a topic of inquiry and comment. Bloggers will similarly often also weigh in on matters of blogging ethics (see Agonist Watch or the Raging Cow Boycott for instance).

Second, the tendency for popular themes to dominate was demonstrated last year with the war in Iraq. With that topic the most common topic of discussion in general society, other stories-the war in the Congo perhaps-were pushed out of aggregation lists such as Blogdex by an ocean of items about Iraq. This raises questions about the ability of weblogs to provide the balanced framework for interpreting the world we desire from our news sources (Schudson, 1995). One of the consequences of the break with the paradigm of the page is that the linear/hierarchical order of the newspaper can be subverted, with items (perhaps originally buried in websites) being given greater prominence through the cumulative effect of external links. However, current reading technology tends to overemphasize the popular-the story must first provoke a reader to provide a link from a (well-traveled) weblog, and then readers of that weblog must be further encouraged to read the first story.[1] So while there is no formal censoring within the weblog community, one can easily be reminded of Wilde's aphorism that "the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about."

The growing use of RSS readers may also have a negative impact on involvement in online debate. In essence, an aggregation program downloads a document from a website which contains the content of the website front page, but in a stripped down, structured format. This makes it easy for a reader to browse through a site quickly, checking for new updates. The current early generation of readers are not, however, well integrated with web browsers. With this disconnect between reading (in an RSS viewer) and responding (through a web browser) the threshold for interactivity is again raised. While later generations of tools can be expected to fix some of these issues they must still face two conflicting forces. The first is a growing recognition that the blogosphere is comprised of many interwoven conversations between small groups of people. The current tools, in treating the blogosphere as homogeneous, lead to stories of moderate salience to a large number of people being propagated better than those of high salience to a larger number. The second factor to consider is the serendipity of coming across something unexpected, something that you would not necessarily search out. If readers access weblogs predominantly through aggregation tools it may remove the potential for random interaction (Zeldman, 2003). Not that one should overstate the blame to be laid at the feet of aggregators. Jeffrey Abramson (1998, p. 59) has already noted the tendency of web users to repeatedly use the same sites.

Geographically-bound stories are one group that seem currently disadvantaged. While weblogs can, on the one hand, be seen as removing the shackles of physical location, on the other we must be concerned that they might displace the possible development of bonds based on geographic community. Notwithstanding some encouraging counter-examples such as the Austin bloggers metablog, the fluid nature of the weblog encourages people to discuss issues of non-local, generalized interest, rather than, for example, local zoning matters. Thus we have the contention that "the Internet gives us new tools for accessing real news, yet we need to create other more expansive outlets at the local level" (Phillips et al., 2002, p. 204). Some take a positive approach to this issue. Elin for example, in documenting the use of the Internet for information gathering and organizing purposes, notes that for some activists:

Although the Internet did not replace face-to-face meetings and brainstorming sessions, it facilitated them, and in some cases enabled the discourse to extend temporally and geographically beyond the confines of the physical setting. (Elin, 2003, p. 101)

In fact, he believes this model to be "emerging as a model for civil engagement among a broad range of Americans" (Elin, 2003, p. 107). The problem is, of course, that this engagement may be at the expense of interest in more local, perhaps mundane, matters. While there are of course examples of local issues being discussed online, unless a critical mass of people from a community meets up online, where people do raise local matters, respondents often talk in a general fashion, as they have no information on the specific matter at hand. While one can take a positive view regarding universalized interests, or hope for the further development of localized services, such as the Austin meta-blog, the shortcomings of the current situation are obvious.

On a somewhat more positive level, those looking to express themselves from within oppressive regimes also use weblogs, though their audiences are often external rather than within their own country. There has been much coverage of Salam Pax, a blogger in Baghdad, who wrote about conditions in Baghdad before and during the war. Among the much larger Iranian blogging community, Sina Motallebi, a journalist and blogger, was detained by the Iranian authorities-seemingly in part because of interviews he gave to newspapers on his weblog (Bloggers unite to fight, 2003). Of course it would be rash (and somewhat ironic) to herald the detention itself as proof of the power of weblogs-Motallebi had been a print journalist until the newspaper he worked on was shut, and repression on the part of authorities does not necessarily mean that his weblog was having any practical impact (Thompson, 2003). However, it does indicate that weblogs are becoming part of the wider political milieu observed by political authorities. The fact that a weblog-based campaign and petition was credited with Motallebi's later release (Glaser, 2004) provides even stronger evidence in this regard.

Conclusion

I began this paper by identifying three key factors in determining the extent to which a space meets Habermas' ideal of the public sphere. Inclusivity, disregard of external rank, and rational debate of any topic are all necessary components of such as space. As we have seen, although some talk of the blogosphere as a conversation, it is in reality an overlapping collection of conversations. The nature of the system fosters the development of an A-list of bloggers, and controls what stories are likely to propagate through the system. Given the advantages conferred on those who either know influential bloggers or can gain their attention, the system provides a poor implementation of the criterion that a public sphere should involve a disregard of rank. Although anyone can start a weblog, and the barriers are less than for some other Internet-based outlets, the need for inward-bound links to attract visitors to a site acts as an effective barrier against universal access. Thus, while the blogosphere is technically inclusive-anyone can start a weblog-the propagation network serves to privilege some over others (with external relationships a significant factor). Further, the time commitment needed is a significant barrier that makes blogging most attractive to students, academics, and certain professionals. Finally, the method of story propagation means that discussion centers around a small number of topics, and disadvantages discussion of locally-focused topics, meaning that not all topics are equally subject to rational debate. There is hope that future generations of aggregation and reading technology will help to combat some of these issues. However, there such technologies must walk a thin line between serving the individual interests of readers and providing them with only that which fits a commodified profile.


References

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[1] It should be noted that this is in some ways an improvement from earlier online forums, where moderators could exert a censorious function over the input of individual commentators. Slashdot, for example, provoked controversy [http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2002/1/17/21155/1564] when their editors used their powers to moderate down a comment (so that it would not be seen by the majority of readers) in opposition to positive moderation from individual readers.

TrackBack

You may be interested in this discussion of Habermas, the Internet, and the public sphere:
Habermas@discourse.net: Toward a Critical Theory of Cyberspace, available at
http://www.law.miami.edu/~froomkin/discourse/ils.pdf

The last section contains a short discussion of the possible role of blogs.

Posted by: Michael Froomkin at July 1, 2004 04:10 PM

Andrew, you've said "The growing use of RSS readers may also have a negative impact on involvement in online debate". I disagree: i would suggest that aggregators are an improvement over more traditional methods of conversing online, by improving scope and efficientcy.

I've responded to your article in more depth here:
Aggregators and public debate.

Enjoyable, thankyou. D

Posted by: Drew at July 3, 2004 02:22 AM



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