Apr 282010

New Study: Liberals More Open Than Conservatives

By Ari Melber

Many liberal blogs, it turns out, were created with platforms to host multiple authors and share attention with guest contributors. Conservative blogs, in contrast, often use technologies highlighting a single author–while consigning guests to the digital equivalent of a newspaper’s classified section. Those are some key findings of a forthcoming study by researchers from Harvard, Yale and Berkeley, “A Tale of Two Blogospheres,” which disputes several conventional views of political blogs (view a chart summarizing the comparisons).

The dominant academic literature posits an ideologically symmetrical blogosphere–an arena where liberals and conservatives practice similar writing, linking and mobilization tactics. The political and media establishment, meanwhile, tend to treat blogs as an isolated medium for political polarization. In this narrative, blogs are a digital refuge for the radical pacifists and tea party insurgents stuck at the margins of their own parties.

The first premise is wrong, according to the study’s findings, and the second misses the mark, which suggests consequences for politicos across the spectrum.

The study, conducted by Yochai Benkler, Aaron Shaw and Victoria Stodden and obtained before publication by The Nation, began with a content and technological analysis of 155 leading political blogs during two weeks of the 2008 presidential election.

One of the most striking findings is structural: liberal blogs provide audience participation options at triple the rate of conservative sites. That means visitors to progressive sites are more empowered to contribute entire posts to the “front page,” and more likely to have their contributions or comments highlighted before potentially hundreds of thousands of readers (see chart).

The popular site DailyKos, for example, has over 160,000 registered users. On a traditional media site, those people would be relegated to commenting at the bottom of articles. Yet on DailyKos’s platform, every registered user can write guest entries. Social voting allows the community to pick favorite guest posts, which are featured on the main page. That kind of deep audience production and interaction is one reason that Daily Kos’s traffic, which tops 4 million page views a week, rivals the sites of many newspapers. In the blogosphere study, this kind of amateur writing is distinguished as “secondary content,” in contrast to the “primary content” by bloggers who control the means of production. And on this score, again, the study found that liberals are more into amplifying voices from the crowd.

“The Left adopts more fluid and permeable boundaries between primary and secondary content,” the study concludes.

Spotlighting audience contributions tends to give more political voice to “non-elites,” explains Aaron Shaw, who co-authored the study while working on his sociology PhD at Berkeley. Shaw believes these formats could spread well beyond the lefty blogosphere. “America’s entire public sphere could look very different in twenty years if these type of sites catch on,” Shaw told me. So far, however, user contributions haven’t even caught on across the aisle.

“The right adopts practices that more strictly separate secondary from primary content,” the study reports. In other words, many conservatives still run their sites like newspapers. The writers are credentialed on stage, while “letters to the editor” are clearly marked and parked in the back. Overall, 42 percent of the conservative blogs in the survey were run by one author, while 20 percent of the liberal sites were solo shows.

That is not necessarily an odd choice. After all, the audience for credentialed media still far outstrips citizen media. Plenty of popular blogs focus on a handful of promoted personalities, not a rotating diary section. And for most readers, these distinctions are just a matter of taste.

When it comes to electoral politics, however, the ramifications can be huge.

The study proposes a historical theory for the Democrats’ current edge online. (It’s a big one, as the 2008 election revealed, when Obama raised $500 million through the web alone. McCain raised under $200 million from all individual donors combined.)

According to the authors, the netroots’ early embrace of deeper participation platforms, coupled with progressive bloggers interest in mobilizing fundraising and specific actions, helped prime the tactics and habits that supported the Democrats’ later web dominance (see chart).

The survey data does show that progressive bloggers were far more demanding of their readers.

One out of three liberal sites made direct fundraising pitches, and almost half asked readers to take some political action, according to a section of the study analyzing the top sixty-five blogs. On the right, however, only one out of twenty blogs pushed fundraising, and fewer than one out of five issued “calls to action.”

Being academics, the authors issue a careful caveat here. While the survey indicates that liberals have more participatory platforms online, and far more Democrats mobilized for electoral action and donations during the election, the authors do not claim to prove a “causal connection.” You have to make the connection yourself. They do hypothesize, however, that Obama’s smashing web success was more reaction than innovation.

“Looking at the structures of participation and the levels of mobilization on the left,” the study notes, “leads us to think that the stellar Obama Internet campaign was largely an extension of practices that already characterized the left-wing blogosphere, rather than a new order imposed on a previously disorganized or non-participatory population.”

So if you build it, they will donate. And if you don’t–since even the most wired conservative activists did far less mobilizing and fundraising online before 2008–then there is scant infrastructure or culture for your team to use.

The wrinkle in this theory of the political web, of course, is named Ron Paul.

The unconventional libertarian outraised the entire GOP field at the end of 2007, the crucial final quarter before the presidential primaries. He even doubled that quarter’s haul from McCain. So in an alternative political universe, where Republican voters settled on a purist Paul over a maverick McCain, one can imagine the GOP doing better online in 2008–despite the meager precedents of the conservative blogosphere.

But enough about President Paul. The study raises a deeper question: Why have America’s blogospheres diverged so much by ideology, in such a short time?

Here the researchers delicately walk through three possible explanations.

As always, there is demography. The left skews younger, in this theory, and is simply more savvy about options online.

Fat chance. The authors note that first, political blog communities are generally older than other online audiences. You don’t even need Harvard for this nugget, just cruise the bar scene at any blog convention. Second, other research indicates that there are actually more Republicans online than Democrats (84 percent to 71 percent–who knew?). Third, and more to the point, it was Republicans who used the web for politics more in 2008 (68 percent to 53 percent, though these numbers vary depending on the polling).

Another theory, sure to raise hackles among conservative bloggers, rests on psychological typology. The authors explore the possibility that conservatives chose less participatory technology because they are already politically oriented towards hierarchy over pluralism.

Bloggers in both parties simply embraced technologies that reflect their political and “psychological profiles,” in this argument, so “the right’s relatively limited integration of user contributions” comforts readers “who seek the stability of authoritative voice.” Such a trend is “consistent” with scholarship “about the kinds of psychological needs that conservatism serves,” the authors observe. (We’ll see how this plays at FreeRepublic.com.) By contrast, “the more egalitarian, participatory practices on the left require tolerance for the unpredictability of open and fluid discourse.” Who knew you had to be a hippie to withstand jeering in the comments section?

Again, however, the researchers stress that the left and right still share many online practices, and they stop well short of endorsing the psychological explanation.

The final theory seems the most likely. It’s back to nurture over nature. The study notes that the blogosphere’s formative years, from 2002 through 2004, presented vastly different political realities for liberals and conservatives:

The American political right had control of all branches of the federal government; it had active presence in the public sphere through Fox News and AM talk radio; and it had substantial networks of popular mobilization through the churches. The left, by contrast, was out of power under an administration that was increasingly perceived as hostile and polarizing; felt excluded from mainstream media; and had no clear community-based structures of participation.

The study even cites a book by DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas for the claim that “many individuals on the left felt alienated from the structures of power within the Democratic Party.” But really, you could cite just about any liberal conversation in the country for that proposition in 2003. The desire was palpable.

“There was no mirror image to Fox News,” explained Yochai Benkler, a Harvard professor who coauthored the study and penned the Internet bible “The Wealth of Networks.” “There was a small number of magazines like The Nation and The Prospect,” Benkler told me, “but nothing like the mediascape on the Right, and then the blogosphere comes along and creates a new alternative.” Given those dynamics, it is understandable that conservatives were simply less focused on incubating “engaged participation online,” according to the study, while liberals prioritized “platforms of engagement and active mobilization.”

This theory provides more promise for a conservative resurgence, too: “Nothing inherent in the cultural or psychological profiles of bloggers on the right,” the study predicts, “will prevent them from embracing more collaborative modes of participation in years to come.”

Editor’s Note: Read Ari Melber’s interview with web expert and Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler about the new study, the future of blog research, and how Obama managed to run both a fringe and mainstream campaign.

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