Monday, January 29, 2007

 

Has the Blogosphere Revolutionized Political Communication?

Jackie Ashley today addresses the question of whether the internet has revolutionized political communication, and contributes much good sense. The first thing to say though is that Simon jenkins' recent take on this topic was a bit wide of the mark. His piece sought to debunk the idea that we are living through a revolution at all, arguing that, beneath the hype of new technology, most things remain the same and, for example, that:

Most people send emails back and forth twice a day, roughly the same exchange as the Victorian letter post achieved.

My experience is exactly the reverse of that in that most people I know send zillions of emails in a year and many, many more than the elaborately nib scratchingly written epistles sent by the Victorians. My son regularly spends hours engaged in one huge multi-addressed online letter exchange. But the topics discussed are mostly trivia- gossip and pop music- or what we grown - ups might call 'rubbish'; Ashley is concerned with the bit of the net facilitating political communication. Politicians often suggest that a 'revolution' has been forged in this area.

To some extent they are right: for example, the idea of being able to tune into an informal address by the Leader of the Opposition based in his own home, would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. But Ashley computes the numbers. Once you subtract the 43% of households who do not have net access- proportionately more working class, and in the north- plus older people, the very young and then the huge tranche who have no interest in politics at all you are left with the reality that:

The politically enfranchised, active internet community is very small indeed. If Guardian sites are any guide, bloggers tend to be disproportionately young, male, angry and rightwing.

Most bloggers reading this will know it to be true. The two most popular UK political blogs are Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale's Diary. Both are well right of centre. The former is exuberantly trivial and entertaining and hugely popular. The latter is almost as popular but is more serious and reflects the fact that its author aspires to become an MP and presumably part of a new Conservative government. If we'd had such a government since the end of the last century I suspect there would be quite a few leftie blogs pulling in the visitors, but the bottom line is that the political blogospere is quite small and is the preserve of rather untypical people.

If the revolution is to be judged by the numbers drawn into the ongoing 'national political conversation' I suspect that there has been no revolution. But so moribund is political participation in our democracy that any additions should be welcomed and celebrated. That doyen of political commentators, The Times' Peter Riddell, last autumn, at the Politics Association annual conference told me he spends at least half an hour a day surfing the opinions offered in the political blogosphere as he found it a valuable extra way of taking the nation's political temperature.

So we are not unimportant. But Ashley is right to remind us that we are most definitely not yet much more than a curiosity, even in the USA where the net is used more widely and scandal mongering blogs have claimed more than a few scalps. I prefer to see the political blogospere, as my picture suggests, as an entertaining and stimulating Tower of Babel. Whether we are an acorn which will grow into a mighty oak only time and I suspect, more technological advances, will tell.

Comments:
It seems to me that the internet should be having more of an impact than it is doing. When before in human history could we check virtually any fact, or read any article, at an instant? Scholars of the past five hundred years would be intensely jealous if they knew what powers we have now.

I was struck by a phrase I read in J Schumpeter's article, "Two Concepts of Democracy", which I read recently: "Information is plentiful and readily available. But this does not seem to make any difference. Nor should we wonder at it." This was written in 1942, but strikes a chord even more readily now. The internet is the central part of a general revolution in freedom of information. But, despite the internet's egalitarian potential, it is so far a fringe movement. There is an extent to which Jenkins' analysis is correct.

(Afraid I don't share your analysis of Iain Dale's Diary being "more serious": I regard it as second-rate gossip.)
 
Just browsing Iain Dale's Diary and two things stuck out like a sore blog. First, the headline: "Yasmin Falls in Love With Dave...Almost". Oh dear. And second, the sentences: "[Ed Balls] may have the intellect of an Oxford don and he may well be the only person in Britain who can explain neo-endogynous growth theories (or indeed spell the word), but the fact is he cannot communicate. Whenever I have heard him on the media he is hesitant, almost mono-syllabic and at times incoherant."

Not the best ambassador for the blogosphere.
 
SPL
Your fascinating quote from 1942 fits in with Jenkins' analysis. My comments on Dale were strictly relative but I fear you could be right in what you say...
 
Jackie Ashley is spot on and that's why, added to Matthew Taylor and Joseph Rago's comments last year I decided to pack up and 'disengage' (not completely obviously) from the blogosphere.

And the imbalance isn't just in terms of right/left - it's predominantly male and restricted to people who, almost by definition, have a dysfunctional attitude to politics otherwise they would have other outlets for their political beliefs and aspirations (there are of course exceptions like your good self Skip because there's a link between your day job and the blog).

Perhaps I'm still on a downer at the moment but I think the whole thing is overdue a major overhaul / realignment - it's simply not what most of it's protagonists believe it to be. My father recalls the rise of CB radios in the early 80's and some journalist suggesting they'd revolutionise citizenship and shake the foundations of democracy... interesting...
 
Cassie
I'm really sorry you've decided to discontinue your blog which I thought was one of the best I regularly read. You had already built up a reasonable readership too. Well, if yoiu fancy it, you can always come back...
 
A judicious comment, skipper, and I think you have the blogosphere in the right perspective. It is not yet world shaking by any means, but some blogs have occasionally had an impact - the Fawkes blog, for instance, aiming to emulate the USA's Matt Drudge, can sometimes put a story into the mainstream - his digging away at the Smith Institute may be such an example at the moment. Otherwise, I notice that the biggest attempt to challenge the mainstream - blog tv station 18 doughty street - always trumpets any coverage it gets from mainstream media, because that is still where the news is heard and made.

I think I was hoping the blogosphere might be more substantial. Your own article in 'Politics Review' is what got me interested. Do I find much new or revelatory in other blogs? Not often. conservative Home takes the temperature of part of the Conservative Party (and was given an award by the PSA I notice); yours is thoughtful - many others are gossipy and entertaining, but they are the equivalent of tabloid gossip columns or why oh why articles!

As you say - there is still time to develop though, and Howard Dean launched his presidential campaign on the net after all!
 
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