Thursday, September 21, 2006

Retro

Brendan Nyhan's description of how he was forced out of American Prospect — or at least made so uncomfortable he had to leave — is a cautionary tale about the dangers of leaving your little sandbox for the greener pastures of a mega group blog or portal. By mounting the larger platform you gain a wider audience but do not imagine that all your advantages have been gained for free. Nyhan writes:


Today, online politics has come to be dominated by two warring camps, just like offline politics. And while many critics complain about the polarization of the blogosphere and its effect on elections, how blogs will affect the economics of opinion journalism is less well understood. In particular, partisan blogs have become so popular that they are threatening the business model -- and the independence -- of center-left opinion magazines, which may be forced to toe the party line to ensure their survival.

I learned this lesson the hard way after I signed on as a contributor to The American Prospect's media criticism blog a few weeks ago. It seemed like a bit of an awkward fit -- the Prospect is a liberal magazine, and I had previously co-founded Spinsanity, a non-partisan watchdog of online spin -- but I assumed they knew who they were hiring. I was wrong.

Last Wednesday, controversy broke out when I slammed two liberal blogs for using an airline employee's suicide after 9/11 to take a cheap shot at President Bush. My post, which initially contained a minor factual error, prompted one of the bloggers, Atrios (aka Duncan Black), to label me the "wanker of the day" and to call on TAP editors to "rethink things a bit." Hundreds of Atrios readers filled the Prospect's comment boards with vitriol. In an email Friday morning, Sam Rosenfeld, the magazine's online editor, asked that I focus my blogging on conservative targets. He specifically objected to two posts criticizing liberals (here and here ) that I wrote after the Atrios controversy. I refused and terminated the relationship.

And the reason outlets like American Prospect must protect the purity of their liberal credentials from people like Nyhan is simple economics. In the detergent business it has another name: brand management, but in simple terms it comes down to this: there are conservative and liberal markets and if you are competing for liberal market audience share then you had better be one hundred percent, genuine and certified liberal. Unless you are the Soap that Floats, you'll be the blog that sinks, or so the logic goes.

Atrios, Kos, and other liberal bloggers have attacked The New Republic for years, helping to undermine the center-left magazine's lagging popularity among liberals. If TNR's subscriber base were to shrink as a result of these attacks, the viability of the magazine could be threatened.

Considering these factors, TAP's decision makes perfect sense; they have no incentive to incur the wrath of the liberal heavyweights whom they depend on for traffic. According to Alexa.com, prospect.org is less popular than Atrios and dwarfed by Daily Kos (whose site also includes reader blogs and discussion boards). With Eric Alterman [a former MSNBC.com blogger now on Media Matters] and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of Kos joining Atrios' attack on the Prospect Friday afternoon, the risk was real.

This is not the place to discuss the politics of opinion, but it's probably safe to observe that ideologies have traditionally served as a kind of lazy man's guide to the universe. Anyone who didn't want to take the trouble to think things out for himself could always rent a point of view. And ideologues from every persuasion were always willing to oblige. Ideologies are a simple way to understand everything. What to like, who to hate; whom to believe, what to doubt. The busier life got the more tempting it became to treat ideas like TV dinners. Was there time for anything else?

But this tendency towards herding ideas really throws away one of the most powerful properties of the Internet, its ability to float a noteworthy fact or meritorious idea to the surface of global consciousness within a few iterations. No matter where an idea or fact may appear on the blogosphere, it can be successively promoted until it reaches one of the Domain Name Servers of the memetic world, which in the liberal case is probably a site like the Daily Kos or the American Prospect. Once listed there, anybody can resolve to its origin by simply following the links. But growing partisanship means there will be ideas which the Domain Name Servers of the blogosphere will not list. There will be ideas which, because verboten, will by ideological fiat be buried. What this does is destroy the connectivity of the blogosphere. It slices apart the nodes on the network and once again, creates islands of information.

Ideologues of all stripes will doubtless delight in this, because it is a demonstration of power. But they will be wrong. It is an unwitting reversion to a defect; an expulsion from the blogosphere of the very property which made it so much more powerful than the mainstream media. How strange that the mainstream media should, even in its death throes, attract into its pit the very creatures which once sought to escape it. Yet those tempted to run back after the fatal glitter of the last century's media should remember: be like the mainstream media, die like the mainstream media. Go back to your little sandbox. You will be the better for it.

14 Comments:

Blogger hdgreene said...

I wake up every morning to the Today show, and this morning Replacement Katie was asking Bill Clinton if Hugo Chavez had given voice to "the real concerns of the third world." And I thought, so that's what Hugo was doing! Now, with folks like these in charge of the MSM, who needs Daily Kos? Well, they do, because that is where they get their news (though they must constantly remind themselves to "tone it down").

9/21/2006 06:32:00 AM  
Blogger 49erDweet said...

Well said, W. And do many folk even desire to consider ideas or facts that could shatter their mindset? Regrettably, most seem too timid to do so.

9/21/2006 09:38:00 AM  
Blogger Meme chose said...

The web is re-enacting precisely the history of the Wild West.

The frontier was initially a zone of absolute freedom, concerning relations between the 'palefaces'. There were no rules and there was no law. Pretty soon though itinerant gangs formed and found they could have fun and even support themselves by intimidating the settlers, and so they did.

I believe we will end up with a mix of conventions and enforceable rules on the web, as we have in every other former 'frontier zone'. In the meantime the gangs will have their fun.

9/21/2006 09:42:00 AM  
Blogger Papa Bear said...

I ran into a similar situation recently, on a much smaller scale, in my local homeschooling online group.

The group moderator censored out a "controversial" posting of mine because she did not want to offend anybody, specificly the couple of Muslim homeschool families.

Over time, a gatekeeper who wants to avoid offense will tend to cater to those who are easily offended, just as "consensus management" tends to turn into a dictatorship of the most obstinate

9/21/2006 10:03:00 AM  
Blogger Jim Fen said...

Didn't the same thing happen during the BBS era? Sysops were censoring whatever they didn't like and some were notorous for "little tin god" syndrome.

I agree with meme chose that the Web is following the Wild West pattern. I've seen the Wild West pattern several times in different areas of the computer gestalt.

9/21/2006 10:56:00 AM  
Blogger John Hawkins said...

Some people are too easily offended and other people are too easily offensive. A good moderator provides value by telling each camp when to knock it off so that communication can continue. Gratuitous insults and aggressive victimhood can both squelch debate, and those without the facts on their side have been known to use these tactics quite freely if left uncorrected. And they’re not generally appreciative when the sheriff puts a stop to it. It’s up to the rest of the group to show support for good moderation.

The Wild West analogy is apt, with the Lawman being the moderator. How many westerns dealt with the need not just for law and order, but for an honorable lawman who combined wisdom, compassion, patience and the moral self-confidence to tolerate dissent? Will Kane would understand, and so would Senator Stoddard of Shinbone. “Little Bill” Daggett late of Big Whiskey wouldn’t, but he was just building a house…

Communities can clam up and enforce strict ideologies (Internet firewalls anyone? Vice-and-Virtue squads? Speech codes perhaps more your thing?) but ignoring ideas rarely seems to make them go away. Eventually the stage coach comes to town and the idea gets off whether you want him to or not.

9/21/2006 12:37:00 PM  
Blogger Red River said...

LOL.

"Soap that Floats, you'll be the blog that sinks"

And then there was the 66/100 of the 99 and 44/100th pure soap that was very impure!

9/21/2006 02:36:00 PM  
Blogger Matt Huisman said...

Anyone who didn't want to take the trouble to think things out for himself could always rent a point of view. And ideologues from every persuasion were always willing to oblige.

To be fair, working things out for yourself can be quite an exasperating task - on closer inspection all the alternatives grow less and less appealing. 'Renting' oneself may actually be the height of rationality once you remove the possibility of discerning truth.

I like these lines from John LeCarre (from The Honourable Schoolboy), where the agent Jerry Westerby is responding to an approach - an appeal to significance and purpose - to reactivate as a British agent.

Jerry had had enough. "Sport," he expostulated, with a clumsy laugh, as the colour rose to his face. "For heaven's sake. You point me and I'll march. Okay? You're the owl, not me. Tell me the shots, I'll play them. World's chock-a-block with milk-and-water intellectuals armed with fifteen conflicting arguments against blwing their blasted noses. We don't need another. Okay? I mean, Christ."

9/21/2006 07:45:00 PM  
Blogger Alexis said...

Whoever orchestrated the anthrax attacks was clever, for he appears to have largely succeeded in splintering America's resolve to win this war.

I wish our government were closer to finding those who orchestrated the anthrax plot, for although those attacks killed fewer people than the September 11 attacks, they sowed suspicion in the ranks of Beltway power brokers. The fact that the mainstream media (and the National Enquirer) were attacked as well as the Democratic leadership but not anybody within the Republican leadership created instant fodder for rumor mills and conspiracy theories.

One of the nasty side effects of the anthrax attacks has been to sever communications between congressmen and their constituents, creating a void of participation that extremist bloggers such as the dueling blogs of San Francisco (LGF and Kos) exploited.

Whoever was behind the anthrax attacks, they were highly effective in exploiting our internal divisions and using them against us. And that is very sad.

9/21/2006 11:38:00 PM  
Blogger Alexis said...

I don't think the problem on connectivity is so much that certain ideas are forbidden, but that movement of ideas from one realm to another becomes filtered in such a manner that they become mangled in the process.


For example, when I quote Charles Manson, it does NOT mean I approve of what he did. It does mean that violent ideas written or spoken in one place can be carried out in another. On a place like the internet, it is possible for one person to think violence and another person to carry it out with neither person directly communicating with the other.

On a place like the internet, it doesn't require mind control to imagine violence in a manner designed to incite another person to commit it. And that is precisely how al-Qaeda has been able to use cyberspace. Quoting Charles Manson does not mean one approves of "Helter Skelter"; it does mean one can be aware that Charles Manson, in his dark twisted way, understood the power of ideas.

The connectivity of the internet is undermined by how political activists will maliciously edit someone else's words to make them appear to mean something very different from what they actually mean. That happened once when an edited version of my comments on this blog got reprinted on another blog.

9/22/2006 12:13:00 AM  
Blogger Alexis said...

The internet in its early days wasn’t a Garden of Eden; it had far more snakes.

The internet, from the time of the early newsgroups, has been a polarizing institution where rival "cybergangs" use flaming to mark out territory on the newsgroups. Some of us remember a time when soc.culture.african had flame wars on whether it was possible for white South Africans to really be African. It was a time when activists from soc.culture.african nearly singlehandedly got American troops sent into Somalia! Back in those days, Serdar Argic was a terror to the newsgroups with his massively crossposted robo-posts claiming a bogus genocide of 2.5 million Muslims by Armenians. Back then, proto-al-Qaeda was extremely well organized, with vitriolic complaints of torture in an Algerian prison. Flame wars would erupt when someone would crosspost between rec.pets.cats and alt.sex.bestiality. And for a short time, a man named Roger David Carasso created a newsgroup called alt.wanted.muslim.gay where gay rights advocates and Islamists got into shouting matches against one another.

And soc.culture.yugoslavia fragmented just like the real country did, with online flamewars mirroring the bloodletting in the streets. And if you want any conflict that hinged on internet activism, it was the Bosnian civil war. Online Muslim activism on behalf of the Bosnian government was intense, and created a backbone of organization and sentiment that Osama bin Laden could later tap into for his massive ego trip.

Far from facilitating communication, the internet has made it easier for people to refuse to communicate with one another, for it has allowed people with like minds to congregate and reinforce each other’s behavior. On the one hand, it has allowed deviant subcultures to become stronger, but it has also undermined the ability of any given society to have cultural norms. Add to that the already existing cultural divide within the Vietnam generation, and how extremists typically gain initial control over any new medium of communication, and our present situation is not a surprise.

The “cybergang” flame wars on newsgroups fifteen years ago wasn’t that different from the vicious flame wars that typically erupt on the dueling blogs of San Francisco. The difference is that more people have gone onto the internet, with the effect that the polarizing influence of cyberspace becomes vastly amplified on our offline politics.

9/22/2006 12:28:00 AM  
Blogger demosophist said...

The crosspressure (a term coined by Karl Marx, ironically) certainly got to Andrew Sullivan like a shot of Everclear. But so far (fingers crossed) I don't see a similar purity movement in the conservative blogosphere. Well, there's a comparable dynamic but it's a lot more limitted. That might be because the "conservatives" are a ruling coalition rather than a single ideological flavor. In fact, the nation itself is a kind of liberal coalition that's deeply anathema to the sort of Alcove I mentality of KOS. If crosspressure works, the effect may not be symmetric across the political spectrum.

9/22/2006 08:14:00 AM  
Blogger John Samford said...

The internet was created to exchange ideas (commands) in the event of a nuclear war. That requirement meant a robust connectivity that makes central control very difficult. As the Chinese and Iranians are finding out.
Anyway, A lcak of central control is arnarcht to some people.
I like the 'Wild West' thingie, only where is the Railroad? It was the railroad and it's attendent telegraph line that brought civilization to the Wil West.
As another old timer, I enjoyed the Flame wars of yesteryear. My favorite was "supurating anal lession'. I remember having to look that one up.
Offensive communication is still communication. Sometimes it is just a way of gaining attention, sort of like Neon lights, which I find offensive. The Old Berkley 'On War' Site ran by Ralph the Commie was a good place for flame wars. Ralph the Commie got twitchy during the Monica affair and impeachment and started deleting any flame jobs by conservatives, which killed the site.
Better creative vitriol then stale dogma.

9/22/2006 12:41:00 PM  
Blogger M. Simon said...

Thje little blogs will be where the real action is.

Big blogs will be group think.

9/23/2006 11:36:00 PM  

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