One of the biggest shifts in the move from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 was the shift from the traditional publishing paradigm of “producer –> consumer” to “producer <–> consumer.” That is, whether you were a producer of information or a consumer of information didn’t matter as much on your position in the information economy but instead came down to a choice you made — you could choose to start a blog, comment, share, tweet, or argue if you wanted, and it was easy. You no longer had to stick to the traditional role of passively accepting information pushed at you.
You became a “prosumer,” and engaged in “prosumption” — ideas that have been getting more and more proponents and therefore scrutiny recently.
But what if prosumption isn’t deployed uniformly? What if political beliefs effectively make Web 2.0 into Web 1.0? What if the tools of Web 2.0 were subverted — consciously or unconsciously — by political persuasion? What would that say about participatory democracy for a certain swath of society?
A recent study by Aaron Shaw and Yochai Benkler in American Behavioral Scientist studied 155 political blogs in 2008, and found that those of a conservative or politically right-wing persuasion were more likely to be prescriptive, non-participatory, and broadcast, while those of the liberal or left-wing persuasion were more likely to be open, participatory, and interactive.
The researchers took a new approach to discovering differences between political blogs. Most previous studies have looked at linking behavior, thereby finding that blogs from either side of the political spectrum linked in roughly equivalent ways. These studies led many to conclude that the blogosphere was a source of more participatory and interactive communication.
Shaw and Benkler looked at some different things to get to the structure and actual intramural behavior of blogs — how the platforms were set up, how the editorial structure worked, and how design features either featured or downplayed participants. Basically, how much does “technology structure discourse.”
Their main findings are nicely summarized in the chart below (liberal blogs are the black bars, conservative blogs are the gray bars):
As Shaw and Benkler write:
Our starkest, most objective finding is that the left and right wings of the blogosphere adopted significantly different technological features and platforms. More than 40% of blogs on the left adopt platforms with enhanced user participation features. Only about 13% of blogs on the right do so.
There are many other findings of interest aside for their “starkest” one:
- Liberal blogs tend to have more site owners, administrators, or leaders, while conservative blogs tend to be managed by one person.
- Liberal blogs tend to have more permeable boundaries between primary and secondary content.
- Primary authors on the left tend to write more substantive reporting and opinion posts, while those on the right tend to write slogans or punchy posts with links.
- Liberal blogs have more calls to action, mostly related to fund-raising, demonstrating more comfort with social media for these purposes.
In conclusion, Shaw and Benkler write:
The practices of the left blogosphere are more consistent with an interpretation of a participatory public sphere and a steady expansion of prosumption practices. The practices of the right blogosphere are, however, more consistent with the claims that the networked public sphere is no less elitist than the mass-mediated public sphere.
That last sentence took a while to sink in. It means to me that if you’re a conservative political junkie, you’re experiencing the blogosphere in basically the same way you experienced mass media — as a broadcast medium. This means links are less likely to be clicked on, which further invalidates the prior studies of domain-level link analysis. It also jibes with my experience with conservatives I know, who are shocked to see what’s on the other side of some of those links once they click on them.
It’s especially interesting to note that how you build and run a Web 2.0 property can have such a clear effect on how it’s experienced.