One Way
One Way (Photo credit: Matt Peoples)

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.

Comments, please.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


17 Thoughts on "A Blogosphere Divided — Differences Abound Within Left and Right Political Blogs"

Thanks for pointing out this interesting article. I’ve just read the abstract plus your post. but look forward to reading it and discussing (probably debating some points) with my very conservative friend who I was able to send the article because it is OA. He is an independent psychological consultant and does not have easy access to a academic library.

My point of this reply is I hope you can see the value of making high quality research freely available as has been done with this article. It’s not that Sage shouldn’t be well paid for publishing this article they should, but if it is possible to do it in ways other than charging subscription fees, the research becomes far more useful and available to a much wider audience.

I don’t think this is an OA article, but a free article from a subscription journal. There’s a big difference. Feel free to point me to evidence that the authors paid the journal to make these articles OA or any other sign that these are part of an OA approach. Otherwise, I think this was a special issue on prosumption and was made free by the editors of a subscription journal.

OA does in fact mean that the material is freely available whether it is post embargo, a self archived version or an OA journal. The vast majority of OA journals do not in fact charge authors publication fees.

This sounds like a left wing interpretation of the data, which critisizes the right for not sharing left wing values like participation, individualism not being valuable. But the reality makes more sense. The two right bars explain the rest. The left blogs are doing political action and fund raising, both group activities. Criticism is individual. Groups and money getters have fancier technology, etc.

Sorry, fail to see why your interpretation is mutually exclusive to the interpretation proffered by the authors of this study.

Further, are you claiming that fund raising is somehow inherently participatory, or that it has to be participatory to be done well? That would be news to the many groups, political and otherwise, who simply “broadcast” requests for funding to me, and I’m sure to many other people. Conversely, “criticism is individual”? Really? Care to elaborate on that?

So I take it that writing lengthy, substantive, analytical posts is also a “group” thing, while writing short posts is “individual”?

“But the reality makes more sense”.

Um, I assume by “reality” you mean “my preferred interpretation of the data, which I am of course able to back up with strong arguments and independent and verifiable lines of evidence to which I will provide links, which is why I refer to my interpretation as ‘reality’.” And that you do not mean “my right-wing interpretation of the data, to which I will attempt to give rhetorical authority by describing it as ‘reality’.”

Jeremy, I was referring to Kent’s interpretation, not the authors. By reality I mean the attempt to explain the data, rather than using it to criticize conservatives. I would rather understand the world then criticize it.

As for the rest, yes fundraising in inherently participatory, in that it involves two way communication, often quite a lot, and giving a cause money is certainly participating. Back up a bit and here is how the system looks. Politics is the decision making system of democracy. To get action you have to create a group of sufficient size, a movement as it is often called. Thus political action, which the data tells us is the aim of many left blogs, is necessarily participatory in the broad sense. It is all about creating a group. The data suggests that it is also participatory in the narrow sense of the blogs being done by groups. This is normal political activity, from envelope stuffing on up to marches, so no surprise. Same for fund raising. In short left wing blogs look like normal political action activities, because that is what they are according to the study. This includes the advanced technology, especially for fund raising, and the long tracts, etc.

Right wing blogs also look like normal anti-movement political activities, which typically do not form large organized groups the way movements do. People typically just object to the movement, they do not form organized counter groups on the same scale.

If you have an alternative hypothesis, which does not depend on constructs like the moral superiority of liberals, of the ant-technology stupidity of conservatives, I would like to hear it.

Thank you for the clarification of your views David. Although I think the reply I’m inclined to make would lead rather far from the nominal topic of this post (guess I’ll just have to let the moderator judge that). For instance, I would dispute the claim that conservative political activities, online or offline, can be accurately characterized as “anti-movement” and so not involving organized groups of people. The US Tea Party, for instance, is an organized conservative movement.

More broadly, “movements” in the broad sense that you define them (groups of people working through various means to achieve some shared political end) can be created, inspired, influenced, and steered in all sorts of different ways, including by broadcast-type media (say, a blog by a single individual, or a single individual’s talk radio show, or a single individual’s tv talk show, or etc.). Under your broad definition of “movement” there are in fact conservative political movements in which conservative blogs are involved in various ways. So rather than try to characterize conservative blogs as “anti-movement”, I think a more useful question to ask is why liberal political movements tend to involve blogs that have the sorts of features liberal blogs have, while conservative political movements tend to involve blogs that have the sorts of features conservative blogs have.

I agree that we should try to understand the world rather than criticize it. But I don’t agree that your explanation of this study’s results in terms of “movement” vs. “anti-movement” is very helpful for purposes of understanding. Indeed, I note that characterizing conservative blogs as “anti-movement” is a description which has positive connotations to many conservatives, conjuring an image of a noble, lone individual standing up to group-thinking liberal collectivists. So rather than explaining the data, I think your explanation looks rather too much like an attempt to paint the data in a way that (to a conservative) paints conservative blogs in a positive light and liberal blogs in a negative light.

I think the key point is that while conservatives too have political movements, the liberals have a lot more of them. In fact that is probably the defining left-right characteristic.

There is nothing negative about saying that liberals tend to be proponents of political action, nor that conservatives tend to be skeptics. You are the one using pejorative language. I am trying to do science here, and my working hypothesis is always that everyone is rational and trying to do good as they see it. People are just different and these differences create specific social structures. In the case of this post I think the existing social structures explain the blog data very well.

David, please quote to me where I used perjorative language. I said nothing positive or negative about political movements in general, or about specific ones. I said nothing positive or negative about individuals who do not participate in political movements. I said nothing positive or negative about the many different ways in which political movements might be inspired, influenced, etc. by any type of blog, or any other type of broadcast or non-broadcast medium. I didn’t say anything positive or negative about any of those things because I don’t have any positive or negative views about any of those things.

I did question the empirical claim that there are no conservative political movements, and note that you have clarified by saying that liberals merely have more political movements than conservatives (I am unclear about how to go about counting distinct political movements, but leave that aside). Do you think that my questioning of your empirical claim was somehow perjorative?

I did argue that some of your language could be viewed as as value-laden rather than descriptive. Is that what you mean when you say I used perjorative language?

I did suggest what I think is a more useful way of framing the question at issue, and “useful” is a value-laden term. Is that what you mean by perjorative language on my part?

Please quote to me the passages in my previous comment that you find perjorative and I will be happy to clarify them.

Jeremy, your term “group-thinking liberal collectivists” is pejorative. You use it in an attempt to attribute it to me. Then you accuse me, on the basis of this false attribution, of painting conservative blogs in a positive light and liberal blogs in a negative light. I am doing no such thing. I am trying to explain the data scientifically. I make no judgement about what is positive or negative in this explanation. You are the one doing that.

I desperately dislike the idea that reality can be divided into two binary values ‘left’ and ‘right’, or that it can be measured as a scalar value between “far left” and “far right”, but the American system (far more than my native British system) has become destructively polarized that way.

“This sounds like a left wing interpretation of the data” … gee – cant we just try to interpret data?

” The two right bars explain the rest.” No they don’t. They allow you dismiss the rest of the data by fitting it into a pre-conceived view of the world.

That’s what we do now. We don’t use data to decide what is true. We’ve already decided what is true. We just fit the data to our decision.

If you read lots of blogs and articles on “both sides” of lots of issues, there are two distinct varieties.
There are those that mull over a bunch not-entirely conclusive, possibly somewhat contradictory, data and come up with tentatively better conclusion about reality.

And then there are those that pull something out of thin air and declare it to be absolute proof of whatever they already decided was true.

Unfortunately the former tends to be labeled ‘left’ and latter tends to be labeled ‘right’.

Dave, I certainly do not dismiss the rest of the data. On the contrary I am trying to actually explain it, which requires an explanatory framework or hypothesis. I go into more detail in my reply to Jeremy above, but basically if you look at how political action and reaction typically occur, then the data fits that model.

My guess is that the polarization is due to the very strong two party system here, although I know nothing of the British political system, except for Yes Minister. Passion and polarization are the norm here and always have been, since Jefferson’s day anyway. Polarization is a strong natural tendency, something the Delphi method research found in the 1950s. I am no psychologist, but as a logician I can conjecture that people need to be clear about their differences, so they tend to emphasize them. It is an interesting research topic, but it is not advanced by denigrating one side.

As for your empirical claims about what happens in blogs, I have not seen the left-right distinction that you describe, and I study the logic exhibited in blogs a lot. (The logic of complex issues is my research field.) I find strong positions taken, sometimes accompanied by deep analysis, on all sides. But people who advocate action need to go into a lot more detail than people who oppose them do, because there are multiple objections that must be responded to.

David, your framework seems to be left=collectivism, right= individualism. I recognize that distinction, although it is a complex issue. For example, Thomas Jefferson, an individualist, wrote that individuals have rights, and that individuals instigate governments to protect individual rights. I claim to be an individualist – I want to be the sole determiner of my destiny. I do not want to be told how to life my life by a collection of people in Washington … or an individual in Windsor Castle – or Bagbad or Moscow. — or Redmond or White Plains – or Utah or the Vatican city. – or by my abusive neighbor. ( – but, unfortunately, collectivism is required to defend individuals against both collectivism and individuals.

However I have a great difficulty relating “left=collectivism, right= individualism” to the question of whether glaciers are shrinking or increasing. Yet yesterday I read some blogs. One discussed the discovery of 2 glaciers that are increasing, while most others are shrinking. That’s an interesting observation of an anomaly – one that is as yet not understood. It is far more interesting than a report that glaciers number 99 and 100 are behaving exactly like number 1 through 98.

Yet blogs post instantly appear claiming the discovery of 2 glaciers that are increasing is proof that global warming is a fraud.

If this is kind of logic you study, it must drive you nuts 🙂

Dave, I would not use the term collectivist, precisely because of its negative historical political connotations. What we see here is that the left blogs are heavily involved in political action and fundraising, which involves building groups. This is a fact about the political system. There is nothing wrong with it, or rather I make no judgement about it, certainly not that it is collectivist in some negative sense. The right blogs are much less so. The difference supports a model, which I think explains the technological features found in the study. It is a question of political science.

The climate debate is the political issue I study most closely (in part because I am also an activist). There are hundreds of blogs on this issue, on both sides, because the science is completely enveloped by the political issue of proposed public action. There is the usual passion and name calling to be sure. But the centrality of science is historically unique, as far as major political movements go. So no, it does not drive me nuts, rather I find it fascinating. History in the making.

My textbook might help, not that you need to read it all; to get the basic idea. The point is that there is a complex underlying structure to issues like this and knowing that can make watching them a lot more fun.

I didn’t think too much about a word for the opposite of “individual” … I didn’t want the baggage that came with the word I chose.

I too find the climate change debate fascinating — at least in the sense that I’m drawn to the comments, perhaps more than the articles – but also incredibly frustrating.
I’ll see if your text helps.

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