Introduction: 'It's the Conversations'
Classically, election analysis, especially studies on voter
choice, is focused on demographics and polling. Attention is also
paid to news and media exposure -- whether candidate coverage, commercials,
talk radio and the like may be significant factors behind gaining
an image of the candidate, understanding the substance of the campaign,
and swaying the voter. Candidate communication strategies and media
bias of one form or another remain the object of critical study of
'media effects.' Referenced in such popular books as The Tipping
Point, the studies on the changing facial expressions of TV news
anchormen as they speak of the candidates are one case in point.1
These are among the various efforts ultimately to account for fact
and knowledge gaps between voter ideas about candidates' positions
and the actual stands.
Recently, analysts are turning to the role of conversations.2
(In new media analysis, online discussion lists, chat as well as blogs
often stand in for 'conversation.'3)
Inspired by the 'ignition' of the grassroots by the Howard Dean campaign's
(and moveon.org's) "meet-up's," the first articles about peer-to-peer
voter decision-making are appearing. Conversations at 'house parties'
and other informal gatherings may over-determine one's image of a
candidate, one's understanding of substance, and also prompt voter
'network effects,' where, for example, one votes against one's self-interest
not because of 'knowledge gaps' but for reasons accounted for by network
communication theories of contagion and/or balance. 4
(I vote this way because friends of friends do, or because these particular
people do.) Most recently in the realm of political analysis, conversations
are said to mitigate against 'old media effects,' or, as one author
has put it, "limit elite influence."5
In all, to create indications of voter choice and to understand the
role of media effects, election analysts now weigh demographics and
poll results as well as communication strategies, media bias, and
The Dean campaign both used new media and appeared to work
with a set of new media-style assumptions, more in the vein of an
NGO than a governor's office scripting events for journalists (though
that was taking place, too). Taking into account the role of raising
funds on the campaign Web site; of volunteer bloggers keeping a running
record of the campaign at blog.deanforamerica.com; of newsletter emailing;
of tell a friend software use; of text-messaging alerts; of Dean Internet
TV; of concerted chat room, message board, and newsgroup participation;
and of dean2004.meetup.com in organizing campaign workers, finding
hosts and guests for house parties, and eventually (and rather hopefully)
building voter bases and swaying other voters through social network
effects, the general feature of the Dean campaign may have been its
new media style, one based more on 'info-sharing' and 'personalization'
than on a proverbially message-disciplined culture, run centrally
and perceptibly by such single communications strategy figures like
a Dick Morris or a Karl Rove (though there was some of that, too,
in the form of Joe Trippi).6
The Dean campaign may be held up as an effort that paid considerable
attention to not old but new media effects.
The Dean campaign had its headquarters in Burlington, Vermont,
which coordinated the official content and event scheduling. But their
method, to a degree, approached new media-style franchising, which
typically encourages the rise of decentralized, network-based groups,
which fill in 'the content' within the formats afforded by the new
media 'tools.' It is a model of practice, whereby once the kit is
available, one can start one's own network node, create and release
one's own content, and share one's own innovations with the network.
Dean's campaign did not quite go as far as that. But supporters' event
and independent content creation were recognized by the campaign.
There were open databases of house parties and supporters to meet
socially, without a script. There were independent student Websites
and listservs, receiving links from the official Dean site. And there
were Dean Team Leader pages on the main campaign site, with personalized
content (and the meter showing the leader's progress in meeting a
Dean's campaign was peculiar. To new media analyst, Clay Shirky,
the Dean campaign used social software 'organically,' Kerry's and
Clark's less so, belatedly and more leadenly. 7
The approach to organizing is described in a December 2003 Washington
Debbye Butler, one of the early volunteers for the New Hampshire
campaign: "It's empowering, how decentralized the campaign is. Usually
you walk into the campaign office and they say, 'Come on Tuesday.
We need someone to make phone calls,' or 'We need someone to foot-canvass.'
Here you walk in and they say, 'What do you want to do? What do you
think will work in your ward?' You get engaged, you feel ownership
over the campaign. You feel like you're a part of it because you are
a part of it." 8
The same article also alludes to the difference between scripting,
and the more open-ended conversation format, where beneficial network
effects are assumed.
"We build on the assumption that each individual matters,"
says Karen Hicks, the campaign's state director. "We want to learn
as much as possible about each person's experience, their story, their
values and their social connections because these things become the
campaign -- they are the campaign." 9
Personalized messages are delivered socially, ideally by someone
you know, if, indeed, there are any messages at all. The intriguing
assumptions made by the Dean campaign are that the message is your
own (not headquarters'), that you choose how to be involved (as opposed
to volunteering for pre-set jobs -- though there were plenty of those),
and that conversation and social network effects would supplant old
media effects. Although it is easy to overemphasize the new media
-- the social software and Web-based technology - one point to be
made is that the Dean campaign rested on new media-style assumptions,
based less on the concerted repetition of talking points to broadcast
media, than on the tools that would customize staff and voter participation
and contribution. In some sense, their 'preferences' were taken into
account, if the software analogies should be pushed that far. Most
importantly, the campaign assumed that a Dean 'voter network' would
grow through tool-enabled socializing; the other campaigns, more likely
than not, were still employing the outdated candidate as product model,
where the most important medium is TV, not the Internet.
The Dean campaign should be sited in a media contest, where
new media lost, unexpectedly. Compare the thoughts of Vote.com
author Dick Morris in August 2003 with those of one blogger, recounting
a speech he made at the ConConUk technology and politics gathering
(in February 2004). Both phrase the campaign in terms of a media contest.
Dick Morris wrote:
The larger message of the Dean candidacy is that the era of
TV-dominated politics is coming to a close after 30 years. With dwindling
audiences and an increasingly sophisticated electorate, the 30-second
ad and the seven-second sound bite are losing their power to control
the political dialogue.10
And the blogger, after Dean's campaign collapsed:
The ability of tight, focused political messages carried via
mass media to deliver votes does not seem to be threatened by the
net in any meaningful way at this time. I'd love to see any evidence
to contradict this. I want to believe that TV can be bypassed....11
At stake in the Dean campaign was bypassing broadcast TV as
well as other old media. (The Dean site, unlike, for example, georgewbush.com,
never provided tips for calling in on talk radio or providing text
that could be pasted into letters to the editors of local newspapers.
See table one.) Given the collapse of Dean's candidacy following the
repeated televising of his scream after the Iowa caucuses, there is
a certain poignancy to any campaign's efforts to create and position
itself within a new, alternative, non-televisual political space,
however much 'new media' music samplers and photoshoppers participated
in the ridicule.
Crucially, there was another, larger media contest (running
parallel with the campaigns) that played out daily in the blogsphere.
A particular portion of the blogsphere - a dominant, political sub-sphere12
- relied on different assumptions about the importance of old media.
While the Dean campaign was striving to increase its voter base with
software-enabled socializing and the development of formats for potential
voters to feel more comfortable about what in the end is candidate
selection, the blogsphere was seeking, not so much to bypass, but
to consistently penetrate 'mainstream media.' The Dean campaign wanted
out (so to speak), in a kind of 'we, the media' approach (to use the
title of Dan Gillmor's popular book). The blogsphere wanted in, under
the assumption that the mainstream media were far more significant
than house parties, tell-a-friend, and political Flash movies.
Perhaps surprisingly, the political blogsphere employed old
media assumptions, purposively following the news, critiquing the
coverage, pointing to any and all recognition by the news of the blogsphere's
revelations as well as attributions of revelations. (Some received
press accreditation for major campaign events such as the national
party conventions.) Regularly the blogsphere either lamented not having
enough evidence to make it in mainstream media, or complained about
being ignored when they did (as in, for example, the famous bulge
appearing under Bush's jacket during his first debate with Senator
John Kerry). The relationship between the blogsphere and the mainstream
media I am describing is not at all unusual. To gain a sense of the
blogsphere's treatment and discussion of the "mainstream media" along
the lines above, query any blog engine for the term, and analyze key
words in context. MSM or m.s.m., the short-hand, may be the more telling
To argue that one significant role of the political blogsphere
in the U.S. elections was to maintain assumptions about the importance
of old media as a space of politics and further a change theory based
on exposure to mass media as opposed to growth of social networks
is also to say that the two new media environments (Dean campaign
and the political blogsphere) have swapped places. In some sense,
the Dean campaign had become increasingly independent new media, and
the blogs had become increasingly dependent on old media. The switch
is all the more striking for one normally would think of the blogsphere
as a competitor to mainstream media, with an epistemological culture
distinct from that of older media forms.
As bloggers research the digitized media for evidence (e.g.,
about the Bush bulge), finding pictures new and old of bulges (and
discover White House 'site scrubbing' of pictures and videos along
the way) - and once what the blogsphere has dug up is generally 'known'
(and stored in individual site archives as well as in dedicated repositories
as bushwired.blogspot.com, bushiswired.com (now up for sale) and isbushwired.com
(posting stopped on 7 November 2004)) - it is often talked about as
blogsphere knowledge. Not having heard of the bulge is one thing,
but if one equates the blogsphere with ideas like a bulging defibrillator
(and 'supporting evidence' such as Bush's postponement of his annual
physical examination until after the elections), then one could be
accused by that sphere of not understanding its epistemic culture.
That George W. Bush had spittle beneath his lower lip for a portion
of the second debate may not mean that the bulge visible beneath his
jacket in the first debate is a defibrillator. The blogsphere had
'gone there' briefly, but returned to the theory that Bush had an
earpiece and a bulging receiver, and was being prompted to say particular
things by a coach. That would explain his sudden "Let me finish!"
utterance in the first debate, when no one had interrupted him and
his time had not nearly expired. The defibrillator theory has been
off the table for months! The enhanced photographs of Bush's back
during the first debate made by the NASA scientist pretty much settled
it. To the blogsphere, mainstream media were too scared to run the
story, even though the credible evidence is there (as opposed to being
'out there' somewhere).
David Lindorff, the author of the most recent piece concerning
the relationship between mainstream media coverage and the blogsphere's
evidence, introduces the vetted view of the bulge, two typical relationships
between old media and the blogsphere, one normal route from blogsphere
to mainstream media (Salon.com) as well as the latest in the revelatory.
A seminal blogger in the Bush bulge story points to how well-known
Lindorff's piece is, in the political blogsphere.
Almost as astonishing as the likelihood that President Bush
cheated and wore a device - most likely a wireless magnetic induction
hearing device - during his three presidential debate appearances
- and definitely lied about what was under his jacket - is the fact
that the nation's two leading newspapers, the New York Times
and the Washington Post, had the story but failed to report
it in any serious way.
While both papers did mention the issue once it had appeared
in Salon.com, both, along with the rest of the mainstream media, also
treated it as a joke, an "internet conspiracy," which was the line
put out by the White House and Bush/Cheney campaign in an intense
campaign designed to keep the potentially explosive story from going
Now, in an article in Extra!, the media criticism journal
published by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the inside story
of the killing by senior editors of this important story about presidential
cheating is exposed÷.13
There's little point in my directing your attention to a story
that Buzzflash has pushed so heavily, since nearly everyone reading
these words also reads that site. But just in case you missed it,
David Lindorff has THE last word on the bulge, and how it might have
changed the election.14
During the elections, unusually, the mainstream, instead of
being a separate sphere, was being critiqued for their refusal to
accept blog knowledge as a primary source. Blogs had been commentators.
In the election period, blogsphere success, it could be said, was
booked only by old media confirmation. One read the news not only
to comment upon it, but also to see which stories have made it to
that sphere, as opposed to being only in the blogsphere. During the
campaign, especially, it appeared the blogsphere could not do without
news -- something that is recognizable if we look at the blogsphere's
celebrated cases. Did the (right-wing) blogsphere take down the CBS
news anchorman and certain managers and editors around him (over the
fake memo showing George Bush's absence from the national guard)?
Mainstream reporting of the blogsphere appears more crucial.
In any case, previously, the blogsphere was viewed less as
primary source than as an information recommendation culture of great
interest to readers. Once aggregated by engines such as technorati,
blogpulse and waypath, or projects such as allconsuming, the blogsphere
became a new kind of collective, aggregated source - one freed from
the 'tyranny of (old media) editors,' to put it one way, or one that
had its own elitism. It competed with old media's vetting practices
that would result in picks recommended by virtue of review (positive
or negative) in the feuillton. It competed with the weekly reviews,
where particular news stories of the past week are highlighted; the
blogsphere had its own news story picks (with a far shorter refresh
schedule than old media), and those recommended were the ones most
discussed as opposed to the ones published by given reputable authorities,
and tipped for prizes, for example. The blogsphere told of different
books, different news stories and other kinds of recommended reading
than the old media, although such impression has yet to be researched.
A second contribution of the blogsphere, apart from a recommendation
culture (largely derived from engine-makers' recognition of its 'filter'
genre as opposed to its journal, notebook and other types), is a contribution
to politics different than the one that takes the detour via the news.
With regard to the political contribution of the blogsphere, elsewhere
I have argued that it provides a particularly poignancy to social
issues, distinct from the news.15
The poignancy, it was found in a small case study on a mini-blogsphere's
substantive contribution to the debate surrounding the FCC's proposed
relaxation of media concentration rules, derived from the terms significantly
associated with the issue in a mini-blogsphere and a mini-news sphere
(i.e., those blogs and those news outlets doing the issue).16
Where news offered procedural terms, blogs offered Oprah Winfrey and
Howard Stern, figures held up as indecent in letters of complaint
to the FCC. Whilst news seemingly would not make such a leap of reasoning,
to blogs, perhaps, media concentration ultimately would take them
off the air.
The question to be asked now, however, is what an event gains
by taking the detour to the blogsphere, as opposed to moving straight
to the news. For the debate on the floor of the House of Representatives
on the certification of the Electoral College vote, the blogsphere
was used as a tainting mechanism for otherwise well-documented findings
(in the Conyer report) made with and without the blogsphere. Must
the blog stories make the mainstream media for them to matter (to
the blogsphere and beyond)? As we witness the integration of blogs
more generally in news, to some the question may be without relevance.
In part, news may be going to the blogs. But it is perhaps the spherical
separation, combined with an increasing exposure to the distinctiveness
of the blogsphere, that is of relevance here.
Whether or not the blogsphere should be critiqued for its
dependency on old media is less germane than its contribution to the
status of Web knowledge, a subject not often addressed. In some sense
the blogsphere unfies the new and old media through (however unequal)
references to both, moving, for example, the David Lindorff piece,
published across NGO media monitoring Websites, to the status of what
is currently known about the bulge, readying it anew for mainstream
penetration. Furthermore, like the Web, the blogsphere appears to
have longer attention spans, as well as greater memory, than news,
changing ever so slightly the epistemological conditions under which
politics moves on, or is allowed to. Whilst the blogsphere, like certain
TV talk shows, does regularly participate in the culture of scandalization
by 'outing' people and things through background and fact-checking,
thereby widening the circle of practitioners of that political technique
and in that particular kind of political conversation, it also should
be thought of as a space that gradually may reorient 'Internet stories'
from being 'too fresh to be true,' to being 'too known to be untrue.'
Careful study of the documentation culture of the blogsphere is in
The author would like to thank David Chiel at the Ford Foundation
for supporting the related project, entitled 'A tool for the comparative
analysis of the blogsphere and the news sphere.' For commentary thanks,
also, to Noortje Marres, Department of Philosophy, University of Amsterdam
as well as to andermedia.nl and sonologic.nl for their work on blog
and news scraping devices.
1 H.S. Friedman,
T.I. Mertz and M.R. DiMatteo, "Perceived Bias in the Facial Expressions
of Television News Broadcasters, Journal of Communication,
30, 1980, 103-111; B. Mullen et al., "Newscasters' Facial Expressions
and Voting Behavior of Viewers: Can a Smile Elect a President?" Journal
of Personality and Social Psychology, 51 (2), 1986, 291-295; M.
Gladwell, The Tipping Point, Boston, MA: Little, Brown and
Co, 2000; and R. Coleman and D. Granberg, "Visual Bias and Other Factors
Affecting Voting Behavior," AEJMC Archives, 116(1), September
accessed on 7 January 2005.
2 J.N. Druckman
and K.R. Nelson, "Framing and Deliberation: How Citizens' Conversations
Limit Elite Influence," American Journal of Political Science,
47 (4), October 2003, 729-745.
3 W. Sack,
"What Does a Very Large-scale Conversation Look Like?" Leonardo:
Journal of Electronic Art and Culture, 35(4), August 2002, 417-426.
4 P. Monge
and N. Contractor, Theories of Communication Networks, New
York: OUP, 2003.
5 V. Krebs,
"It's the Conversations, Stupid! The Link between Social Interaction
and Political Choice," in M. Ratcliffe and J. Lebkowsky (eds.), Extreme
Democracy, online book, 2004, http://www.extremedemocracy.com,
accessed 6 January 2005.
6 J. Hall,
"Coverage of George W. Bush," The Harvard International Journal
of Press/Politics, 8(2), April 2003, 115-120.
7 Clay Shirky,
"Exiting Deanspace," Corante Many 2 Many, Group Weblog, 3 February
Post, 9 December 2003, http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A47440-2003Dec8.
Post, 9 December 2003, http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A47440-2003Dec8.
Morris, "Dean's Internet Revolution," Frontpagemag.com, 6 August
"CONCONUK Speech," 24 February 2004, http://radish.hosted.doosh.net/steiny/mt/archives/000032.html.
of the dominant political blogsphere could be accomplished through
link and textual analysis. For a longer discussion, see R. Rogers,
"Poignancy in the U.S. political blogsphere," Aslib Proceedings,
forthcoming. Common understandings of the dominant political blogsphere,
gained from bloggers as well as blog engines' rankings, begin with
the daily kos and atrios (on the left) and instapundit and sullivan
(on the right), which are the four political bloggers in Technorati's
top 15. Common Dreams, the NGO news filter, rounds out the 15; little
green footballs comes in at 20, and wonkette at 30.
Lindorff, "How the New York Times Killed the Bush Bulge Story," counterpunch.org,
posted 5 February 2005.
Cannon, "Bulge," cannonfire.blogspot.com, posted 5 February 2005.
15 R. Rogers,
"Poignancy in the U.S. political blogsphere," Aslib Proceedings,
notion of a mini-blogsphere additionally rests on the extent to which
the set of blogs doing an issue are interconnected by links and/or
by textual referencing. Blogs also make be 'connected' together through
common references to a third party, e.g., all blogs linking to or
referencing a particular piece in the New York Times.
Richard Rogers is University
Lecturer in New Media at the University of Amsterdam and Director
of the Govcom.org Foundation (Amsterdam). Rogers is author of Technological
Landscapes (Royal College of Art, London, 1999), editor of Preferred
Placement: Knowledge Politics on the Web (Jan van Eyck Editions,
Maastricht, 2000), and author of Information Politics on the Web
(MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2004). He may be reached at email@example.com.
Copyright © 2005, Richard Rogers and The Johns Hopkins
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