Oxford Internet Institute: Blogging and the US elections footnotes

It was truly a great honour to speak on Monday at the Oxford Internet Institute about Blogging and the US Elections.

It was also slightly humbling to remember the differences between journalism and academic study. Journalists are trend spotters. We paint broad brush trends we see often with a mix of anecdotes and some statistics. We aren’t necessarily held to the same level of proof as peer-reviewed research (although some might argue that bloggers are a form of peer-review).

I think it’s easy to forget about the limits of what we know considering the time constraints journalists work under. We do need to remember that correlation is not causality. I think that journalists should be more honest and open about the limits of what we know instead of trying to be oracular, as Jonathan Zittrain put it. Jonathan is a friend of ours and also the brilliant Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at the Institute.

I now have a small sense of what it must be like during the oral defence of one’s dissertation. Several questions interrogated various statements I made and asked me to support them with statistics not just anecdotes.

Having said that, I did do my homework. Honest. Here are some links.

1) I said that blogs have increased participation in US politics, and I mean not simply in voting but also participation in the process. I quoted a 2006 Edelman poll that said in summary:

A new survey of consumers released today in the European Parliament, revealed that nearly a quarter of the population in the U.S., UK, and France, read blogs at least once a week and of that group nearly one-third are moved to undertake some type of political action.

One of the roundtable participants asked me to clarify whether there was simply a correlation between blogging and political action, whether bloggers were more likely to be politically active or whether blogging encouraged them to become politically active.

To be honest, reading the press release, it’s unclear if the blog readers were moved to political action by blogging or simply took political action and also were blog readers. I remember the full poll being a little clearer, but I could only find the press release online. I couldn’t find the full results of the poll.

Anecdotally, I would say that tools help activists connect and therefore, previously isolated political communities were able to join together virtually and be encouraged to take real-world political action. But that still doesn’t answer the question: Correlation or causality? One student was studying political activist communities. They all seemed to use online organising tools. Did the activists use the tools or did they become activists through empowerment by the tools?

However, in preparing for the talk, I found several academic studies that indicated that blogging did indeed encourage political participation. I referred to them in my talk, but here are some other links. I found the summary of a study: “Online and Offline Activism: Communication Mediation and Political Messaging Among Blog Readers,” Homero Gil de Zuniga, Emily Vraga, Aaron Veenstra, Ming Wang, Cathy DeShano, and Dhavan Shah (first author from University of Texas-Austin; all others from University of Wisconsin-Madison). From the summary (Word document, study 3, with a PowerPoint presentation as well of this and other studies):

Political bloggers are viewed by many as lone voices, socially disconnected and working apart from the traditional mechanisms of participation. Critics assert that their audiences exist in an echo chamber, repeatedly exposed to uncritical reports that polarize but do not mobilize. This research challenges that view by examining the ways in which the members of blog audiences engage in the political process.

I also have a pre-release copy of David Perlmutter’s Blogwars. I’ve only read about a third of it. And he makes reference to other studies showing that links between blogging and increased political awareness and participation. I’d suggest taking a look at his blog for more information. He is involved in some of the research in the previous links.

2) I also talked about the YouTube effects in my talk. I wrote a post last week referring to how YouTube was becoming another political channel, allowing Barack Obama’s speeches to reach an audience that wouldn’t have been possible with traditional 24-hour-cable channels. As of writing this, his speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, which Martin Luther King once was pastor, had been viewed 600,000 times. In the week since it was posted, his South Carolina victory speech has also been viewed 600,000 times. As I wrote, Obama’s video would have been clipped by the 24-hour cable news channels. But the speech in its entirety would have been an ephemeral event forgotten in the attention-deficit news cycle. Will these videos bring new supporters to Obama? I just don’t know. I only raise the issue as a new phenomenon, and unfortunately, we probably won’t know the impact until after we have a nominee.

A student asked me if we knew anything about who had seen these videos. Were they from the US? Could they vote? I admitted that I didn’t know. Web metrics are a black art, and I don’t have access to the traffic information from YouTube.

I don’t know what impact these speeches uploaded to YouTube will have. I don’t know whether they are influencing new supporters or simply being passed around by those who already support Barack Obama. I think the impact of the viral videos like ‘Obama Girl‘ (viewed 5.7m times) or the ‘Yes we can’ mashup (viewed 1.5m times in three days) is even more unpredictable. I am sure that we’ll see some fascinating research come out of this new trend after the dust settles.

3) I mentioned a January poll by the Pew Internet and American Life Project showing that 27% of those under 30 and 37% of Americans aged 18-24 were receiving campaign information via social networks.

In this regard, substantial numbers of young people say they have gotten information on the campaign or the candidates from social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. Overall, more than a quarter of those younger than age 30 (27%) – including 37% of those ages 18-24 – have gotten campaign information from social networking sites. This practice is almost exclusively limited to young people; just 4% of Americans in their 30s, and 1% of those ages 40 and older, have gotten news about the campaign in this way.

A student also said that young voters are unreliable voters. They express a lot of enthusiasm, but often don’t show up when it counts at the ballot box. This has historically been true. In 2004, Howard Dean was seen as yet another example of a candidate who courted the youth vote, only to have young voters stay home.

Barack Obama has not only generated youth enthusiasm, he has also got out the youth vote. David von Drehle writes in Time:

Turnout among the youngest slice of the electorate more than doubled from 2004, when Howard Dean’s intense campaign on college campuses produced far more modest results. This was part of an overall surge in Democratic participation — but while overall Democratic turnout jumped 90%, the number of young Democrats participating soared 135%.

It’s hard to say whether this is a trend or an anomaly. Only time will tell.

(I also mentioned another Pew study of bloggers during the talk. That’s here.)

4) Another student asked: Why should the media organisations like the Guardian or BBC blog?

This was a question that I get often from a number of audiences for different reasons. Journalists don’t see blogging as journalism. Some bloggers don’t see think journalists should blog because they see blogging as something that exits as a counter to the mainstream media so they see media organisations’ blogging as an attempt to co-opt grassroots media.

I started by giving him examples of how blogging had added to the journalism I do, and I’ve blogged about that before. The student didn’t feel as if this was a reason for why the media should blog.

I gave him a couple of examples of how having a standing as a blogger and with bloggers were important in the newsgathering that I do. As I mentioned, bloggers have Googled me to find out who I am before talking to me, before agreeing to an interview. And as Matt at Blackfive did, they post their responses to my questions to give their readers a chance to see whether the journalist spun the story.

He still didn’t seem satisfied with the response. In the end, I see social media, such as blogs, as one way that journalists can reconnect with their audiences. I think that’s important for journalists because too many journalists are isolated from their audiences. They are writing for other journalists and their sources, not the audience.

I also said that it’s important because journalists still believe that quality information is enough in this world of information overload. They are still operating on assumptions based on a world of information scarcity, when they had the power of gatekeepers. They controlled what information got into the scarce pages and on scarce airtime. Now, people have so many choices for information and entertainment. The scarce resource isn’t information but time and attention. News organisations aren’t simply battling the old competition – the other newspaper, the TV station, cable news – but also new competitors, YouTube, the XBox, MySpace, Craigslist, etc. Social media allows journalists and journalism organisations to connect directly with their audiences and build a relationship with them, a mutually beneficial one.

Robert Patterson has a great description of how this works with US National Public Radio’s new morning programme, the Bryant Park Project and their use blogs and Twitter. For him, it’s like a virtual diner in the morning where there is a warm welcome, a cup of coffee and a conversation. As he says:

Wrap the content in a community.

That’s the ‘Jesus wept’ summary of social media.

Many news and media organisations see the meteoric growth of YouTube, MySpace and Facebook, and still stuck in the mass media mindset, they want some of those eyeballs for their advertisers. They focus on the strength of their brands and the quality of their content and ignore the quality of the connection and interaction with their audiences. They also get distracted by the technology they don’t have. Why not pose a different question. If you want to want to ‘wrap the content in a community’, what editorial steps can you take to build a relationship with your audience and build a community?

Hopefully, that answers a few of the questions with some supporting information and links.

Jonathan did ask whether a journalist had been caught out saying one thing in his or her reporting and then something less balanced, less objective in a blog. I didn’t know of any instance of this happening. Do you?

Thanks again to the Oxford Internet Institute for the honour and opportunity of speaking there.

UPDATE: A student also asked me about projects trying to garner international opinion about the US elections, seeing as the elections have such an impact around the world. I mentioned a project by Global Voices and Reuters to look at what bloggers around the world are saying about the US elections. The project launched on Tuesday, Voices without Votes.

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