I was going to put this in the snark section of Missing Link but decided it deserved a post of its own. Tim Blair is currently stoushing with a trio of academic researchers into blogging and “citizen journalism”.
Jason Wilson, Axel Bruns and Barry Saunders apparently have an ARC grant to investigate “innovative applications of digital media for participatory journalism and citizen engagement in Australian public communication”, but seem to have gone feral in the process, descending from the ivory tower and joining the wild bush horses of the blogosphere. Their latest response to Blair is a minor stoush classic:
A few lazy ad hominem attacks, cut and paste some ready-made phrases about left-wing academics, and voila, we have another blog post to, er, maintain the rage amongst the faithful. Whoopee. And people wonder why the conservative side of Australian politics is intellectually bankrupt?
While quite a few Troppo readers will no doubt be inclined to accept without question this characterisation of Blair, on this occasion that would be a mistake.
Bruns et al chose to interpret Blair’s initial attack on their writings as merely an objection to their being publicly funded by an ARC grant. While it’s true that Blair delivered his usual sideswipe at publicly-funded academia, that wasn’t in fact the main subject of his concern at all. Blair’s real concerns are set out clearly in both his initial post to a Bruns et al article a week or so ago, and in today’s riposte to last Thursday’s retaliatory sledging by Bruns et al:
- You claim to have pointed out that Australias bloggers are overwhelmingly left-of-centre. Yet the linked piece identified no such thing, and in fact appeared not to be concerned at all with the political allegiences of Australian bloggers. Could you please indicate a specific section of that piece supporting your claim?
- You claim that Australia is home to equivalents to the left-leaning Daily Kos. Could you please name these sites? (Note: Daily Kos attracts around one million hits per day. Proportionally, an Australian blog would be pulling in around 60,000 daily hits to be of similar local impact.)
- Jason theorised that the left-of-centre blogosphere has prospered in Australia because opinion pages only seem to be open to forthright conservatives. Would Jason classify Catherine Deveny, Richard Ackland, Traceeee Hutchison, Mike Carlton, Kathy McCabe, Phillip Adams, Sue Dunleavy, Richard Glover, Jill Singer, Alan Ramsey, Kenneth Davidson, Anne Summers, Peter Hartcher, Annabel Crabb, Michael Leunig, Michelle Grattan, Tim Colebatch, Martin Flanagan and Adele Horin as forthright conservatives?
- You claim that Tom Switzers resignation as the editor of the Ozs opinion pages is a clear sign that hard-right columnists [are] looking increasingly isolated. How did you reach that conclusion?
Each of these concerns arise directly from the writings of Bruns et al. Moreover, at least in my view, each requires a response to rebut the strong impression that they are just partisan barrackers whose research should not be taken seriously. That is a shame, because the Australian blogosphere exhibits numerous characteristics that make it a potentially fertile field for serious academic research.
Blair adequately demolishes points 3 and 4 in the above quote, absent some explanation from Bruns et al. However, points 1 and 2 merit further discussion.
I’ll dispose of 2 first. No political blog in Australia, whether left, right or centrist oriented, has an audience anywhere near as large as Daily Kos, Little Green Footballs etc, in either absolute terms or proportional to Australia’s population. In fact Blair has by far the largest audience according to Alexa, with a ranking of 164,177. I suspect that Andrew Bolt’s “blog” would also have a fairly large audience, but I can’t be sure because Alexa doesn’t show it separately from the main News Ltd site. The largest left-leaning blog, Larvatus Prodeo, has a much lower Alexa ranking of 352,094. You can see why Blair might have felt that an evaluation which spuriously equated LP (let alone any smaller left-leaning blog) to Daily Kos was a bit rich in the circumstances.
The claim that Australias bloggers are overwhelmingly left-of-centre is marginally more plausible, but nevertheless misleading.
When I started blogging in 2002, there was actually a significant preponderance of right-leaning Australian bloggers. The explosion in availability and popularity of easy blogging platforms like Blogspot happened to coincide with September 11 and the subsequent Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, and the short run effect was to stimulate lots of right-leaning “war bloggers” to attack their keyboards and begin blogging in patriotic outraged fervour.
However, that situation has progressively reversed itself (perhaps in part reflecting public reassessment of the wisdom of the Iraq intervention and pre-emptive aggressive warfare in general – including, I should make clear, my own re-evaluation as someone who initially cautiously supported the Iraq invasion), so that today we instead have a measurable preponderance of left-leaning bloggers over those of a more right wing persuasion. Missing Link’s Google Reader blogroll (which the team reviews daily) is probably as close as you could get to a comprehensive listing of Australian blogs that post frequently on political topics and that have been operating long enough to become known. Our list contains 70 left-leaning blogs, 35 centrist ones and 34 right-leaning ones (not counting economic and psephological bloggers whom we mostly don’t attempt to place ideologically).
However, that ratio is slightly misleading. There are 3 fairly large right-leaning group blogs, namely Catallaxy, Australian Libertarians and A Western Heart. Most of the authors at these group blogs once had individual blogs of their own, but have chosen to cease publishing them and concentrate solely on writing for their group blogs. By contrast, most of the authors at the two major left-leaning group blogs, LP and Road to Surfdom, have maintained their personal blogs and adopted a practice of cross-posting at both. Thus we get a somewhat misleading picture of the numbers of left and right -leaning bloggers if we only look at the raw numbers of blogs.
I estimate that the real numbers are approximately 70-45 in favour of the left, with another 35 blogs (including the rather large group of disparate individuals here at Club Troppo) not being clearly aligned either to left or right. It’s fair enough to assert that the Australian blogosphere leans overall to the left, but it’s hardly “overwhelming”. Moreover, even a cursory look (let alone a careful academic one) at blogging’s short history indicates that this ideological balance is a dynamic one which can be expected to shift again as world and local political circumstances change. I doubt that one can sensibly draw any meaningful sociological conclusions from it.
Tim Blair also initially made an issue of a claim by Bruns et al that “it’s hard to pick out our own equivalent to Little Green Footballs or Town Hall, where Australian conservatives can form communities of opinion “, but seems to have dropped that objection in today’s post. God knows why, because it’s probably the most dubious claim of all by Bruns et al. For a start, what do they mean by “communities”? If we take the relatively crude measure of number of comment box contributions, it’s clear that Blair hosts a very large and vibrant community. As a matter of idle interest, earlier today I counted the average number of comments on the last 10 posts at several right and left leaning blogs.
Right - Tim Blair’s average is 85 comments per post, Andrew Bolt’s is 54, Catallaxy’s is 36.
Left - Tim Dunlop’s average is 48, LP’s is 43, Road to Surfdom’s is 8, Jeremy Sear’s is 17 and Andrew Bartlett’s is 16.
Doesn’t leave much room for a good faith conclusion that the right’s sense of community is deficient by comparison with the left, does it? Bruns et al, however, allow their own prejudices to cloud their assessment and play semantic games with the proposition. They apparently see commenters at right-leaning blogs as just a rabble of “the faithful” while the left’s audience is a “community”.
However, Bruns et al have a more pseudo-scientific basis for ascribing a greater sense of “community” to left-leaning blogs, as they explained in last Thursday’s post:
Oh, and in fairness, in case any of the Blairites are indeed interested in evidence for our claim that the left of the Australian blogosphere is better developed than the right, here’s a study I conducted about a year ago. Follow-up studies focussing on a number of different cases have shown much the same outcome – greater clustering and more cluster members on the left than on the right. (Raw data from these studies is available at Issuecrawler, if anyone would like to do their own analysis.)
The principal graph on which this assertion of a “better developed” left blogger community is based can be found here. It plots link referrals between blogs concerning the David Hicks issue during a period a year or so ago, and it’s certainly true that there is marked clustering of a large group of blogs many of which most people would classify as left-leaning. But the cluster also includes three separate manifestations of Club Troppo, none of which can reasonably be labelled “leftish”, and several others which are also best viewed as centrist or non-aligned. Thus the claim that this large cluster evidences a highly developed left-leaning community is misleading on this ground alone. Similarly, individual blogs like Susoz and Robert Merkel are also part of this tight cluster, even though they are actually LP group bloggers. Again that helps to create a false impression of tight clustering and community, especially when nearly all the right-leaning group bloggers no longer maintain their individual blogs with which to swap links and create a pictorial impression of clustering. The latter no doubt frequently link to each other, but those links simply wouldn’t be detected by Bruns et al as evidence of clustering/community because they’re internal to a single group blog.
However, in an even broader sense, what does the clustering phenomenon actually mean? It simply connotes blogs that habitually link and refer to each other. Is it reasonable to define a “better developed” community as one whose members are more inward-looking and self-referential, mostly swapping links between themselves? Conversely, is it reasonable to define blogs which link widely to both Australian and overseas blogs as exemplifying a less developed community? Surely these assumptions require questioning and analysis at the very least.
For example, we can also see a number of blogs of a generally left-leaning persuasion that are just as loosely clustered as Blair and other “righties”. Tim Lambert, Robert Merkel, Gary Sauer-Thompson and Christopher Sheil are examples. They all linked less often to local blogs and more often to overseas ones, not because of a looser sense of community than the tightly clustered blogs, but because the diverse range of their authors’ intellectual interests drew them towards other sources than purely local ones.
An adequate understanding of these and other blogosphere phenomena requires a much wider and more subtle range of qualitative approaches than this trio seems to have contemplated. Apart from anything else, their understanding would benefit enormously from sitting down with blogging veterans like Tim Blair (and Tim Dunlop, John Quiggin and others including me), but their prospects of getting a co-operative response are hardly enhanced by their current seemingly partisan, confrontationist stance. The ARC should expect more for its money.