Bartlett bleak on blogging

Australian Democrats deputy leader (and serious blogger) Andrew Bartlett has a post about the role and importance of blogs (or rather their lack of importance) from the viewpoint of working politicians:

Occasionally I read something usually on a blog – about the power of the blogosphere and its revolutionary implications for politics. Unfortunately, my own experience when I say “I have a blog“ to somebody even politically engaged people is that 95% of them will reply “what’s a blog?”

I’m all in favour of mechanisms which better connect people with political processes and better empowers the ‘average’ person. However, I’m also in favour of avoiding self-delusion, so it’s not useful to overstate the impact that blogs currently have, particularly in Australia. The big question for me is what the future prospects might be. …

Sadly (?) I think Senator B is dead right. It’s a conclusion I also reached in an article I wrote for Evatt Foundation a couple of years ago:

Blogging attracts political aficionados. It’s highly unlikely that the ranks of citizens inclined towards its solitary, introverted joys will ever be more than a relatively small minority of the population, certainly not numerous enough to effect a wholesale emergence of an informed, committed and involved civic society. Most people simply have different tastes and better things to do with their time. Moreover, Zaller even mounts a cogent argument that the informed citizen ideal may be undesirable in any event:

Highly informed citizens have many good democratic virtues, but they also tend to be rigid, moralistic, and partisan. It is not obvious that democracy would work better if more voters were like the most informed voters in the current system. Poorly informed voters are not so disengaged from national politics as many believe. Indeed, at least as regards presidential elections, poorly informed voters are more systematically responsive to the content of political campaigns than their better-informed counterparts. More than others, they reward incumbents who preside over strong national economies and punish those who do not. Poorly informed voters also more responsive to the ideological locations of the candidates … It is not obvious that democracy would work better if fewer voters were animated by the concerns of the least informed citizens.

Apathy may be the ultimate civic virtue. But who cares? Seriously, Schudson posits the concept of the “monitorial citizen” as a more realistic alternative to fostering a universally informed citizenry. The monitorial citizen fulfils a vital watching brief to keep politicians and the media honest. Perhaps political bloggers are best seen as self-selected monitorial citizens, keeping the bastards honest on behalf of the silent, politically disinterested majority. Zaller argues that political intellectuals are effectively guilty of misguided elitism in belittling populist opinion leaders like Tim Blair. By making politics accessible and interesting to a wide audience, populist demagogues of both right and left are the ultimate evaluative monitorial citizens, signalling important political developments to their respective tribes of disengaged supporters in an entertaining way:

Politics might work as well or better if political intellectuals gave up the idea that citizens have an obligation to keep abreast of every important aspect of public life. This ideal is not only impossible but damaging in certain ways. Intellectuals should instead turn their capacious minds to finding ways in which the informational obligations of citizenship can be fulfilled with less effort and more pleasure. Recent trends toward ‘infotainment’ news broadcasting and ‘fire alarm’ political institutions are promising possibilities.

I went on to suggest that bloggers (at least the more populist ones with large-ish audiences) might best be seen as ‘monitorial citizens’. However, even the most popular Australian political blogs have audiences whose size makes them a relatively unimportant vehicle for elected politicians to communicate directly with large groups of voters, so I think it’s unlikely that we’ll see many pollies following Andrew Bartlett’s lead in the near future. Politicians have limited time at their disposal, and there are more efficient modes of mass communication than blogging.

That said, I think there is potential value for politicians in using blogs as consultative and policy development platforms, allowing them to reach beyond the party faithful in an efficient, informal way and network with a wide range of highly educated, politically aware citizens. I know it sounds (and is) elitist, but policy development is elitist by its very nature, because very few citizens have the level of knowledge or interest to participate in a meaningful way. However, as with any such self-selected mode of interaction with voters, politicians need to be acutely aware that bloggers and their audience are a long way from representing a typical microcosm of the overall voter population. That said, it may well be that the audience on left-leaning and centrist blogs isn’t all that far from the typical Australian Democrat voter profile, which may be one reason why Senator Bartlett bothers to put in the time to produce a high quality blog where other politicians don’t.

Finally, I can think of various ways whereby blog content could be articulated to reach a much wider mass audience, thereby making the blogosphere much more worthy of attention from mainstream politicians. I was talking with various other bloggers about this before Christmas, but haven’t subsequently had time to pursue the ideas we discussed. I’ll be in touch soon.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Evil Pundit
2022 years ago

Blogs have become critically important in the political processes of the United States, and had a significant impact on the Presidential election and developments since then.

We’re just lagging behind in Australia, but we’ll catch up.

Andrew Bartlett
2022 years ago

Thanks for the nice comments Ken.

I should correct you by noting that these days I am (only) Deputy Leader of the Democrats.

You make some interesting points – I shall ponder them further.

chris fryer
2022 years ago

“Sadly (?) I think Senator B is dead right.”

I couldn’t disagree more.

The number of people that comment on blogs is very small. What about the people that just visit but don’t comment?

When I mention blogging around people they do ask, what is a blog? But, the numbers of people that do this are decreasing.

Blogs are now mentioned in the mass media regularly. I think bloggers like us need to become evangelists for the cause.

Sorry Ken, but I believe you are suffering from a failure of imagination. For example in the early part of last centaury, there were people that said: the telephone is a fantastic invention, I can foresee a time when every CITY will have one.

Tim
Tim
2022 years ago

Evil’s right, US experience is quite different. But so is the political context, not to mention the sheer size differential. Everything from non-compulsory voting, to the primaries system, to a rather different approach to party discipline make blogs a useful tool in the US context.

The other big difference is that the parties–not to mention various grassroots groups and advertisers–have recognized the potential and actually USE blogs. In other words, they have actively created a use for them, and very successfully. Similar Australian groups have simply not recognised the potential (or less kindly, are too dense or too chicken to try). But the potential is there.

When that fact is realised, the nature of the ozblogosphere will change considerably, just as it has in the US in the time that I’ve been blogging.

Mindy
Mindy
2022 years ago

I’m going with Evil Pundit on this one. I think as Gen Y or whatever they are called now start to look for something beyond chat rooms and SMS blogging will become more prevalent and will make more of an impact on life. Perhaps not in the same way as in the States, but for the generation after Xers computers have pretty much always been part of their lives and I think the use of computers as part of everyday life will increase. Especially if, as discussed in todays other topic, schools are given the resources to teach kids how to use

David Tiley
2022 years ago

For a moment I read the headline as “Bartlett bleak on logging”. Damn, I thought,….

I don’t have any illusions, partly because I think the medium will evolve a bit more. We don’t have to remake the world to be important – we just need a realistic sense of scale.

One problem with blogging so far is its vast balkanisation. How do people meet together when the space is so diverse? it is certainly too big for me to read even my friends and I am a total junkie.

With balkanisation comes divided audiences so there is no economic model so no-one can concentrate properly and do a professional job. Group blogs are a tremendous help here, but they still lack the kind of informing drive of a newspaper or magazine with a functioning editor.

Having said that, I do think that blogs are powerful tools in our own mental survival. I am not saying I would have run mad in the streets last year, but I would have been pretty glum without the fabulous gang of Troppo, Dunlop, Shiels and the Buster (to cite only the most obvious). With Gianna cast as the sanest political thinker of them all. And of course the incomparable mob of wunda-commenters.

In other words, blogs add hugely to my experience and understanding of the world. That’s pretty good IMHO.

One thing that will make a difference in our culture, I reckon is that the current generation of op-ed silverbacks and jellybrains will be replaced or at least augmented by a new mob, some of whom will be bloggers, for sure. At the moment, the blogosphere is functioning for pundits like community radio used to for announcers and comedians. Think Roy and HG.

When that happens, they will scour the blogosphere looking for stuff, so we will become a conduit for ideas into the mainstream press.

As I said so lucidly at the St Kilda Writer’s Festival (skite, skite – wow, what a forum!) the big developments in the blogosphere depend on audience. Can we create the habit in people of running past a few of their favourite blogs every day?

All the other major media (and the internet is surely a medium in that sense) were established with strong push/pull factors. Either an empty landscape of people desperate to connect like radio and newspapers pre WW2, or the vast novelty and huge impact of television, or the significant advertising and market smarts of cable.

We are just drifting in from the sides. The space is crowded, our readers are short of time. It is very possible we will just bounce off.

Although it is not true of this site, the great majority of comments on many sites come from people with blogs, so we are talking among ourselves. I think on my own site, most of my frequently returning readers run blogs.

When I realised that, my thinking began to change. I don’t understand the implications – and I can’t factor in the once a week or intermittent readers – but I now believe our world is hermetic.

The issue, it seems to me, is recruiting readers to the whole blogosphere. “Evangelism” as Chris neatly put it. Maybe we should advertise on buses, or something.. HAVE YOU READ A BLOG TODAY? Maybe that is why the mobile phone will turn out to be important to us.

As you can tell, I am working up to a burst on my own site. But its not quite cooked yet… and this discussion will surely help. Don’t you think that is a great thing, in and of itself, right now?

David Dean
2022 years ago

I agree with chris. The number of people actively participating in blogging is still quite small — and will probably remain that way — but the population aware of blogs, and who only passively consume will continue to increase until they are a significant force. After all blogging is mentioned in the paper nowadays without definition.

This is especially because syndication allows a large number of viewpoints to be followed efficiently, when compared to visiting websites one-by-one. Most people I know who haven’t heard of blogs, still have a number of websites they visit on a regular basis looking for interesting news/stories (even if it is just the msn home page). Syndication makes this more efficient.

Glenn Condell
Glenn Condell
2022 years ago

For people who prefer to know what’s going on rather than be satisfied with establishment droppings via the MSM, blogs (and alt or indy sites generally) will continue to increase in importance as the MSM falls further into adjuncthood.

Hope RTS is well on the road to recovery Tim.

jen
jen
2022 years ago

blogs are one of the most satisfying modes of communication I’ve been priviliged to play with. The high level of linear logic heads gets a little wearing and the left right orientation thing is tiresome – I just don’t get it – I guess it’s got to do with team players and belonging. However, those characteristics aside, I can’t see an end to this interactive play of ideas. I am hoping the sphere of heads that engage will expand, because about now it seems that dilettantes like me who just want to play are a minority. What is it about linear logic and academe that is so great? I mean so great that other kinds of intelligence or thinking are kind of looked down upon. This medium has the potential to embrace many kinds of intelligence, but I guess it is early days yet. At the moment text based communication is pretty fast even with a dial up – imagine when we can just download audio visual as a matter of course and communicate generally that way. ‘Hey look at this!’ I think the kinds of minds and mind sets engaged in discussion will be diversified when text is not as pervasive.

Amanda
2022 years ago

My impression of the US situation backs up the argument for blogging as a very marginal activity. Bloggers may have started the ferment for the bringing down of Rather, say, but how many “ordinary punters” know that? I image they got the news through their regular media sources.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

David

“Don’t you think that is a great thing, in and of itself, right now?”

Yes of course I do, and I can also see lots of potential for blogging that isn’t yet realised, partly for the sorts of reasons you discuss. But I still think Andrew B is correct that we should avoid self-delusion about our own importance and (immediate) potential.

As Tim D mentioned, there are several salient differences between the US and Australia, which may mean that blogging won’t develop and interact with mainstream politics and media in quite the same way here as it has there. That is, it may not simply be that we’re further back around the development curve (as EP argued) than the US, but that we’re following a somewhat different trajectory in any event.

It remains to be seen, but my personality tends to err on the side of cautious expressed claims and expectations while working quietly towards more optimistic outcomes. I’d certainly like to see the Oz blogosphere become more significant, visible and influential than it currently is, because I spend quite a lot of time participating in it. But I’d probably still blog even if the audience was smaller than now rather than larger. If I was vitally interested in outcomes rather than process, participation, having fun and stretching my mind against other intelligent political aficonados, I’d probably be an active, committed member of a political party again rather than a fairly passive blogging observer.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Jen

Seeing as you won’t get off the Internet long enough for me to phone you, this is just a message to say that Territory Technology rang on my mobile and your laptop is ready to pick up. And they didn’t need to delete any files.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

So Ken, not only are blogs a space for debate and dialogue, they can also help you organise your home life?

jen
jen
2022 years ago

Quick Nab Quick. Always on the ball. And folks say you USED to be funny!

There’s got to be a way to punctuate irony Nab and I’m never sure what it is. The tone is EVERYTHING.

boynton
2022 years ago

I suspect that as soon as the serious evangelism starts, something is losing faith.

If you have to sell something on a tram, chances are there’ll be uniforms ahead?
I like the creative impulse of blogs that are running on joy or complusion, but not a drive to go mainstream.
And I suspect my reader agrees ;)

boynton
2022 years ago

– though perhaps I didn’t observe the distinction between the political and non-political blogs drawn here.

Francis Xavier Holden
2022 years ago

binnsy – I had a read of your link. It’s a bit more than two bloody bob’s worth. What about truth in advertising.

I’m about to rack off and check my temperature. I found myself agreeing to some extent with Homer P’s take on the Oz Dems. I must also check if my CD player has turned into a turntable and started playing Bachman Turner Overdrive – Greatest Hits.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

So I took what I could get. And b-b-b-baby, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Which is also a good summary of my views on blogging, political or otherwise. As the B-Lady just pointed out they’re running on joy or complusion. There are no rules, all the yardsticks are self-appointed and what conventions or ettiquette that has evolved, is just that, evolution through online darwinism and market forces. For example, a blogger changing the words of a commentator so it means something else is generally regarded by everyone as something that’s just not done. Partly out of a sense of fair play and but also if yer blog gets a reputation for doing that, then good comments rapidly drop away.

This is the kinda self-enforcing mechanism that podulating internet pundits miss, preferring to talk instead of breaking down a culture of mainstream media gatekeeping and suchlike obviousnesses.

Blogging is a media and medium and neither, all at once. Attempting to muse, speculate and predict what it means and where it is going reminds of the legendary 19th century US Mayor who said he looked forward to the day when every town in America would have its own telephone.

Niall
2022 years ago

Let’s be honest for a moment. Very few Australians actually take an interest in the world outside their own small and compacted lives. Even fewer have writing on the internet as a hobby. Is it any wonder blogging isn’t the ‘you-beaut’ biggie here that it apparently is in the almighty states? We’re a completely different demographic, which is something that many on the right fail to recognise.

Cameron Riley
2022 years ago

Parties have to sell their message to their electorate. The only way they used to be able to do that was either through the media or by stumping in their districts. Blogging/internet enables them another avenue to reach people. Anything that defrays the Mainstream Media’s hold or monopoly on presenting a politician’s message to the people is a good thing IMO.