An academic paper based on analysis of blogs leading up to the 2008 election finds that U.S. political blogs on the left and right use technology in different ways. Aaron Shaw, a Berkeley sociology Ph.D. candidate, and Yochai Benkler*, a Harvard law professor, analyzed 155 blogs during a two week period in August 2008 and coded technological characteristics of the blogs along with “left,” “right,” and “center” political orientations.
The paper was first published almost two years ago, reminding us all just how slow academic publishing can be. It has just appeared this month in American Behavioral Scientist, where it’s available free for now. I hadn’t gone beyond a quick skim until now.
The results suggest that “the left adopts technologies that make user-generated diaries and blogs more central to the site to a greater degree than does the right.” The authors “find no difference in the use of comments or forums but a significant difference in user blogs, which are more widespread on the left than the right. This technical affordance, in turn, makes it easier for left-wing blogs to generate secondary content containing sustained writing, reporting, and opinion and make this content a part of the front page of the site.”
On the left, they find more reporting and in-depth analysis, while the right tends to give more punchy copy and links to outside content. Moreover, blogs on the left tend to have more calls to action than those on the left. The following figure, published under Creative Commons at the Berkman Center website, summarizes the left-right differences on the key variables:
For the authors, this suggests that the “networked public sphere” (a Benkler term) is differentiated across communities of users. In this interpretation, technological affordances are adopted in different ways and to different degrees depending on which community is being watched.
The paper does have its limits. The analysis is based on a two-week period, which might not be representative (though it was selected to avoid big campaign news). It also looks at less than 200 blogs in a world of millions, and selection (based on online directories, a common method in similar research) could introduce further bias.
More context and a list of blogs are available in the authors’ online appendix, but I can’t immediately find much of the raw data, which calls into question the problem of outliers in a relatively small sample (at least for statistical purposes). As always, a bunch of scatterplots could tell a clearer story.
Finally, Twitter was coming into its own as an important political space at the time. Though the authors are careful to limit the scope of their arguments, a full comparison of right and left online political practice should cross media.
Nonetheless, there’s something interesting here, and I would be very curious to see how Republican and conservative efforts to amp up online political engagement have might have affected things since the last election. Has the Tea Party movement introduced more analysis, calls to action, and group-governed sites? Has a Democratic White House consolidated discourse on the left? Here’s hoping for a repeat study, perhaps looking at multiple time periods.
*I promise this site is not just a Benkler fan blog, but this is the second time in a week that he has released something interesting.