Monday, 27 October 2008

But what will happen to the blogosphere...?

Is there a "blogosphere incumbancy factor"?

We've already looked in some detail at what might happen to the Republicans in the US and the Labour Party in the UK when they cease to hold the highest seat in Government - predictions range from the Labour party withdrawing to its hard-left/working-class roots, or the GOP formally becoming the party of the Religious Right at the expense of moderates. A question less often asked is what might happen to the blogosphere as it encounters its first changes of government.

    To give a broad brush-stroke picture, the UK and US blogospheres differ in one very obvious way. Whilst in the UK (at least until this year) the right-of-centre has been largely dominant (in terms of readership, influence, Technorati authority, traffic and revenue), our friends across the pond have created a blogosphere that (outside of the online outposts of the MSM at least) is notably left-wing.

There are a number of theories as to why this might be. Perhaps because the tech revolution began and flourished in that most liberal of States (California) whereas the Labour heartlands of the UK are more likely to be without broadband access than the better-off (and Tory-voting) South East of England. Conversely, maybe it is a sign of the use of funds, though Iain Dale did well to demolish this particular critique of the right-wing UK blogosphere by pointing out the number of one-man-bands. Others note that the American media (whilst TV and newspapers are accused of a soft 'liberal bias') allows room for highly energetic right-wing reporting, especially on FOX and through Talk Radio - the blogosphere might have developed to counter that most partisan and tubthumping of media, whereas in the UK the blogosphere seems to consider the Guardian and the BBC as its principle enemies in shaping political debate (a mark of their influence on the Labour Government, no doubt).

The theory that I intuitively have supported posits that the blogosphere (which, let us remember, is a medium not an outlet) is inherently oppositional - the room and license afforded for often vitriolic attacks on government suits a mode of being that launches attacks on governmental records, rather than defence of them. The irony of the blogosphere's reputation as a home to conspiracy theorists is best-illustrated by the fact that it is the open-source scrutiny of political claims that has made the blogosphere such an invaluable contributor to debate. No all-powerful newpaper editor to say that a line must be taken, or a story suppressed - all is leaked and dissected, and a volume of knowledgeable (and less-knowledgeable) opinion descends upon it to tear the truths from the carcass of spin.

The blogosphere is still a young world - few of the 'must-read' blogs on either side of the Atlantic were available even 4 years ago. Prior to the turn of the Millennium, only the Drudge Report (more of a news aggregator than a blog) comes to mind (for higlighting the claims about Lewinski''s Blue Dress) as having had a significant influence on politics from outside the MSM. YouTube, as if you can imagine an election without it, was scarcely a factor in 2004 - it grew to political prominance as a result of Virginia Sen. George Allan's 'macaca' comment in his (ultimately unsuccessful) re-election campaign against Jim Webb in the 2006 Midterms.

Even looking at the essential sites in 2008, many were at-best little-known before this electoral cycle. The astonishing importance of Real Clear Politics and, and during the primaries DemConWatch, is a new phenomenon - the sheer bulk of content, numbers, and stories demanding an explosion in top-end political comment from close to the ground, feeding the specialist interests of readers dissatisfied with the Dead-Tree Press, and their general-audience and space-constraints.

    Yet with this youth comes a little naivity. The most active wings of the political blogosphere are likely to be confronted with upheaval in the next 18 months, on both sides of the Atlantic. If I am correct in diagnosing the 'inherently oppositional' nature of the blogosphere, a view shared by Markos Moulitsas (founder of Daily Kos), what will happen to the Leviathans of the liberal Left when they are forced to defend power, rather than mock and oppose it, as a result of an Obama presidency? How will Iain Dale, Dizzy, and ConservativeHome learn to adapt in the event of David Cameron becoming Prime Minister?

I don't wish to overstate the case - the blogosphere is independent of political masters to a greater extent than the MSM can ever be, and I have little doubt that Daily Kos will attack an Obama White House from the Left as earnestly as Devil's Kitchen or Guido Fawkes will bemoan Cameron's failure from the perspective from the Right. That said, this sort of change in government (a reversal of political direction) has never been seen in the few years since the political blogosphere reached its first test of maturity in either the US or the UK. I wonder if the dominance that has been enjoyed by the American Left and the British Right will survive the association with the failures of government.

This is not too say that superb, independent writers will become as lick-spittle-loyal as a generation of journalists have become, but the challenge of writing significant volumes of content is a significant committment for many bloggers who hold full-time jobs as well. Family committments, social lives, paid work (few bloggers make proper money from it) - there are so many constraints on time, that I wonder if the lack of vitriolic hatred of government (to the same degree as could be enjoyed as when 'the enemy' were in charge) might dampen the fires of some stalwarts and pioneers of political blogging. It would be excusable if that were the case.

At very least, I would expect that the thus-far-dormant wing of the political spectrum in each nation would experience a delayed burst of creative energy, as they begin to find their feet in Opposition. If Cameron and Obama are their respective heads of government in two years' time, expect the Republicans and the Labour Party to have begun significant investment in levelling the online playing field of political activism.

    And yet, this projected trend is untried and untested. The thesis might be completely wrong, or at least rendered indistinguishable by this counterweight: the Blogosphere Incumbancy Factor.

All astute readers of know the claim that a first-term Liberal' Democrat MP, seeking re-election, enjoys an estimated 'bounce' of around 6% in the polls. Attributed variously to good local politics, a strong localist activist base, focus on constituency work in the absence of Government or Official Opposition roles - there is an 'incumbancy factor' that makes the Liberal Democrats better at holding recently acquired seats than might normally be expected. Might the same be true of the blogosphere?

Assuming the 'oppositional nature of the blogosphere' thesis to be true, might there have been some benefit to the UK Right and US Left in that the birth of blogging happened when they were in electoral decline? Can what is fundamentally a (media) market, with defined demographics and a growing (but not high-attrition) consumer base *really* change allegiance so quickly? I wonder if the sheer luck of the technological advances (at consumer level) coming when they did will give a distinct advantage to the currently-dominant political wings in each country for many years to come - that they will leverage their size and established authority to limit the encroachment of 'enemy' blogs on already-defined turf.

It is looking increasingly likely that the Conservatives will win back 10 Downing Street before Summer 2010, and that Barack Obama will be resident in the White House from January 2009. Those changes in government will be abrupt - I wonder whether the fast-moving world of political blogging will be quite as responsive, and how long it will take us to realise that it might not be.



Innocent Abroad said...

Well, you've covered all your bases, haven't you?

I'll go for the continuation of the status quo, up to a point.

Certainly in the USA: the "culture war" dimension of their politics won't change if Obama is elected and it is that, I suspect, rather than economic - or even foreign - policy which drives the liberal nature of their bloggers.

That driver is lacking over here, and although a few of the new intake of Tory MPs will no doubt try to import it, the different nature of our party system means that they will have been elected in spite of, rather than because of their (say) evangelical Christianity. On the other hand, we have Europhobia, which is a malady tailor-made for exacerbation in the blogosphere.

I would expect (and of course hope) that the UK blogosphere's left will grow after Labour's deserved electoral defeat. I shan't be happy myself until the usual suspects on the main site are slagging off "Liberal Conspiracy" as often as they do the Grauniad!

Oh, and isn't Guido going to give up blogging after the election?

Louis said...

Good article Morus, and is pretty much what I believe (about the blogosphere being more important to the opposition than the incumbant).