The Myth of Digital Democracy


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Blogging about politics, unlike the old days of oped columns and talking heads, means being in constant contact with your readers, who collectively exert tremendous influence on the public conversation through their ability to comment, rate and share blog posts. These are all critical functions of the new media system that Hindman completely ignores in his book. Just get the data from Hitwise, as Hindman did in his book.

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Here's why: the number of visitors or readers a site has does not equal its influence. If that were the case, the political Right would have been much stronger online between and , when its top trafficked sites were places like Free Republic and Powerline. DailyKos and Firedoglake are qualitatively different online sites than sites like Free Republic or Powerline or even Townhall. They are switching stations for action, not just opinion—sifting the news and pointing readers to all kinds of tangible political activities.

DailyKos is more like a virtual city than it is just a national blog. Likewise, he probably gets a similarly small fraction of the overall number of comments posted on his site every day. The site gets several thousand diary posts a week, and these are read and rated by thousands more.

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To talk about a site like DailyKos in the same breath as an old media entity like the Washington Post is to compare apples and oranges. The web is flattening, somewhat, the financing of politics, and to a modest but real degree, reducing the importance of large, maxed-out donors on who can become a viable candidate for office. Obama had more than K individual contributors, more than Bush and Kerry combined in As an abundant medium, the web puts far less of a premium on the sound-biting of politics, and indeed often rewards rich political content.

I've written about the rise of the "sound-blast" plenty of times and won't repeat that here, but it isn't just about the fact that Obama's second-most viewed video on YouTube is his minute speech on race.


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Lots of popular political video clips tend to run anywhere from one to three minutes long; we should recognize this as a tremendous improvement in the public discourse. Politics online is about far more than just what the blogosphere is focusing on at any given moment. Hindman makes much of the face that blog writers and readers trend older than you might expect given how much the net is dominated by young people, but that leaves the wrong impression.

For younger web users, posting and reading blogs is far less important than sharing information on social network sites and posting and sharing videos. Quoting from the Pew study:. A deeper analysis of this online participatory class …suggests that it is not inevitable that those with high levels of income and education are the most active in civic and political affairs.

The Myth of Digital Democracy

In contrast to traditional acts of political participation—whether undertaken online or offline—forms of engagement that use blogs or online social network sites are not characterized by such a strong association with socio-economic stratification. I'm out of time but I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention the power of data and transparency to foster a more accountable political process. As Clay Shirky has said, information isn't power--disproportionate access to information is power.

When we make vital political data freely accessibly online, instead of requiring people to fly to Washington and search out a basement office to look up a printed document that is technically public but barely accessible, we drastically shift the information balance in the direction of ordinary citizens.

Hindman doesn't deal with this issue at all in his work. Absent from much of this debate is evidence-based analysis of the effects of the Internet on the business of politics. Many theories have been built on nothing more than anecdote, inference and assertion. In The Myth of Digital Democracy, political scientist Matthew Hindman fills important gaps in the evidence base, and does so accessibly. He argues against the journalists and pundits who have made sweeping claims about the internet's transformative potential for democracy, and suggests that the new online bosses are not very different from the old ones.

Unlike earlier sceptics, however, he has some data to support his claims. The book is well organized and most of content is accessible to a general readership.

The Myth of Digital Democracy

By bringing new data and methods to bear in a serious critique of what were becoming consensus views about the Internet's role in public life, Hindman offers more than just another set of volleys over the net of ongoing academic debates. Comprehensiveness and rich data support Hindman's central claim about inegalitarian outcomes of the interactions of Internet and politics, and provide an excellent starting point for future research. Rating details. Book ratings by Goodreads.

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Can Digital Democracy Work? - Timothy Kirkhope MEP

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Do political Web sites and blogs mobilize inactive citizens and make the public sphere more inclusive? The Myth of Digital Democracy reveals that, contrary to popular belief, the Internet has done little to broaden political discourse but in fact empowers a small set of elites--some new, but most familiar.


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