Jon Henke at The Next Right has replied to my earlier post about the prospects for a conservative Netroots (he calls it the “Rightroots”).

Henke begins by contesting my claim that there are ironic echoes of Markos Moulitsas in his and Patrick Ruffini’s writings:

Actually, I don’t think it’s ironic at all that the analysis of problems on the Right is similar to the arguments made by the Netroots Left. For one thing, the “claims made by Markos Moulitsas” are in many ways intentional recycling of the movement on the Right.

This is certainly a fair point to make (although the link to the TNR article was broken, so I’m not totally sure what evidence he’s using to supoprt his point). While I suspect kos might disagree strongly, I can see how there are some ways in which his strategic push for a populist, patriotic Left powered by mass participation borrows from the playbook of the Right.

Nevertheless, an underlying assumption in much of kos’s work has been the idea that there is something inherent to the culture of the Left which has made it particularly well-suited to decentralized action online. To me, it sounds like Henke and Ruffini don’t agree with this piece of kos’s thinking at all, but I’d be interested to hear more from them on this.

Henke then goes on to build off my argument that the current cross-ideological differences in networked organizing have not been determined by technologies per se:

The underlying systemic inputs are very similar. The political/electoral culture and incentives, and the emergence of the internet (sic) as an important social and technological phenomenon impacted both the Left and Right at approximately the same time.

The difference in uptake and evolution is predominantly due to the political cycle. Democrats went through the wilderness from 1995 to 2003; they found their way from 2003 to 2008.  Republicans entered their wilderness in 2007, though I would argue that the Right has been in the wilderness for longer.  How long the Right wanders in the wilderness depends, in large part, on how seriously they take the lessons they can learn from the Left.

The emphases to underscore what I take to be the key points here. The notion of an evolutionary political cycle is an interesting one that I’d like to think about more. While I am not aware of rigorous empirical research that supports this kind of idea, I agree that it’s an attractive explanation of political dynamics in this country since the mid twentieth century. It would be great to find out if someone’s tested the theory more carefully.

In my offline conversations with Gene Koo, we’ve also been throwing around the idea that a stint in the wilderness may speed up the process of partisan innovation by unleashing some old fashioned creative destruction. Gene frequently uses the metaphor of a political business cycle to describe this and argues for something like a leapfrogging effect as the parties alternately innovate, win power, and then grow complacent until they are forced to innovate again. This is very similar to Jon’s point. It’s also clearly reflected in the recent experience of the Left, which had to overcome the flawed strategies of the Clintonian Democratic Leadership Council to build a much more impressive grassroots machine for the 2006 mid-terms that may be on the vege of delivering a knockout punch two weeks from now.

Finally, Henke concludes by addressing what I see as the greatest obstacle facing an honest-to-goodness Rightosphere/Rightroots movement:

Does the Rightosphere not organize as well because of the nature of the online Republicans? Or do the online Republicans not organize as well because of problems with the Republican Party? I think it’s mostly the latter – something that can be fixed – but it will not be changed until a number of other changes happen within the Right and the Republican Party.

Unfortunately, there are powerful, entrenched interests maintaining the Republican status quo.

Once again, I think Jon and I mostly agree (apologies to any of you who came here looking for rhetorical fireworks – that was your first mistake). The main difference is that where he underscores the opportunity for a more profound break, I emphasize that a great deal of continuity is inevitable.

This same emphasis on continuity underpins my earlier claim that organizational/cultural differences will shape a Rightroots movement into something very distinct from the Progressive Netroots. The communications practices that helped the Republicans achieve electoral success in recent cycles – micro-targeting, direct mail, exceptional party discipline, and centrally-coordinated messaging – have “hardened” into organizations and personnel with a big stake in self-preservation (that’s those entrenched interests Jon’s talking about). New pathways to electoral victory for the Right will, at least in part, stem from the adoption of new organizing tactics. Nevertheless, I suspect that traces of the old institutions (in the form of people and organizational structures) will find a way into whatever comes next.

(Correction: I apologize for adding an “h” to Jon’s name in the original version of my previous post. I have subsequently changed it.)

A few recent posts at The Next Right have confirmed that Jon Henke and Patrick Ruffini are the only conservative bloggers I know of seriously considering how to build a netroots movement on the right.

(blue lightbulb by Curious Zed, cc-by-nc-nd)

(blue lightbulb by Curious Zed, cc-by-nc-nd)

Henke builds off of Ruffini’s assessment of the Obama campaign, elaborating the idea of “long tail empowerment” to describe the distributed organizing structure currently employed by the Democratic candidate. He then juxtaposes this decentralized and market-based approach to campaigning with the top-down “command and control” approach currently being used by the Republicans.

Finally, Henke offers his explanation for these differences:

“I believe a great deal of this is attributable to the state of each Movement.

  • Consolidation: The Right is behaving like a company within a declining industry, which focuses on increasing market share, rather than expanding the actual market itself.  Declining industries are defensive, seeking tradition and efficiency rather than innovation.  The Right – and the Republican Party – is trying to manage the decline by consolidating successes and attacking their opponent to limit the Left’s market share.
  • Expansion: The Left is behaving like a company within an expanding industry, making speculative investment to build for market growth, for competitive advantage within the emerging market. The Left is playing offense, innovating.  The political pendulum is swinging their way, and they are working to turn that momentum into permanent infrastructural gains.”

The irony here is that Henke’s (and Ruffini’s) analysis mirrors the claims made by Markos Moulitsas over the past five years on Daily Kos as well as in his books Taking On the System and Crashing the Gate. You can almost hear Kos chuckling to himself in the background of this post in which Ruffini spins out a fantasy in which Sarah Palin emerges as a latter day Howard Dean for the conservative movement:

Sarah Palin’s legacy as the VP nominee will matter inordinately in defining the Next Right. If the experience is seen as a constructive one (much like Dean), reminding us that it’s possible to get regular activists excited about being Republicans again, that Barack Obama ain’t the only one who can pack the arenas, and injecting a positive vibe into the GOP at the grassroots level, then I am optimistic about the GOP bouncing back. If instead the lesson of Palin is that we need to pick safe, uninspiring candidates (who will get utterly clobbered by Obama’s $1 billion+ re-election campaign, btw) who don’t offend Christopher Buckley, then I fear we are in for a long winter indeed.

Is that the theme song from the Twilight Zone playing in the background?

In all seriousness, I believe these guys make some excellent points and that their perspective merits sustained consideration by those on the left and the right

The question I have for Ruffini and Henke is whether a netroots of the right would (or even could) look like the netroots of the left? There’s a great case to be made (and some of us here at The Berkman Center are planning to publish some research in the near future that provides empirical support for this case) that technology usage patterns on the left and right of the blogosphere are significantly different. Combine that kind of evidence with some recent studies in cognitive psychology and some genetics-oriented political science work (pdf) and you can see the outline of an argument for the co-evolution of genes and political institutions.

The full extent or significance of this hypothetical argument is something I’m interested in exploring further. In the meantime, I should underscore that I’m neither advocating nor endorsing such a view just yet. It needs a lot of additional research to back it up and is in danger of sounding very deterministic at this early stage in its development.

Nevertheless, the nascent evidence for the co-evolutionary theory of U.S. politics gives me just enough rhetorical leverage to push back against some of Henke and Ruffini’s claims. It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to predict that it’s highly unlikely that the varieties of netroots activism that may evolve on the right will produce identical outcomes to that of the left. In building the fundraising and organizing capacity of the blogosphere, the Dean campaign, and the Obama campaign, the left has not used a single tool or technique that was not also available to the right. Likewise, individuals and organizations on the left have made conscious decisions to utilize the tools and techniques in particular ways that made sense within their existing organizational and institutional contexts. Those contexts are distinct from the ones on the right. As a result, the tools may or may not translate especially well.

I don’t have any answers here, just more questions. But I’m very curious to hear what Ruffini, Henke, Kos, and others would make of this issue.

Update: Henke posted a thoughtful reply to this piece. I’ve just posted a reply to his reply.

Update #2: kos responds to Henke and Ruffini (and even me, a little) and I reply to him too.

Much is being made of a false rumor about Steve Jobs’s health that started as a “user generated news item” on CNN’s site.

Basically, someone using the handle “Johntw” claimed that Jobs had suffered a heart attack in an iReport posting around 9am on Friday morning. By 10am, when Apple rebuffed the claim, the Cupertino, CA firm’s stock had dropped almost 10% – or $9 Billion in shares.

What if we just gave them all laptops?

Maybe if we just gave them all laptops... (by Olivander cc-by-nc-sa)

Predictably, the papers and news services reporting on the incident have rushed in to proclaim this merely another sad example of “the downside” (SF Chron) of “citizen journalism gone awry“(Bloomberg).

Even NYU Professor/Blogger/Media-studies-guru Jay Rosen chided CNN for their naivete, and is quoted by the SF Chronicle:

“I think if you are going to put closed and open systems under one brand, then you have to try to organize the open part so that it does not embarrass you…What the branded news companies cannot do is … create a low-cost open-gate ‘play area,’ where the citizens can do their thing and no one carefully watches over it, cultivates it, takes responsibility for building it or for steadily improving the quality of it.”

Rosen makes a great point – CNN should watch where it places its brand as it struggles to understand the shifting sands of the participatory web.

However, the fatal flaw in the rest of the coverage is that the authors and editors assume responsibility for the incident should be directed at CNN and it’s iReport platform. The sad truth of the matter is that none of the folks who repeated the rumor – and here I’m especially thinking of so-called industry experts such as Silicon Alley Insider’s Henry Blodget, who chose to broadcast the misinformation about Jobs on his influential blog – took the time to call a hospital or consider the very real possibility that information submitted to iReport just might be inaccurate.

Clearly, the fact that iReport uses the CNN brand likely facilitated the rumor’s credibility, but how does that make CNN responsible for the actions of an idiotic, gullible, or malicious user?

Blodget himself had the chutzpah to write, “‘citizen journalism’ apparently just failed its first significant test.”

To say that CNN or “Citizen Journalism” bears the blame for something as irresponsible as Blodget did is about as reasonable as saying Wikipedia is bad because college kids think everything on it is True.

It’s the users of iReport and Wikipedia who need re-educating, not the other way around.

Until information consumers – expert stock-pickers, journalists, and so-called everyday folks who get their news online – learn how to treat what they read with an appropriate level of critical skepticism, it doesn’t matter whether you have the editorial staff of the NY Times or an army of 10,000 monkeys writing the stories. There is always a risk that you will read something false.

If you read a user-contributed news item then make the decision to act on that information contained in that story, the institution of so-called citizen journalism is not at fault, you are.

Am I being overly-defensive here? Perhaps. Nevertheless, I’d like to think the point stands: when the corporate media blows a story they (rightfully) catch hell for it, but nobody suggests that the institution of professional journalism is to blame. Instead, we quibble about whether The New York Times should have fired Judith Miller sooner, or hired an ombudsman before the WMD mess and Colin Powell’s speech at the UN.

So-called citizen journalists and large-scale distributed news sites complement existing media institutions in numerous and valuable ways.

Indeed, the extent to which reputable news sources such as the NYT failed to perform the traditional role of the 4th Estate during the lead-up to the current War in Iraq is exactly what motivated some of the most important bloggers to jump into the fray.

Friday’s NYT offered characteristically “meh” coverage of the role of political bloggers at the upcoming party conventions next week.

The piece could have been so much than human interest fluff. Instead somebody opted to bury it in the fashion section.

Wonder if there’s a story about the changing nature of the media and the democratization of party politics in here somewhere?

Guess the editors don’t want to look at that angle too closely.

Ethan Zuckerman’s post on Google “Insights for Search” demonstrates how a few graphs can lead to hours of geeky fun.

By allowing you to visualize the google search history for a given term across a few geographic and temporal dimensions, the tool lends itself to some wonderful applications – including this one – a glance at social networking around the world by a Swedish firm named Pingdom – which inspired Ethan’s post in the first place.

As Ethan points out, though, the search insights data also provokes a question about what it means to search in the first place (my emphasis):

The Insight data isn’t measuring traffic to those sites, or their number of active members, just the number of folks searching for those sites via Google. That may or may not be an effective proxy for interest in those networks. I’m a Facebook user, and I have the site bookmarked, so I rarely would find myself searching for the site – it’s possible that the search data is a more effective proxy for the strength of a brand in a particular market, or the level of interest from non-participants in a specific site

I had a good time playing with these theories by using the comparative graphing features to consider where different political blogs attracted a greater relative volume of searches. Sorry the maps display a bit small, but you should be able to download the files (or simply re-create the search) to get a closer look.

Here’s a fun, obvious one:

great orange satan reigns supreme?

great orange satan reigns supreme?

(note: the data is also normalized in relation to the highest value occurring within the query range).
Check out how they both spike after the 2004 election, but then the relative volume of searches for Kos stay consistently higher (peaking after the 2006 mid-term elections) than those for Insty.

Make of that what you will. I wouldn’t even hazard a guess without knowing more about the reasons people turn to the Internet (and Google) to find political information.

I think the story gets even more interesting when you compare the high traffic states for each blog.

Here’s Insty:

And here’s Kos:

If you ignore the ratios for a second and just focus on the states in each list:

  • Instapundit:     DC, TN, NH, VA, MD, KS, NC, NY, WA, CT
  • Kos:                 VT, DC, OR, WA, NM, MT, ME, NY, WY, CA

Once again, extrapolate at your own risk. All I know is that it does not track perfectly with voting patterns and that the overlaps (DC, NY, WA) are at least as interesting as the extreme mismatches (WY, VT, MT).

Catching up on my RSS feeds, I followed one of Eszter Hargittai’s links to this thought provoking chart from Dave Eaves at the SEO Company that looks at the inlink/outlink ratio for major traditional news media sites.

The creators of the chart suggest that the deep inequality in inlinks/outlinks among the oft-villified “MSM” reflects some sort of scandalous refusal to play by the rules of the blogosphere. They have a point, but I want to think this through a bit more.

As Yochai Benkler, Matthew Hindeman and others have discussed in their writings, citation links (in-text links to other sites – contrasted with “static” blogroll-type links) function as key structural determinants of popularity and visibility on the Internet. Even though Hindeman’s notion of a strict “googlearchy” whereby citation links create search engine rankings which create power is overly stated for my taste, the fact remains that the structure of the net drives large masses of eyeballs in predictable directions along the pathways set by hyperlinks. For my money, Benkler does a more effective job in not overstating the case by situating his argument about the structure of discourse on the Internet in relation to the structure of discourse in the era of traditional broadcast media (see ch 6 and ch 7 of The Wealth of Networks).

Similarly, as the recent attempt by the Associated Press to squelch Fair Use for bloggers makes clear, many traditional news organizations do not want to play by the rules of the Net. Hell, in some cases, it seems like they and their shareholders would be happier if the Internet had just never happened.

For some organizations, the dearth of outlinks reflects the standard aversion of traditional journalistic writing style to the use of hyperlinked citations in stories. This is consistent with the widespread perception that the “MSM” has a willful disregard for Netiquette. It also makes Eaves’s conclusions (applying an equation to calculate the Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient) that out-linking behavior predicts in-links in return that much more suggestive. If the out-linking practice truly predicts in-linking, these news organizations risk slipping into the dustbin of information history as the rest of the Internet slowly ceases to pay attention to them.

The truth, I suspect, is more complicated. While traditional news outlets may not yet take advantage of the practical benefits of out-linking, they enjoy a comparative advantage in terms of social status and network centrality (among politicians, news organizations, businesses, intellectuals, etc.). This social status and network centrality should (I predict) translate into a steady stream of hits and in-links from other sites no matter what standard practices predominate across the rest of the networked public sphere.

To put that in less abstract terms: even if CNN and the Washington Post continue to refuse to use out-links in their primary coverage, their corresponding level of in-links is unlikely to decline to zero simply because they are still CNN and the Washington Post.

Whether this is the case or not, the fact remains that the traditional media are all scrambling to figure out why they can’t seem to stay afloat on the Internet. By identifying another potential factor in the equation, Eaves’s study makes a useful contribution to the debat

As always, well-informed legal analysis (this time of the AP-Drudge Retort spat) from David Ardia and the folks at the Berkman Center’s Citizen Media Law Project.

(Full disclosure: I work at Berkman, although not in conjunction with the CMLP).