Arianna Huffington recently appeared at a Yale Political Union debate centered around whether blogs are good for democracy. Several Yale students gave speeches at the debate, and we have highlighted some of them on the Huffington Post. Read all of the published speeches by clicking here.
Recently, I was mentioned on Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish. My heart leapt - I'm just one of many student bloggers, banging away at a keyboard and trying to kid myself that someone was reading. Until suddenly, the number of visitors leapt by 4000%, random bloggers started linking to my post and I realized that I had an exceptional opportunity to get myself noticed by potential media employers.
Some people might have thought this would make me more linked into the world. On the contrary. It made me even more isolated.
Let me explain. It's very important to remember that blogging is a specific subcategory of internet activity. A typical blog post involves linking to another, often more widely read, writer's post or news article. The blogger quotes a chunk, explains why its of interest, and then gives a little personal spin on the ideas in question. Sure, at times bloggers will take issue with their ideological opponents and real right-left debates will happen across the blogosphere. But blogging is a very cheap medium, and therefore it's typically the realm of people who are trying to get noticed enough to jump start careers in more solidly funded media. Even as blogging becomes more and more mainstream, its very accessibility will mean that there are always far more little snappers yapping away than there are big fish. For every Huffington Post, there will be millions of students in bedsits with a laptop.
And when you're trying to start a career, you're usually trying to get noticed by the type of people who might patronize and promote you, i.e. the type of people who come from the same broad ideological groupings. I'm a conservative, and so I wouldn't mind getting noticed by Conservative bloggers, like David Frum, Andrew Sullivan and James Poulos. Technologically, what's one guaranteed way to get those sites to notice you? Link in and comment on their own articles. Every time someone links to a blog, the blog owners receive a notification - so if someone is writing reactions to every single post I write, I can't help but notice them on my screen.
So, when the myriad acolytes of a big fish like Andrew Sullivan want him to notice them back, what do they do? They obsessively comment on and link to his articles. Whereas the acolytes of big liberal blogs will focus their content on reaction to their own heroes. First of all, this creates echo chambers rather than universal discourse. It is hardly beneficial to democratic dialogue to have different ideological movements isolate from one another, focusing their intellectual energies on points of detail within their own internal divisions, rather than engaging in cross-border discussion.
Secondly, the deeply personal nature of blogs, in combination with the echo chamber effect, has fueled the rise of single issue campaigning. To be engaging to readers, a blog has to be constantly updated and have a clearly distinct theme, because the mystique of blogging is that it allegedly provides for personal expression. A blog is a news digest, filtered according to personal taste, and to get the exact collection of news summaries that are relevant to my lifestyle, I can go to a blog run by an person with similar interests. Imagine you're deeply concerned about animal rights. Previously, you couldn't keep up with animal rights news without reading your way through the mainstream press, skimming articles about everything from Pakistan to steel tariffs, until you finally found the article on page 35 about the PETA protest. Now, you can go straight to PETA's rolling news blog, or any other one hundred blogs that link to news stories solely about animal rights. The result is a narrowing of personal interests and the rise of the single issue pressure group. And anyone who's looked at the fragmentations of multi-party coalition governments in Europe knows that single issue politics, devoid of unifying, broad political coalescence, can be very dangerous indeed.
But after all this talk of echo chambers, isolation and political fragmentation, I'd like to leave you with a completely different thought. The rise of blogging means that everyone can have a voice. Or so we're told. The population is increasingly fed a myth that now, with the right technology, we can each find a way to vent our ideas onto the internet. But, as has always been the case, in fact most voices just get lost in the ether. As has been said before in this debate, the internet is littered with the virtual corpses of blogs that nobody read. But now, all those bloggers have been touched by the idea that they can each have influence, that everyone of the billions of global citizens can change the world through a blog. And when those billions wake up and realize that actually, nobody's listening, how will we all deal with that disillusionment? When we suddenly realize that actually, most of us are still as voiceless as we always were? The only thing more resentful than a disenfranchised population, is a disillusioned and disenfranchised population. Because Andrew Sullivan can't link to all of us. And when I get back to my blog tonight, and realize that there are no new incoming links, I'm going to feel like someone stole my Christmas present. With such popular unhappiness around the corner, how can you not vote against the motion: Blogs Are Good For Democracy.