The New York Times‘ Are Bloggers Setting the Agenda? It Depends on the Scandal is bound to raise a furor among bloggers, because it is a mainstream media outlet writing about the lack of influence in blogs, but it is much-needed, wherever it comes from, because there is an ongoing chorus of self-congratulatory babble without hard facts to back up announcements that media is forever changed. Transforming media demands a strategy, not just energy.
“…according to a preliminary study – the first rigorous look at the influence wielded by political blogs during the 2004 presidential campaign – bloggers are not always the kingmakers that pundits sometimes credit them with being. They can, it seems, exert a tremendous amount of influence – generate buzz, that is – but only under certain circumstances.”
The study, by the Pew Internet and America Life Project, found that blogs did not dramatically reshape the electoral debate—we still talked as a people about the issues introduced by politicians and the mainstream media.
However, because the Pew analysis was based on the volume of word or phrase occurrences across different print media, it largely misses the factors that make blogs a valuable part of the debate environment. Volume is not the critical factor, rather connectivity at key intersections of sentiment about a topic is the defining accelerant or dampening agent in a social network.
What we’ve been finding in our analysis at Persuadio is not that blogs aren’t influential, but that they exist largely on the raw material of mainstream media, serving as amplifiers of information, recasting information in the press to particular ends.
The Times article points to the failure of the blogosphere to pick up on the Koran desecration story despite extensive coverage in the mainstream press as evidence that bloggers are, basically, fickle. Likewise the Saddam-in-his-underpants story was dismissed from the attention of the blogosphere compared to subjects, like Dan Rather, that people actually experience on a day-to-day basis, but not because bloggers don’t care. They simply don’t have confidence in any information that they might use to justify a position about these stories. Rather, if what we’re seeing in our research bears out, it will take the definitive statement of a blogger respected for their knowledge of international law (vis-a-vis the rights of detainees, in the Saddam-in-underpants story) and the attendant linking to that expert posting by others with substantial influence networks to cast the topic in a light that will ignite debate among bloggers.
The fact is, blogs are already showing that they follow the same evolutionary process every other media does; it is not “different” even if it is new, because the blogosphere craves the legitimacy other media already have (or have squandered). But if individual blogs are going to become trusted sources, they must build reputation networks that support and amplify their original contributions to public discourse. Some blogs have done that in narrow areas of competence, certainly, but it would be unreasonable to expect even large clusters of blogs to achieve that competence across a wide range of topics when discussions among participating blogs tend to be among people with similar interests.