[iDC] Knock yourselves out

trebor at thing.net trebor at thing.net
Wed Jul 5 16:25:13 EDT 2006

Does the Internet democratize the public sphere or is it 1998 all over again?
What is meant by the networked public sphere anyway?

Let's try to make the lions roar.

First, I excerpted Yochai Benkler's chapter on the public sphere in "The Wealth
of Networks;" then I grouped these short quotes in shameless ways.

Many arguments brought up by Danny, Mett, Rob, Julian, Jonah, and Ksenija are
addressed in this clustered mashup.

I have never done this before, but why not try to drape our posts around a few
of these *short* quotes from the long list of text segments below.



Networked public sphere?

Europe, Asia, and Africa-- much more than the United States-- experience a huge
growth in mobile communication with SMS becoming the 'e-mail' of mobile phones.
The wireless Internet and physical space converge.

"The network allows all citizens to change their relationship to the public
sphere. They no longer need be consumers and passive spectators. They can
become creators and primary subjects. It is in this sense that the Internet
democratizes." (p.272)

"..., we need to consider the attractiveness of the networked public sphere not
from the perspective of the mid-1990s utopianism, but
from the perspective of how it compares to the actual media that have dominated
the public sphere in all modern democracies." (p.260)

"... the networked public sphere responds to the core failings of the
commercial, mass-media-dominated public sphere [it considers] the critiques of
the Internet as a platform for a liberal public sphere." (p. 220)

The wireless Internet facilitates "...the spatial and temporal ubiquity of basic
tools for observing and commenting on the world we inhabit." (p. 219)

"There never has been a complex, large modern democracy in which everyone could
speak and be heard by everyone else. The correct baseline is the one-way
structure of the commercial mass media. The normatively relevant descriptive
questions are whether the networked public sphere provides broader intake,
participatory filtering, and relatively incorruptible platforms for creating
public salience. I suggest that it does." (p.247)

"Public sphere in liberal societies relies on the information and cultural
production activity of emerging nonmarket actors: individuals working alone and
cooperatively with others, more formal associations like NGOs, and their
feedback effect on the media itself. These enable the networked public sphere
to moderate the two major concerns with commercial mass media as a platform for
the public sphere: (1) the excessive power it gives its owners, and (2) its
tendency, when owners do not dedicate their media to exert power, to foster an
inert polity. More fundamentally, the social practices of information and
discourse allow a very large number of actors to see themselves as potential
contributors to public discourse and as potential actors in political arenas,
rather than mostly passive recipients of mediated information who occasionally
can vote their preferences."
(p. 220)


"Information overload.
A basic problem created when everyone can speak is that there will be too many
statements, or too much information. Too many observations and too many points
of view make the problem of sifting through them extremely difficult, leading
to an unmanageable din. This overall concern, a variant of the Babel objection,
underlies three more specific arguments: that money will end up dominating
anyway, that there will be fragmentation of discourse, and that fragmentation
of discourse will lead to its polarization." (p.233)

"In the networked information environment, everyone is free to observe, report,
question, and debate, not only in principle, but in actual capability. They can
do this, if not through their own widely read blog, then through a cycle of
mailing lists, collective Web-based media like Slashdot, comments on blogs, or
even merely through e-mails to friends who, in turn, have meaningful visibility
in a smallish-scale cluster of sites or lists." (p.272)

"Rather than succumb to the ‘information overload’ problem, users are solving it
by congregating in a small number of sites." (p.241)

"While the Internet, the Web, and the blogosphere are indeed exhibiting much
greater order than the freewheeling, ‘everyone a pamphleteer’ image
would suggest, this structure does not replicate a mass-media model. We are
seeing a newly shaped information environment, where indeed few are read by
many, but clusters of moderately read sites provide platforms for vastly
greater numbers of speakers than were heard in the mass-media environment.
Filtering, accreditation, synthesis, and salience are created through a system
of peer review by information affinity groups, topical or interest based."


"Money will end up dominating anyway.
... in this explosively large universe, getting attention will be as difficult
as getting your initial message out in the mass-media context, if not more so.
The same means that dominated the capacity to speak in the mass-media
environment—money—will dominate the capacity to be heard on the Internet, even
if it no longer controls the capacity to speak." (p.234)

"The literature on network topology suggests that, as long as there are widely
distributed capabilities to publish, link, and advise others about what to read
and link to, networks enable intrinsic processes that allow substantial ordering
of the information." (p.261)

"Russ Kick, is able to maintain a Website, The Memory Hole, with documents that
he gets by filing Freedom of Information Act requests. In April 2004, Kick was
the first to obtain the U.S. military’s photographs of the coffins of personnel
killed in Iraq being flown home. No main stream news organization had done so,
but many published the photographs almost immediately after Kick had obtained
them." (p.260)

"Intense interest and engagement by small groups that share common concerns,
rather than lowest-common- denominator interest in wide groups that are largely
alienated from each other, is what draws attention to statements and makes them
more visible. This makes the emerging networked public sphere more responsive
to intensely held concerns of a much wider swath of the population than the
mass media were capable of seeing, and creates a communications process that is
more resistant to corruption by money." (p. 242)

"Government and corporate power is large, and individuals, no matter how good
their tools, cannot be a serious alternative to a well-funded, independent
press that can pay investigative reporters, defend lawsuits, and generally act
like the New York Times and the Washington Post when they published the
Pentagon Papers in the teeth of the Nixon administration’s resistance,
providing some of the most damning evidence against the planning and continued
prosecution of the war in Vietnam. Netanel is cognizant of the tensions between
the need to capture large audiences and sell advertising, ontheonehand,
andtheroleof watchdog, ontheother. He nonetheless emphasizes that the networked
public sphere cannot investigate as deeply or create the public salience that
the mass media can. These limitations make commercial mass media, for all their
limitations, necessary for a liberal public sphere." (p.262)

"However, the degree of engaged readership, interlinking, and clustering
suggests that, in fact, being exposed to a certain message in one or a small
number of highly visible places accounts for only a small part of the range of
“reading” that gets done. More significantly, it suggests that reading, as
opposed to having a conversation, is only part of what people do in the
networked environment." (p.259)

"The central desideratum of a political campaign that is rooted in the Internet
is the capacity to engage users to the point that they become effective
participants in a conversation and an effort; one that they have a genuine
stake in and that is linked to a larger, society-wide debate. This engagement
is not easily purchased, nor is it captured by the concept of a well-educated
public that receives all the information it needs to be an informed citizenry.
Instead, it is precisely the varied modes of participation in small-, medium-,
and large-scale conversations, with varied but sustained degrees of efficacy,
that make the public sphere of the networked environment different, and more
attractive, than was the mass-media-based public sphere." (p.259)

"The peer-produced structure of the attention backbone suggests that money is
neither necessary nor sufficient to attract attention in the networked public
sphere (although nothing suggests that money has become irrelevant to political
attention given the continued importance of massmedia." (p.258)

"However, network-based peer production also avoids the inherent conflicts
between investigative reporting and the bottom line— its cost, its risk of
litigation, its risk of withdrawal of advertising from alienated corporate
subjects, and its risk of alienating readers." (p.265)


"Fragmentation of attention and discourse.
... the ubiquity of information and the absence of the mass media [are]
condensation points [that] will impoverish public discourse by fragmenting it.
There will be no public sphere. Individuals will view the world through
millions of personally customized windows that will offer no common ground for
political discourse or action, except among groups of highly similar
individuals who customize their windows to see similar things." (p.234)

"This body of literature on network topology suggests a model for how order has
emerged on the Internet, the World Wide Web, and the blogosphere. The networked
public sphere allows hundreds of millions of people to publish whatever and
whenever they please without disintegrating in to an unusable cacophony, as the
first-generation critics argued, and it filters and focuses attention without
re-creating the highly concentrated model of the mass media that concerned the
second-generation critique." (p.253)

"In addition to time-insensitive superstars, there are also flare-ups of
connectivity for sites depending on the activity and relevance of their
community of interest." (p.253)

"Users self-organize to filter the universe of information that is generated in
the network. This self-organization includes a number of highly salient sites
that provide a core of common social and cultural experiences and knowledge
that can provide the basis for a common public sphere, rather than a fragmented
one." (p.256)

"According to this critique, attention is much more concentrated on the Internet
than we thought a few years ago: a tiny number of sites are highly linked, the
vast majority of ‘speakers’ are not heard, and the democratic potential of
theInternet is lost." (p. 238)

"Noam’s prediction [followed the argument] that money would have to be paid to
reach visibility, effectively replicating the mass-media model." (p.239)


A descriptively related but analytically distinct critique of Sunstein’s was
that the fragmentation would lead to polarization. When information and
opinions are shared only within groups of like-minded participants, he argued,
they tend to reinforce each other’s views and beliefs without engaging with
alternative views or seeing the concerns and critiques of others. This makes
each view more extreme in its own direction and increases the distance between
positions taken by opposing camps." (p.235)

"It has consistently shown that the number of links into and out of Websites
follows power laws." (p.245)

"Lada Adamic and Natalie Glance recently showed that liberal political blogs and
conservative political blogs densely interlink with each other, mostly pointing
within each political leaning but with a bout 15 percent of links posted by the
most visible sites also linking across the political divide." (p.248)

"These findings are critical to the interpretation of the distribution of links
as it relates to human attention and communication.There is a big difference
between a situation where no one is looking at any of the sites on the low end
of the distribution, because everyone is looking only at the superstars, and a
situation where dozens or hundreds of sites at the low end are looking at each
other, as well as at the superstars. The former leaves all but the very few
languishing in obscurity, with no one to look at them. The latter, as explained
in more detail below, offers a mechanism for topically related and
interest-based clusters to form a peer-reviewed system of filtering,
accreditation, and salience generation." (p.252)

"In 1999, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi and Reka Albert published a paper in Science
showing that a variety of networked phenomena have a predictable
topology: The distribution of links into and out of nodes on the network follows
a power law. There is a very low probability that any vertex, or node, in the
network will be very highly connected to many others, and a very large
probability that a very large number of nodes will be connected only very
loosely, or perhaps not at all. Intuitively, a lot of Websites link to
information that is located on Yahoo!, while very few link to any randomly
selected individual’s Website. Barabasi and Albert hypothesized a mechanism for
this distribution to evolve, which they called “preferential attachment.” That
is, new nodes prefer to attach to already well-attached nodes." (p.244)

"In that study, Adamic and Glance showed that only about 10 percent of the links
on any randomly selected political blog linked to a site across the ideological
divide. The number increased for the ‘A-list’ political blogs, which linked
across the political divide about 15 percent of the time. The picture that
emerges is one of distinct ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ spheres of
conversation, with very dense links within, and more sparse links between
them." (p.257)

"Each cluster of more or less like-minded blogs tended to read each other and
quote each other much more than they did the other side." (p.257)

"High-visibility nodes amplify and focus on given statements, and in this
regard, have greater power in the information environment they occupy."

"Only polarization of discourse in society as a whole can properly be considered
a challenge to the attractiveness of the networked public sphere."


"2. Centralization of the Internet.
Sadly, from the perspective of democracy, it turns out that according to the
concentration concern, there are few speakers to which most people listen, just
as in the mass-media environment." (p.235)

"The implication for democracy that comes most immediately to mind is dismal.
While, as the Supreme Court noted with enthusiasm, on the Internet everyone can
be a pamphleteer or have their own soap box, the Internet does not, in fact,
allow individuals to be heard in ways that are substantially more effective
than standing on a soapbox in a city square. Many Web pages and blogs will
simply go unread, and will
not contribute to a more engaged polity. This argument was most clearly made in
Barabasi’s popularization of his field, Linked: ‘The most intriguing result of
our Web-mapping project was the complete absence of democracy, fairness, and
egalitarian values on the Web. We learned that the topology of the Web prevents
us from seeing anything but a mere handful of the billion documents out there.”

"At a micro level, sites cluster—in particular, topically and interest-related
sites link much more heavily to each other than to other sites. Second, at a
macro level, the Web and the blogosphere have giant, strongly connected cores—
‘areas’ where 20–30 percent of all sites are highly and redundantly
interlinked; that is, tens or hundreds of millions of sites, rather than ten,
fifty, or even five hundred television stations." (p.248)

"...He accepted Nicholas Negroponte’s prediction that people would be reading
‘The Daily Me,’ that is, that each of us would create highly customized windows
on the information environment that would be narrowly tailored to our unique
combination of interests." (p.238)

"From this assumption about how people would be informed, he spun out two
distinct but related critiques.The first was that discourse would be
fragmented. With no six o’clock news to tell us what is on the public agenda,
there would be no public agenda, just a fragmented multiplicity of private
agendas that never coalesce into a platform for political discussion. The
second was that, in a fragmented discourse, individuals would cluster into
groups of self-reinforcing, self-referential discussion groups." (p.238)

"The media-concentration type argument has been central to arguments about the
necessity of open access to broadband platforms, made most forcefully over the
past few years by Lawrence Lessig. The argument is that the basic
instrumentalities of Internet communications are subject to concentrated
markets. This market concentration in basic access becomes a potential point of
concentration of the power to influence the discourse made possible by access."

"Under competitive conditions, as technology makes computation and
communications cheaper, a well-functioning market should ensure that outcome.
Under oligopolistic conditions, however, there is a threat that the network
will become too expensive to be neutral as among market and non-market
production. If basic upstream network connections, server space, and up-to-date
reading and writing utilities become so expensive that one needs to adopt a
commercial model to sustain them, then the basic economic characteristic that
typifies the networked information economy the relatively large role of
nonproprietary, non-market production— will have been reversed." (p.239)

"The zeal to curb peer-to-peer file sharing of movies and music could lead to a
substantial redesign of computing equipment and networks, to a degree that
would make it harder for end users to exchange information of their own making.
Understanding what we will lose if such changes indeed warp the topology of the
network, and through it the basic structure of the networked public sphere, is
precisely the object of this book as a whole. For now, though, let us say that
the networked information economy as it has developed to this date has a
capacity to take in, filter, and synthesize observations and opinions from a
population that is orders of magnitude larger than the population that was
capable of being captured by the mass media.” (p.261)

"They are not a critique of the democratic potential of the networked public
sphere, but rather show us how we could fail to develop it by following the
wrong policies." (p.239)

"The critique of concentration in this form therefore does not undermine the
claim that the networked information economy, if permitted to flourish, will
improve the democratic public sphere. It underscores the threat of excessive
monopoly in infrastructure to the sustainability of the networked public
sphere." (p.241)


"3. Centrality of commercial mass media to the Fourth Estate function. The
importance of the press to the political process is nothing new. It earned the
press the nick name ‘the Fourth Estate’ (a reference to the three estates that
made up the pre-revolutionary French Estates-General, the clergy, nobility, and
townsmen), which has been in use for at least a hundred and fifty years."

"It does, however, provide a context for looking more closely at the emerging
understanding of the topology of the Web, and how it relates to the fears of
concentration of the Internet, and the problems of information overload,
discourse fragmentation, and the degree to which money will come to dominate
such an unstructured and wide-open environment. It suggests a more complex
story than simply ‘the rich get richer’ and ‘you might speak, but no one will
hear you.’” (p.246)


"4. Authoritarian countries can use filtering and monitoring to squelch Internet
use. A distinct set of claims and their critique shave to do with the effects of
the Internet on authoritarian countries. The critique is leveled at a basic
belief supposedly, and perhaps actually, held by some cyber-libertarians, that
with enough access to Internet tools freedom will burst out everywhere. The
argument is that China, more than any other country, shows that it is possible
to allow a population access to the Internet— it is now home to the
second-largest national population of Internet users—and still control that use
quite substantially." (p.236)

"Media other than static Websites present substantially deeper problems for
regimes like those of China and Iran. Scanning the text of e-mail messages of
millions of users who can encrypt their communications with widely available
tools creates a much more complex problem. Ephemeral media like chat rooms and
writable Web tools allow the content of an Internet communication or Web site
to be changed easily and dynamically, so that blocking sites becomes harder,
while coordinating moves to new sites to route around blocking becomes easier."

"...the materials made available on a ‘see for yourself’ and ‘come analyze this
and share your insights’ model; the distribution by students; and the fall back
option when their server was shut down of replication around the network."

"The Internet does provide avenues of discourse around the bottle-necks of older
media, whether these are held by authoritarian governments or by media owners.
But the mechanisms for this change are more complex than those articulated in
the past." (p.271)

"The problem is approached through a self-organizing principle, beginning with
communities of interest on smallish scales, practices of mutual pointing, and
the fact that, with freedom to choose what to see and who to link to, with some
co-dependence among the choices of individuals as to whom to link, highly
connected points emerge even at small scales, and continue to be replicated
with ever larger visibility as the clusters grow."


"5. Digital divide. While the Internet may increase the circle of participants
in the public sphere, access to its tools is skewed in favor of those who
already are well-off in society—in terms of wealth, race, and skills. I do not
respond to this critique in this chapter. First, in the United States, this is
less stark today than it was in the late 1990s. Computers and Internet
connections are becoming cheaper and more widely available in public libraries
and schools." (p.236)

"This is not to say that the Internet will of necessity in the long term lead
all authoritarian regimes to collapse. One option open to such regimes is
simply to resist Internet use." (p.266)

More information about the iDC mailing list