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New Study: Liberals More Open Than Conservatives Online

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By Ari Melber, The Nation

All blogs were not created equal.

Many liberal blogs, it turns out, were created with platforms to host multiple authors and share attention with guest contributors. Conservative blogs, in contrast, often use technologies highlighting a single author--while consigning guests to the digital equivalent of a newspaper's classified section. Those are some key findings of a forthcoming study by researchers from Harvard, Yale and Berkeley, "A Tale of Two Blogospheres," which disputes several conventional views of political blogs (view a chart summarizing the comparisons). The dominant academic literature posits an ideologically symmetrical blogosphere--an arena where liberals and conservatives practice similar writing, linking and mobilization tactics. The political and media establishment, meanwhile, tend to treat blogs as an isolated medium for political polarization. In this narrative, blogs are a digital refuge for the radical pacifists and tea party insurgents stuck at the margins of their own parties.

The first premise is wrong, according to the study's findings, and the second misses the mark, which suggests consequences for politicos across the spectrum.

The study, conducted by Yochai Benkler, Aaron Shaw and Victoria Stodden and obtained before publication by The Nation, began with a content and technological analysis of 155 leading political blogs during two weeks of the 2008 presidential election.

One of the most striking findings is structural: liberal blogs provide audience participation options at triple the rate of conservative sites. That means visitors to progressive sites are more empowered to contribute entire posts to the "front page," and more likely to have their contributions or comments highlighted before potentially hundreds of thousands of readers (see chart).

The popular site DailyKos, for example, has over 160,000 registered users. On a traditional media site, those people would be relegated to commenting at the bottom of articles. Yet on DailyKos's platform, every registered user can write guest entries. Social voting allows the community to pick favorite guest posts, which are featured on the main page. That kind of deep audience production and interaction is one reason that Daily Kos's traffic, which tops 4 million page views a week, rivals the sites of many newspapers. In the blogosphere study, this kind of amateur writing is distinguished as "secondary content," in contrast to the "primary content" by bloggers who control the means of production. And on this score, again, the study found that liberals are more into amplifying voices from the crowd.

"The Left adopts more fluid and permeable boundaries between primary and secondary content," the study concludes.

Spotlighting audience contributions tends to give more political voice to "non-elites," explains Aaron Shaw, who co-authored the study while working on his sociology PhD at Berkeley. Shaw believes these formats could spread well beyond the lefty blogosphere. "America's entire public sphere could look very different in twenty years if these type of sites catch on," Shaw told me. So far, however, user contributions haven't even caught on across the aisle.

"The right adopts practices that more strictly separate secondary from primary content," the study reports. In other words, many conservatives still run their sites like newspapers. The writers are credentialed on stage, while "letters to the editor" are clearly marked and parked in the back. Overall, 42 percent of the conservative blogs in the survey were run by one author, while 20 percent of the liberal sites were solo shows.

That is not necessarily an odd choice. After all, the audience for credentialed media still far outstrips citizen media. Plenty of popular blogs focus on a handful of promoted personalities, not a rotating diary section. And for most readers, these distinctions are just a matter of taste.

When it comes to electoral politics, however, the ramifications can be huge.

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