Blogs May Not Be as Influential as Some Think

Blogs May Not Be as Influential as Some Think

BY Kate Kaye | Sunday, May 15 2005

Bloggers are often touted as influential instigators, feeding buzz-worthy topics to the mainstream media they so disdain, and even guiding discussion in other communication channels. Not so, says a new study analyzing the impact of political blogs on the national conversation leading up to the 2004 presidential election. Indeed, Buzz, Blogs, and Beyond: The Internet and the National Discourse in the Fall of 2004 concludes that, while a force to be reckoned with, blogs are merely cogs in the meme machine.

“Bloggers are not themselves super columnists or super advocates,” opines Dr. Michael Cornfield, a senior research consultant to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, who conducted the research along with Jonathan Carson, President and CEO of word-of-mouth research and planning firm, BuzzMetrics. Realizing some ego-driven bloggers may not be happy to hear it, Cornfield continues, “Bloggers are as much hosts of the conversation as they are directors of a sort of show or columnists.”

In their preliminary attempt to track the blogosphere’s effect on the national agenda, the researchers compared topics mentioned in a group of highly trafficked political blogs to the ones highlighted by more mainstream media outlets, official presidential campaigns, and online chat forums. In all, 40 blogs made the cut, including liberal blogs Daily Kos and The Blogging of the President, conservative blogs Instapundit.com and Power Line and “general” blogs AndrewSullivan.com and BuzzMachine.com.

Online chat forums, deemed “Citizen Chatter,” consisted of Usenet groups as well as liberal conversation platforms such as Democratic Underground Forums, conservative discussion chambers like Free Republic and nonpartisan outlets including America’s Debate Forums. Campaign releases included official Bush and Kerry campaign sites as well as official Democratic and Republican National Committee Newsrooms. The 16 media outlets surveyed included front page print editions of USA Today, New York Times and Washington Post, top stories on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and lead stories on FOXNews.com.

From September 1, 2004 through November 3, the study used keyword frequency tracking to isolate the top 20 issues discussed in each channel, and attributed a percentage of sample size to each. Topics were then coded for comparative analysis which took place from September 27 through October 31. The report cautions, “Our quantitative techniques should be considered exploratory at this time, and our qualitative analysis is subjective.”

Key subjects pegged as study-worthy included Iraq, a pre-election videotaped statement with from Osama Bin Laden, and a late-October disclosure about missing explosives in Iraq. By measuring the cross-channel progression of topical interest, from initial stages to integration across channels through to eventual dissipation, the researchers determined that no singular channel led the way for others to follow. Instead, while the report acknowledges “there must be something special about the relationship between bloggers and political buzz,“ blogs were no more responsible for setting the issue agenda or sustaining it than were the other channels. Yet, the findings show that blogs do act as an Internet hub, positioned between the media and online chats in such a way as to act as a Web guide to the media.

A blog is “like a half-pub, half-forensic lab or half-pub half-college seminar.” Cornfield remarks, adding to the report’s conclusion that “the political blogosphere seems less an entity unto itself than a well integrated part of the national discourse.”

The study pays minute attention to the media scandal known as Rathergate, in which memos employed by CBS to substantiate claims that President Bush was derelict in his National Guard duties were exposed as phony, leading to the demise of controversial newsman, Dan Rather. Although the study stresses that bloggers were not able to examine the actual document in question, it places significance on the fact that they could analyze and discuss copies of the evidence “in real time.” These experiments and judgments, suggests the study, made blogs powerful players in the dispute.

“The difference between [blogs] and a discussion forum and a town meeting is that people were all discussing what they had just seen on the Internet,” remarks Cornfield in reference to the contentious documents. “When they’re all looking at the same thing, that’s when the buzz factor hits.”

The study goes on to ponder the future impact of the blog as a potential Fifth Estate, or the eventual breakout of the blogosphere into separate components representing each of the four traditional states of government, knowledge, the citizenry and the press. In the end, Buzz, Blogs, and Beyond argues that neither individual bloggers, nor blog collectives, are likely to activate the confluence of factors necessary to forcefully register buzz in the broader public arena. At least during the politically-charged months leading up to the 2004 election, bloggers were as much buzz followers as buzz originators.

However, insists Cornfield, who hopes to conduct more extensive analysis of blog buzz, “This is exploratory research….I don’t think we did anything but scratch the surface.”

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