James Surowiecki and how political preferences drive social software interface preferences

Last week I attended the OReilly Emerging Technology Conference in San DIego and got into a hour long debate in the hallway with James Surowiecki author of The Wisdom Of Crowds. It started because in his talk, he argued that overly strong ties created feedback loops that led to a loss of information. I suggested that perhaps the risk was reduced because smart players would know that they could influence these loops to their own advantage and that therefore there would be a market equilibrium of suspicion that would prevent loops from getting out of hand. From this point we drifted into a discussion of the politization of the blogosphere. If I am recalling the converation correctly, he was dubious about this point and used as an example the fact that the rightwing blogosphere went after Eason Jordan full force without bothering to check whether his allegations were true or not. I was tired and observed somewhat inarticulately that the issue was more what Eason Jordan had said rather than whether it was true. Absent a copy of the video, there was no point in arguing truth/falsity. And the refusal ever to request a video was sufficient for conviction.

The discussion then flowed to the general question of which side of the blogosphere was more open to discussion from the other side. I argued that right wing media was inherently structured as oppositional to MSM and that since the MSM was liberal, rightwing readers spent much more time processing both sides of arguments (initiated in the liberal MSM). He argued that the MSM was non-partisan and that perhaps oppositionalism generated more heat than light. The substance of his claim that the NYTimes was non-partisan was that Jeff Gerth had vigorously gone after Clinton about Whitewater and that Judith Miller had been given a lot of space to repeat the “lies” of Ahmed Chalabi. He didn’t want to talk about the more recent behavior of CBS or about the NYTimes coverage of the 2004. I made the much more moderate claim that the blogosphere bloomed in the past year during an election cycle in which the MSM was substantially liberal and vigorously pro-Kerry. He argued that the left was also exposed to the right direct from the whitehouse. I suggested that there is a substantial difference between Bush taking an explicitly right wing position and NYTimes coverage that claims not to be biased but clearly is; that it gives liberal readers the false sense that they are accessing the truth rather than just another viewpoint.
[Update: Catching up with recent news, it appears that the left spin is that the right is going after the free and independent press while the left goes after conservative activitsts; begging the question of whether or not the “free and independent press” they view as targets are not more reasonably viewed as left activists and missing the fact that the attacks have been on factual accuracy and not politics per se]

I further argued that the left and right prefer very different conversational models. In particular the left prefers comments and discussion boards in which everyone participates equally and there is no differentiation in the interface between cranks and legitimate and approved viewpoints. In contrast, the right prefers blogs with an author in full control and links that function as judgements on related material. The result is much more extremist noise accepted as truth in the left blogosphere as opposed to the right and a substantial dirft to madness. Links in the rightwing blogosphere function as a sanity check. He argued that there are lots of smart lefty blogs. I pointed out that if you look at traffic, the left blogosphere is much more dominated by discussion forums like Daily Kos and Democratic Underground than the right is by the Free Republic; that right traffic revolves much more around popular infividual bloggers like Glenn Reynolds and Powerline who link out to others. We both agreed that Glenn Reynolds is a pretty unique institution and I mused on the possibility that Glenn’s mad linking is what MADE the right wing blogosphere and saved us from madness. Scary thought.

On reflection, I think it more likely that community forums are much more acceptable on the left and blog ownership and control are much more acceptable on the right with the result that absent Glenn the politics would have converged in the way it has, but I am not entirely sure.

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3 Responses to James Surowiecki and how political preferences drive social software interface preferences

  1. oh boy says:

    alex this:

    “Links in the rightwing blogosphere function as a sanity check. […] the left blogosphere is much more dominated by discussion forums like Daily Kos and Democratic Underground than the right is by the Free Republic; that right traffic revolves much more around popular infividual bloggers like Glenn Reynolds and Powerline who link out to others.”

    may be accurate but is completely missing the point. DK and DU are more dominating in the conversation because the right is in power. grassroots conversations are always more active on the disenfranchised side of the aisle, because the people out of power are naturally more angry. (myself a case in point.)

    when you people are booted out on your asses the freepers will rise. be warned.

  2. ooghe says:

    yes, media theory always brings out the inner paranoid in all of us. the insight here is an interesting one: i had always thought that the insistence that there exists a liberal media monolith dominating political thought was an ingenius invention of right wing demagoguery that was being employed *consciously* so as to maintain a sense of underdogism. now I am starting to understand that the many in the blogosphere *genuinely believe* that MSM and liberal bloggers are the same coordinated entity. it had always puzzled me that the blog-catalyzed end of dan rather’s career (to me, something that could gladly have arrived 25 years sooner) is pitched in terms of “left vs. right” or something I should view as a lessening of political power. if it is somehow the case that “the left” is an enormous protean force that simultaneously manifests in the extreme centralization of media power in the MSM *and* in the wild anarchy and chaos of bulletin boards that allow any hoi-polloi a place at the table, well that must be absolutely terrifying- if that is actually the media landscape that one thinks exists.

  3. oh boy says:

    another interesting thought:

    “I think it more likely that community forums are much more acceptable on the left and blog ownership and control are much more acceptable on the right”

    because people on the left are much more interested in discussion to acheive a consensus, while people inclined to lean to the right are a lot more comfortable having people tell them what to think.

    HAW!

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