Belmont Club

Strange loop

Ross Douthat expresses his disgust — perhaps in mockery or perhaps in earnest — at history’s betrayal of virtual progressivism. In an editorial in the New York Times Douthat wrote about a match seemingly made in heaven: a hip progressive crowd using a hip medium. “For a brief shining moment” the “Democrats thought that they might own the Internet”. Too bad it didn’t last.

For a brief shining moment, late in the 2008 campaign, Democrats thought that they might own the Internet. … For decades, they had watched their Republican rivals exploit alternative media … but the Internet was going to be different. Direct mail, talk radio, the cable shoutfests — these were inherently conservative technologies, pitched to senior citizens and middle-aged suburbanites. The Internet was for the young, the hip, the multicultural, the liberal. Let the G.O.P. be the party of Fox News. The Democrats would be the party of Google, YouTube and Facebook.

And all of a sudden it went horribly wrong and Douthat concludes it is because “the Web is just like every pre-Internet political arena: ideology matters less than the level of anger at the incumbent party, and the level of enthusiasm an insurgent candidate can generate. … The Internet breeds utopian hopes, and sometimes even fulfills them.”

A year later, some of the Democrats’ advantage is still there. But it’s been crumbling ever since Obama took office. Republican politicians have taken over Twitter. Sarah Palin has 1.2 million followers on Facebook. And in liberal Massachusetts, Scott Brown, the Republican Senate candidate, has used Internet fund-raising to put the fear of God into the Bay State’s establishment.

Last Monday, Brown raised $1.3 million from an online “money bomb,” and his campaign reportedly went on to raise a million dollars a day throughout the week. The race’s online landscape looks like last November’s in reverse: from YouTube views to Facebook fans to Twitter followers, Brown enjoys an Obama-esque edge over his Democratic rival, Martha Coakley.

At the core of Douthat’s problem is the question of who talks to whom over what? Who is the messager and who the messagee over the Internet? In the apparent mental model the Internet itself becomes a curiously passive thing, a sort of newfangled broadcasting device/telephone. Its implied structure is interesting too. Douthat’s model seems to have “candidates” above a horizontal divide and the “netroots” below them in top-down fashion. The candidate receives a message and “enacts” an agenda that the net-roots left support. The Republicans are strategically crippled, he argues, because they cannot carry out a program to shrink government. By denying themselves revenue they make it impossible to respond to respond to petitioners. If the jukebox takes no coins, then the jukebox plays no music. “When Scott Brown pledges an across-the-board tax cut and sweeping deficit reduction all at once, he’s setting the conservative grass roots up for a major disappointment,” since cutting expenditures is not conceivable within this system.

But it’s entirely possible that the Internet doesn’t work like this at all. First of all there are no fixed pairings of the sort implied. There is no fixed conservative grassroots at the beck and call of Republican politicians any more than there is a clean one to one mapping between Democrat politicians and what is vaguely called the “netroots”. But at least part of the Internet maps itself around ideas. In mid-2009 a Belmont Club post entitled Left Brain, Right Brain described a study showing a map of sites organized by their proximity to “litmus test” ideas like abortion, gun control and the like. They found that the blogosphere is indeed divided into two halves, with the conservative side interestingly enough, significantly more diverse than the left wing side. This should have been expected because the conservative side is far less rigidly organized around party, ideological, union or activist lines.

In our study we witnessed a divided blogosphere: liberals and conservatives linking primarily within their separate communities, with far fewer cross-links exchanged between them. This division extended into their discussions, with liberal and conservative blogs focusing on different news, topics, and political figures. An interesting pattern that emerged was that conservative bloggers were more likely to link to other blogs: primarily other conservative blogs, but also some liberal ones. But while the conservative blogosphere was more densely linked, we did not detect a greater uniformity in the news and topics discussed by conservatives.

Left Brain, Right Brain

Left Brain, Right Brain

What was interesting about the graph was the high traffic of links at their intersection. Sites with a cross-over appeal, which linked to ideas on both the left or the right had a greater number of visitors than those sites (either on the left or right) which stayed in niche corners. This suggests a dynamism in the system that cannot be influenced by party structures. But the critically, the Internet does not split along the hierarchical divide that Douthat seems to describe. Rather it represents a conversation in which hierarchy doesn’t matter, or doesn’t matter as much as it used to. Content, link density and reputation does.

In Left Brain, Right Brain I predicted that a temporary shift in resources away from TV and newspapers to websites might have created a temporary impression that the Democrats “owned the Internet” (Douthat’s ‘bright shining moment’), but argued that it wouldn’t last; that any effort to migrate the top down model would eventually fail. Eventually the Internet would become neither Democrat nor Republican but something outside of those categories.

In fact maybe the liberals did predominate for a brief window of time. But maybe that time is now already past. As even newer entrants who were never in the “culture wars” before come online via Twitter, Facebook — and the blogs — the topology is bound to change. The blogospheric significance of events in Iran and China is that people we don’t even know about are going to make an impact on news and opinion in ways that Dan Rather could not have conceived. I think the phenomenon of Internet publishing is migrating away from the traditional culture warriors downward and outward. Downward to nonculture warriors (like the Tea Party amateurs) and outward to international locales. The reporter and pundit of tomorrow is someone who doesn’t even know he is a reporter or is unaware he is a pundit. It’s interesting to consider what this means to people who aim to politically mobilize the average Joe in the near future. The major drivers of the democratization of the Internet have not been content providing sites like the Huffington Post, nor extensions of traditional PR activities like “accrediting” bloggers, but architecture; architecture which enables content provision. In this year of the Iranian demonstrations the Nobel Peace prize should be awarded to Twitter, Facebook and Blogger. Time magazine should consider them candidates for the Virtual Men of the Year, and put Time Magazine itself on its obituary pages.

The interesting thing about the Left Brain, Right Brain diagram is how it evokes MC Escher’s Drawing Hands, the inspiration for Douglas Hofstadter’s discussion of Strange Loops. It’s a concept which describes hierarchies in which things shift positions.  Here is Hofstadter’s own description.

Strange Loops

Strange Loops

And yet when I say “strange loop”, I have something else in mind — a less concrete, more elusive notion. What I mean by “strange loop” is — here goes a first stab, anyway — not a physical circuit but an abstract loop in which, in the series of stages that constitute the cycling-around, there is a shift from one level of abstraction (or structure) to another, which feels like an upwards movement in a hierarchy, and yet somehow the successive “upward” shifts turn out to give rise to a closed cycle. That is, despite one’s sense of departing ever further from one’s origin, one winds up, to one’s shock, exactly where one had started out. In short, a strange loop is a paradoxical level-crossing feedback loop.

The strange loop is an interesting concept, but one which implies that anyone who wants to “own” the Internet will destroy it.  Glenn Greenwald of Salon who is hardly a member of the vast, right-wing conspiracy expressed fears over plans by Cass Sunsetin,  Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs to infiltrate the Internet. Greenwald writes:

Sunstein advocates that the Government’s stealth infiltration should be accomplished by sending covert agents into “chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups.” He also proposes that the Government make secret payments to so-called “independent” credible voices to bolster the Government’s messaging (on the ground that those who don’t believe government sources will be more inclined to listen to those who appear independent while secretly acting on behalf of the Government). This program would target those advocating false “conspiracy theories,” which they define to mean: “an attempt to explain an event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role.”

Sunstein’s strategy represents an innovative approach to “owning the Internet”, based on the belief that it works exactly like an electronic version of the old media. It is completely wrong and if carried out would destroy the Internet in order to save it.

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