Tuesday, November 09, 2004

The Rise of Juan Cole, and Other Stories, by Farrell and Drezner

Henry Farrell and Daniel Drezner have co-authored another essay on blogging, this one for Foreign Policy, on the role of blogging in shaping (surprise, surprise) foreign policy debates.

These guys are machines. Farrell's contributions to Crooked Timber are excellent, and Drezner's blog is always edifying. Both are, I understand untenured professors (at George Washington and Chicago, respectively), so their output (combined with their more serious, "scholarly" publication record) is definitely something for slackers like me to envy. I referred to their first co-authored essay on blogging a little while ago, with my response here. They make a couple of new points in the new essay that I think enrich the first.

The most compelling example of a blogger's success in influencing in foreign policy is probably Juan Cole, who went from an unknown middle east specialist in 2002 to one of the most widely respected (in the mass-media) critics/experts on Iraq pretty quickly -- all through his blog.

Fellow bloggers took an interest in his writings, especially because he expressed a skepticism about the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq that stood apart from the often optimistic mainstream media coverage following the successful overthrow of the Baathist regime. Writing in the summer of 2003, Cole noted: “The Sunni Arabs north, east and west of Baghdad from all accounts hate the U.S. and hate U.S. troops being there. This hatred is the key recruiting tool for the resistance, and it is not lessened by U.S. troops storming towns. I wish [the counterinsurgency operation] well; maybe it will work, militarily. Politically, I don't think it addresses the real problems, of winning hearts and minds."

As a prominent expert on the modern history of Shiite Islam, Cole became widely read among bloggers—and ultimately journalists—following the outbreak of Iraqi Shiite unrest in early 2004. With his blog attracting 250,000 readers per month, Cole began appearing on media outlets such as National Public Radio (NPR) and CNN to provide expert commentary. He also testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “As a result of my weblog, the Middle East Journal invited me to contribute for the Fall 2003 issue,” he recalls. “When the Senate staff of the Foreign Relations Committee did a literature search on Moktada al-Sadr and his movement, mine was the only article that came up. Senate staff and some of the senators themselves read it and were eager to have my views on the situation."

Good for Juan Cole. (Also: thank you, Juan Cole, for the tireless effort.) But is this essay really yet another compilation of 'blog success stories'? Didn't I just read about five such articles in the New York Times last week? Hello, blog triumphalism, my old friend... (D & F do try to inoculate themselves against vanity by commenting, self-reflexively perhaps, on the rise of blog triumphalism as a phenomenon).

What is new here has to do, again, with the economics of big blogs and small blogs, but not so much for the in-link and out-link statistical analysis that was the subject of the earlier essay, mentioned above. Rather, their interest here is in the economics of information, in which both big blogs and small blogs are essential to the productivity of the system:

Consequently, even as the blogosphere continues to expand, only a few blogs are likely to emerge as focal points. These prominent blogs serve as a mechanism for filtering interesting blog posts from mundane ones. When less renowned bloggers write posts with new information or a new slant, they will contact one or more of the large focal point blogs to publicize their posts. In this manner, poor blogs function as fire alarms for rich blogs, alerting them to new information and links. This self-perpetuating, symbiotic relationship allows interesting arguments and information to make their way to the top of the blogosphere.

All good so far -- I think symbiosis makes the big blogs/little blogs dynamic more interesting. And I think it is probably true. That said, I think the following might be a little off:
The skewed network of the blogosphere makes it less time-consuming for outside observers to acquire information. The media only need to look at elite blogs to obtain a summary of the distribution of opinions on a given political issue. The mainstream political media can therefore act as a conduit between the blogosphere and politically powerful actors. The comparative advantage of blogs in political discourse, as compared to traditional media, is their low cost of real-time publication. Bloggers can post their immediate reactions to important political events before other forms of media can respond. Speed also helps bloggers overcome their own inaccuracies. When confronted with a factual error, they can quickly correct or update their post. Through these interactions, the blogosphere distills complex issues into key themes, providing cues for how the media should frame and report a foreign-policy question.

Here I think they might be getting a little ahead of where blogging actually is, even big-time "focal point" blogging. I'm not sure what a policy-maker would get in terms of information from a bunch of (even major) blogs that they wouldn't get just by carefully reading The New York Times and the BBC. The big blog takedowns, like Rather-gate or Trent Lott's paean to racial segregation, were not policy events but rather more on the order of exposing media mistakes and omissions.

Also, it's an oversimplification that large blogs provide a representative (and therefore time-efficient) source for mainstream journalists and policy-makers to sample a distribution of available opinions. One missing factor is probably Google, which equalizes the big-blog/small-blog equation, especially on the question of obscure or emerging topics. Another missing aspect of the analysis is the chaos (still) of any attempt at serious blog-reading, which inevitably entails a good deal of digging and rooting around for leads. Some of my friends and colleagues have started to take an interest in blogging (partly because of my endless raving about it, but I find it very difficult to explain to them how one actually scans through 15-20 blogs at a session, with no guarantee of coming across anything interesting.

Blogs are certainly a source of opinions -- and this, one gathers, is primarily what Drezner and Farrell read them for. But I think they are also interesting as independent sources of distributed information (along the Wiki model). Here, I'm thinking of blogs not so much as entities that have regular readers, loyal and continuous commentors (though naturally one is profoundly grateful for regular readers), but rather as offering potential nuggests of 'small' information, inside scoop, and micro-reporting. And this becomes relevant to everyone else through search engines, which for whatever reason ranks blogs quite highly.

Blogs -- as social networks -- are also interesting as information themselves. That is to say, small-scale blog discussions, which are even sometimes (shock!) on topics other than foreign policy, can and should be studied sociologically. Blogging is exciting because it is producing a new invigoration of public debate and disagreement, new forms of networking, and the emergence of new forms of loose and shifting social affiliation. I haven't seen this talked about much by the sociology blogs (though maybe soon... or maybe I've missed it).

Finally, any good article on blogging must complete with some fresh links, and Drezner and Farrell do offer a few good ones, this time to blogs outside of the U.S. that have been the subject of controversy:

Iran is a good example. The Iranian blogosphere has exploded. According to the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education’s Blog Census, Farsi is the fourth most widely used language among blogs worldwide. One service provider alone (“Persian Blog”) hosts some 60,000 active blogs. The weblogs allow young secular and religious Iranians to interact, partially taking the place of reformist newspapers that have been censored or shut down. Government efforts to impose filters on the Internet have been sporadic and only partially successful. Some reformist politicians have embraced blogs, including the president, who celebrated the number of Iranian bloggers at the World Summit on the Information Society, and Vice President Muhammad Ali Abtahi, who is a blogger himself. Elite Iranian blogs such as “Editor: Myself” have established links with the English-speaking blogosphere. When Sina Motallebi, a prominent Iranian blogger, was imprisoned for “undermining national security through ‘cultural activity,’” prominent Iranian bloggers were able to join forces with well-known English-language bloggers including Jeff Jarvis (“BuzzMachine”), Dan Gillmor (“Silicon Valley”), and Patrick Belton (“OxBlog”) to create an online coalition that attracted media coverage, leading to Motallebi’s release.

Other Farrell/Drezner links that were new to me:
Marginal Revolution
Harry's Place
Slugger O'Toole
Blog Africa
Joi Ito's Web


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