Eric Lawrence, John Sides and I have just finished writing a paper which looks at the first decent dataset that allows us to figure out what blog readers look like. This isn’t a final version (there are comments from Eszter and a couple of other readers that we want to incorporate – further comments and criticisms welcome), but it is just about fit for wider human consumption. The paper is available at SSRN (if you’re signed up with them, we’d love you to download it from there cos it’ll bump up our hit count), and at http://www.themonkeycage.org/blogpaper.pdf if that’s more convenient. So what do we find?
We were interested in two questions, both of which stem from normative debates in political science and political theory. One was whether blogs make it more likely that people will get access to points of view other than their own. Many deliberation theorists argue that this is a good thing. The other is whether blogs affect people’s likelihood of participating in politics – again regarded by many theorists as a good thing, for obvious reasons. Unfortunately, our data doesn’t allow us to make causal assertions – but it does point to some very striking patterns of correlation.
First – blog readers seem to exhibit strong homophily. That is to say, they overwhelmingly choose blogs that are written by people who are roughly in accordance with their political views. Left wingers read left wing blogs, right wingers read right wing blogs, and very few people read both left wing and right wing blogs. Those few people who read both left wing and right wing blogs are considerably more likely to be left wing themselves; interpret this as you like. Furthermore, blog readers are politically very polarized. They tend to clump around either the ‘strong liberal’ or the ‘strong conservative’ pole; there aren’t many blog readers in the center. This contrasts with consumers of various TV news channels, as the figure below illustrates. All of this suggests that blog readership is unlikely to be associated with the kinds of deliberative exchange between different points of view that some political theorists would like to see.
Second – blog readers are much more likely than non blog readers to engage in politics (through voting, giving money to candidates etc). Not only that, but left wing blog readers are significantly more likely than right wing blog readers to participate in politics. You could interpret this as evidence of more general depression among conservatives etc, but our best guess is that this is in large part the result of the netroots effect. Having a strong political movement which is pushing readers to make donations etc is likely to have real consequences. Obviously, we would like to have more data before we could make a really good case that our guess is correct.
So whether you like political blogs will depend to some extent on whether you prefer deliberation across party lines to participation, or vice versa. Personally (at least as regards political efficacy in the current era), I’m on the vice versa side, but we leave this question deliberately open, as people from different perspectives may disagree &c &c.
Update: John Sides posts more on this paper here.