Monitorial cyber-citizens?

The new fire alarms
Ken Parish

Tim Dunlop's recent Evatt Foundation paper on Australian political weblogs (or 'blogs') draws heavily on the long tradition of the 'informed citizen' as an ideal towards which democratic society should aspire. "Public intellectuals", Dunlop writes, "can make a valuable contribution towards the evolution of an informed citizenry through engaging more widely in open-ended civic discourse, a role facilitated by the emergence and explosive growth of the blog as an increasingly popular and arguably influential self-publishing phenomenon." It's an aspiration this author largely shared when I started blogging almost 12 months ago. A year down the track, my perspective is rather more equivocal about the potential of blogging to achieve any earth-shattering transformation of democratic society or the body politic. Dunlop's ideal is one of populist democracy, a term he uses "in the deep sense of citizen self-rule and participation". He quotes with approval Eva Cox's observation that: "Civil societies are also civic societies, that is, we as citizens must take responsibility for changing what we do not like."

The problem with the informed citizen ideal is that most real-life citizens of modern western democracies show little or no inclination towards increased civic or political participation. If anything the reverse is the case. It was one of the themes of Robert Puttnam's influential work Bowling Alone, a book whose main contribution to Australian civic discourse has been to provide aspiring leaders on both sides of politics with an opportunity to soften the harsh edges of their neo-liberal economic credentials - while simultaneously achieving some surreptitious brand differentiation through deployment of Puttnam's notion of "social capital". John Zaller is particularly scathing about the informed citizen conception in a 1999 paper discussing Michael Schudson's book The Good Citizen - A History of American Civic Life:

The ideal of the informed citizen, as brandished by generations of political intellectuals intent on creating a style of politics they themselves find congenial, has been a positive-turnoff to vast numbers of citizens. It has led to forms of politics and political communication that are stilted, overly rationalistic, and just plain dull. Under the spur of market competition, workaday journalists have developed a variety of literary devices - horserace journalism, feeding frenzies, and soft news - that enliven coverage of public affairs. Rather than condemn this 'infotainment' journalism, as political intellectuals almost universally do, they should recognize and seek to exploit its potential for increasing citizen involvement in politics.

Tabloidism

The evident preference of the great mass of the public for soft news, infotainment, and a brand of journalism that many "political intellectuals" clearly see as crass and shallow, presents seemingly insuperable barriers to achieving any meaningful form of broad-based civic discourse leading to a truly informed citizenry. Yet the conviction that journalism (including self-publishing phenomena like blogging) should embody more lofty aspirations and tackle 'worthy' subjects is not confined to intellectuals of a broadly left-leaning orientation (like Tim Dunlop or Eva Cox). Right-leaning economist Gerard Jackson's Brookes News recently launched a remarkably vitriolic attack on Australia's leading (in terms of audience size) blogger Tim Blair. The author, Joe Cambria, seems to regard Blair as letting down the right-wing cause by exhibiting insufficient intellectualism:

Blair's articles and blog are, to be charitable, rather long on smart aleck commentary and extremely short on analysis. Furthermore, they suggest, rightly or wrongly, that he is not what one might call bookish. Now how can anyone successfully tackle the left without a reasonable knowledge of economic theory, the history of economic thought, economic history and of leftist thought? Yet Blair gives no indication of being even slightly acquainted with these subjects. Nevertheless, despite his obvious shortcomings and shallow commentary, Melbourne's Adam Smith Club, the H. R. Nicholls Society, the Devines and now the publicly funded magazine Quadrant appear to be presenting Mr Blair as something he self-evidently is not - and that is a rightwing intellectual.

That attitude ignores, or at least treats as irrelevant, the fact that Blair reputedly often attracts a daily audience to his blog numbering in the tens of thousands, where more academically-inclined bloggers, such as University of Queensland economist John Quiggin or University of Sydney law academic Kim Weatherall, typically enjoy daily 'hit' counts in the hundreds. My own blogging experience, when I've bothered to measure and take notice of hit counts, has confirmed the suspicion that downmarket populism and courting controversy almost for its own sake are the surest recipes for increasing audience size. It's hardly an earth-shattering discovery, as any tabloid newspaper editor would attest. Of course, minimal audience penetration doesn't necessarily entirely negate the informed citizen ideal, but it's asking rather a lot of osmosis or intellectual trickle-down effects.

The connection between audience size and a populist writing style and subject matter is equally evident in the United States, where blogging originated. Glenn Reynolds, a previously obscure legal academic who publishes a blog called Instapundit, has been consistently the most popular American blogger over the last couple of years. However, one would be hard-pressed to identify Reynolds as an academic writer from the tone and content of his blog, which is determinedly downmarket, shallow and populist. Given the much larger size of the US blogging audience, some more serious academic blogs (not least Tim Dunlop's The Road to Surfdom) manage to achieve respectable hit counts, but the correlation between tabloid tone and audience size seems to apply equally in proportionate terms.

The very act of monitoring one's blog hit count gives rise to a dilemma. On the one hand, it's nice to know you're not just talking to yourself when you post your thoughts and opinions on a blog, and it can also be useful to gain some measure of the sorts of material your audience wants to read. However, it also potentially creates a pressure to produce marketable material that will boost the hit count, which tends to reduce the spontaneity and pleasure in creation that attracted the writer to blogging in the first place. My own hit counter monitoring quickly told me that readers expected a regular flow of fresh posts. Failure to post for a week or so due to work pressure resulted in a marked drop in the hit count, which then took some weeks to recover. Because blogging is strictly a hobby for most participants, albeit an absorbing and time-consuming one, it can pose significant problems when time pressures imposed by career and family intervene. My personal response to those pressures was twofold. First, I deleted the hit counter from my blog. Secondly, I recruited some co-blogger authors to share the load of producing regular fresh material, turning my blog Troppo Armadillo from an intensely personal, intimate and somewhat idiosyncratic commentary into a rather more corporate group blog. The diverse personalities, writing styles and political orientations of my co-bloggers ensure that it remains highly idiosyncratic and, at least in my view, a better product (if less uniquely personal). Ultimately, however, the definitive quality assessment is made by readers.

Quality control

The quality issue raises itself in various guises in relation to blogging, both in the content of 'posts' (the name usually given to articles published on blogs) and the quality of the debate they spark between bloggers themselves, and in the reader comment box facilities that an increasing number of blogs make available. Comment boxes are both the strength and weakness of the blogging medium. They facilitate instant feedback and interaction between the blogging 'journalist' and her audience, and also act as a potent form of peer review where bloggers fail to check their facts adequately. I am often amazed by the range of expertise present among bloggers and their readers. Although the Australian blogging audience remains relatively small, it's also predominantly highly educated and very politically aware. If you make even a tiny error of detail in a blog post, it's almost certain to be pointed out and corrected within a day or two, either publicly in your own comment box or through receipt of a private email.

Sometimes, comment box debates can be more interesting and of a higher quality than the original blog post that sparked them. Debate frequently goes off at surprising tangents, which can be intensely irritating to the author but may also yield valuable insights. Comment boxes create an anarchic, almost uncontrollable element in blogging which I personally find quite rewarding. Some bloggers are much less enamoured of the innovation, however, and continue to resist implementing it. Certainly the comment box provides a ready avenue for the posting of aggressive abuse by readers inclined in that direction, a cyberspace phenomenon known as 'flaming' which can sometimes make the blogging experience decidedly unpleasant. Some bloggers with comment box facilities have resorted to electronically barring persistently troublesome commenters, although the technical efficacy of such measures against a determined 'troll' is questionable at best. My own experience is that firm but fair reminders about the etiquette of civil discourse are usually enough to keep debate within reasonable bounds. Debates in cyberspace by their very nature lack the aural and visual cues, not to mention interpersonal consequences, that would operate to restrain extreme abusive behaviour in face-to-face discussion.

Although comment boxes frequently yield interesting and worthwhile debates, with diverse viewpoints from often well-qualified people of varying backgrounds, they're also subject to some inherent limitations imposed by the physical layout of the typical blog. A blog consists mostly of a single large front page (with subsidiary historical and sometimes topic-based archives), where new posts appear at the top. On an active blog, posts fairly rapidly recede down the front page, so that readers have to scroll down further and further to find them. Most people only scroll down past the first half dozen or so posts. That imposes an excessively contemporary, ephemeral and short-lived quality to blog debates, which seldom last more than a few days. Many topics require much longer for debate to progress beyond the glib and superficial, to explore the issues in their full complexity and nuance. This is one of the more frustrating aspects of blogging, and prevents it from realising the full potential that open discussion between such a broad range of well-informed people could achieve. I and some other bloggers have recently implemented an attempted technological fix for this problem by adding a 'Ten Most Recently Commented Posts' index at the top of the navigation sidebar of my blog. This should allow readers instantly to access ongoing comment box debates on topics that interest them. It's too early to assess whether it will succeed in promoting more considered, prolonged discussion, but tentative indications are positive.

Yet even among avowedly academic bloggers (let alone their comment box contributors), the quality of intellectual discourse is highly variable. American legal academic blogger Jack Balkin had a largely upbeat assessment in a recent feature on blogging by David Glenn in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Mr. Balkin sees this openness and pluralism as a rebuke to the argument posited by Cass Sunstein, a professor of law at Chicago, in his 2001 book, Republic.com (Princeton University Press). "Cass's view was that the Internet was going to become an increasingly closed-off set of ideological communities, and that people would become more extreme over time." His argument was based on his assessment of what the technology looked like around 2000. But one of the things about the Internet is that it is protean. Its architecture is constantly changing.

My own experience rather suggests that the protean nature of the Internet is often overwhelmed by the persistently perverse nature of its human components. In large part as a result of the intensely polarised blogosphere debate leading up to the recent Iraq war, I tend to identify with the observations of yet another US legal academic blogger Eric Muller: "Others are less hopeful. Mr. Muller says that he perceives among academic bloggers 'a talk-radioization' of the discourse, which I'm not especially interested in participating in. It's becoming very personality-driven, very combative, very adversarial. There's a kind of ideological categorizing that goes on ... It really does start to feel like the Rush Limbaugh show."

By contrast, a positive aspect of blogging is the relative lack of intellectual pretension. By that I mean that bloggers establish a reputation in the blogging community by the quality of their ideas and writing. The blogosphere tends not to confer exaggerated respect on either academic credentials or journalistic celebrity. Young law or journalism students are just as free to blog about law or journalism as experienced lawyers or journalists, and their writing mostly gains respect and an audience from the quality of its content rather than the perceived prestige of its source. It's an aspect of the much-vaunted egalitarianism of cyberspace: the famous New Yorker cartoon "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog". David Glenn noted the same phenomenon in the American blogosphere:

To a remarkable degree, blogs also appear to bring full professors, adjuncts, and students onto a level field. With no evident condescension, senior faculty bloggers routinely link to the political-affairs blog maintained by Matthew Yglesias, a senior at Harvard University. "Nobody knew my name when we started this," says Josh Chafetz, a current Rhodes scholar whose OxBlog, written with two fellow Americans at Oxford, has made him a well-known figure among academic bloggers. "In many ways it really is almost a pure marketplace of ideas. You can build up a readership. You just have to write things that people like."

Outstanding Australian examples of this Internet egalitarianism include Perth journalism student, Gareth Parker, and Sydney law student Bright Cold Matt.

A qualified optimistic assessment

Despite some fairly significant reservations, I continue to find blogging sufficiently intellectually rewarding to persevere with it. Although emotionally charged topics (like the Iraq debate) generate acrimonious and largely unproductive discussions where participants adopt fixed positions and shout past each, at other times blogosphere discussion can be very satisfying. The immediacy of dialogue and feedback, combined with the cross-disciplinary background of both bloggers and their readers, sometimes result in a thoroughness and depth of coverage of issues that compares very favourably with mainstream broadsheet newspapers. Blogging is a distinctively different milieu from mainstream media, however, and comparisons are apt to be misleading. Blog posts are usually significantly more impulsive, less thoroughly researched, and less polished in style than a newspaper article by a typical mainstream op-ed pundit. Many bloggers also badly need the restraint and discipline of a good editor. The thoroughness and depth of coverage of an issue in the blogosphere usually emerge through a dialectical process over several posts, responses and reader comments, rather than in a single large, tightly written opinion piece.

Even when thorough treatment of an issue isn't apparent, blogs may nevertheless exhibit qualities that increasing numbers of readers find valuable and even compelling. Jody Raynsford succinctly explains part of the attraction in an article in Dot Journalism:

They are opinionated, ranting, often incoherent and frequently biased with little regard for accuracy or balance. They are also compellingly addictive and threatening to emerge as a new brand of journalism. ... Perhaps one attraction of blogging lies in its unmediated and dynamic quality. Without an agenda, editorial stance or pedantic sub-editor standing between the writer and reader, blogging can provide reportage in a raw and exciting form.

Raynsford also identifies an aspect of blogging that many Australian bloggers experienced in the aftermath of the Bali bombing last October. Blog hit counts on Australian blogs went through the roof in the weeks following the terrorist attack. As Raynsford accurately observes (though in relation to September 11): "The 9/11 terrorist attacks fuelled the public's appetite for information, analysis and news, if only to make sense of the tragedy. Bloggers rose to prominence by feeding this desire. Unlike the large media organisations, bloggers were unhindered by the normal journalistic standards of objectivity, balance and accuracy." This amateur output was raw, subjective and honest as people sought emotions, not detachment - finding solace and expression in the words of the thousands of blogs that sprang up.

The evident attractant quality of the 'raw, subjective and honest' emotive approach seems, on its face, to be rather antithetical to the intellectual detachment and semblance of objectivity that academics are expected to exemplify in their scholarly writing. Although the same degree of rigour isn't expected (or usually seen) from academics in their blogging personae, one can reasonably suggest that its absence may detract from the capacity of blogosphere public intellectuals to effect a dramatic transformation of civic discourse in pursuit of an informed citizenry. Tim Dunlop attempts to meet that objection by the simple expedient of rejecting the utility of intellectual balance or detached analysis in the first place, and embracing instead an almost Sartrean concept of commitment: "It's this sort of detachment I'm rejecting (and argue that blogging rejects) and replacing it with an understanding that sees the intellectual as involved, not detached; committed not neutral; and where transparency of interest is more important than independence and objectivity."

It's an argument that meshes with my earlier observation that depth and thoroughness in blogging most frequently emerge through a dialectical process between bloggers and readers rather than through a single thoroughly researched article. On another level, however, Dunlop's argument might simply be seen as a convenient rationalisation for self-indulgent partisan polemic. Ultimately, I think Tim Dunlop makes a less than compelling case for blogging public intellectuals as agents for a truly informed citizenry. Schudson suggests that the entire project may actually be unattainable: "Political theorists are eloquent about public life, the role of public intellectuals, the necessity of a public sphere, and the virtues of the common good, but there is a time also to think further on the private life ... on the joys of appreciating a sunset, humming a tune, or listening to the quiet breathing of a sleeping child ..."

Blogging attracts political aficionados. It's highly unlikely that the ranks of citizens inclined towards its solitary, introverted joys will ever be more than a relatively small minority of the population, certainly not numerous enough to effect a wholesale emergence of an informed, committed and involved civic society. Most people simply have different tastes and better things to do with their time. Moreover, Zaller even mounts a cogent argument that the informed citizen ideal may be undesirable in any event:

Highly informed citizens have many good democratic virtues, but they also tend to be rigid, moralistic, and partisan. It is not obvious that democracy would work better if more voters were like the most informed voters in the current system. Poorly informed voters are not so disengaged from national politics as many believe. Indeed, at least as regards presidential elections, poorly informed voters are more systematically responsive to the content of political campaigns than their better-informed counterparts. More than others, they reward incumbents who preside over strong national economies and punish those who do not. Poorly informed voters also more responsive to the ideological locations of the candidates ... It is not obvious that democracy would work better if fewer voters were animated by the concerns of the least informed citizens.

Apathy may be the ultimate civic virtue. But who cares? Seriously, Schudson posits the concept of the "monitorial citizen" as a more realistic alternative to fostering a universally informed citizenry. The monitorial citizen fulfils a vital watching brief to keep politicians and the media honest. Perhaps political bloggers are best seen as self-selected monitorial citizens, keeping the bastards honest on behalf of the silent, politically disinterested majority. Zaller argues that political intellectuals are effectively guilty of misguided elitism in belittling populist opinion leaders like Tim Blair. By making politics accessible and interesting to a wide audience, populist demagogues of both right and left are the ultimate evaluative monitorial citizens, signalling important political developments to their respective tribes of disengaged supporters in an entertaining way:

Politics might work as well or better if political intellectuals gave up the idea that citizens have an obligation to keep abreast of every important aspect of public life. This ideal is not only impossible but damaging in certain ways. Intellectuals should instead turn their capacious minds to finding ways in which the informational obligations of citizenship can be fulfilled with less effort and more pleasure. Recent trends toward 'infotainment' news broadcasting and 'fire alarm' political institutions are promising possibilities.

Bloggers as 'monitorial' citizens

The image of bloggers as 'fire alarms' has a certain descriptive charm, I think. Then again, maybe we're just opinionated wannabe journalists or politicians acting out a relatively harmless Walter Mitty cyberspace fantasy. However, to the extent that bloggers aspire to be cyberspace fire alarms or monitorial citizens who affect society and the political process in however small a way, they can't help but come to terms with Zaller's observation that the quickest and most potent way of doing so is to adopt some of the familiar techniques of tabloid journalism: racecourse journalism; infotainment; sensationalised, beat-up controversies and all the rest. Even a public intellectual blogger like Tim Dunlop can sometimes succumb to the unholy temptation of tabloidism.

Dunlop recently appeared to do that in a quite calculated way, when he launched a fairly blistering attack on right wing uberblogger Tim Blair. This was over what Dunlop characterised as unfair and callous attacks by Blair on high profile Adelaide magistrate Brian Deegan, whose son was a victim of the Bali bombing. The time had well and truly passed, Blair had opined, when Deegan was entitled to the indulgence extended to a grieving parent, and he should now be subjected to the same robust criticism as any other participant in public debate. Dunlop's post - provocatively titled "How Low Can you Go?" - fairly blatantly courted a robust exchange with the ever-combative Blair, who proudly bylines himself as "journalist, commentator, and oppressor". Predictably, some of the comment box contributions by Dunlop's sizeable army of supporters were even more vitriolic than the primary post. Equally predictably (and perhaps designedly), it provoked a rapid retaliatory response from Blair, who lost no time in posting an item titled "The Caring Left". This accused Dunlop and a couple of other bloggers of exhibiting a callously dismissive and hypocritical attitude towards the suffering of a minor teenage popstar named Delta Goodrem, who had just been diagnosed with cancer. Blair also sooled his even larger army of comment box supporters into action, competing with each other to see who could post the most extreme, vitriolic condemnation of the evil and stupidity of the left. One blogger was even moved to label Blair's comment box legions as "Right Wing Death Beasts", an expression that now seems to have been adopted as part of the Australian blogging argot.

If you're thinking at about this point that perhaps blogging is a silly and childish milieu best avoided after all, your response is understandable. Many other bloggers and their readers had precisely the same reaction. James Russell's response was fairly representative: "There's nowt like bloggers and (sometimes more so) the people who comment therein for creating unedifying spectacles of themselves. The current stoush between Tims Blair and Dunlop is a classic example (won't link to it cos it'll only make you as sick as it makes me). It's all about destruction of the other side and no attack is too cheap or stupid, and frankly it makes me wonder at times why I bother blogging myself." Although this was the majority view of my readership, I suspect that Ron Mead's reaction would be more typical of the general public. Ron was more amused than appalled, observing: "Unlike other commenters I found it entertaining, something like 'World Championship Wrestling' but a bit more fair dinkum." Nevertheless, events such as the Tim versus Tim struggle are fairly infrequent. Australian blogosphere discourse is typically relatively polite, mutually respectful and often highly perceptive, original and intelligent - if sometimes conducted in fairly blunt, robust language. Although the desire to cultivate a large audience can sometimes lead even the best-intentioned blogger (even this author) into egregious tabloid excess, that's the exception rather than the rule.

In any event, Schudson's monitorial citizen concept suggests that we shouldn't be too precious or dismissive about employing tabloid circulation-boosting tactics from time to time. They may be unavoidable for anyone who aspires to a meaningful monitorial role. A monitorial blog is likely sometimes to have more in common with a Collingwood versus Carlton grudge match than a genteel academic debate, at least if we want to attract and hold a broad general audience. Not that many academic debates are all that genteel anyway; the current Windschuttle versus Reynolds and Ryan stand-off being a prime example. The most prominent current embodiments of Schudson's monitorial citizen are radio talkback shock-jocks. Large numbers of politically disengaged Australians rely on personalities like Alan Jones as fire alarms, signalling issues their audience should regard as worthy of attention. However, talkback hosts are generally quite right-wing in political orientation, and the radio medium itself imposes inherent constraints on the depth with which topics can be explored. Superficiality is unavoidable. Political blogs may have more potential as vehicles for monitorial citizenry. Bloggers span the entire political spectrum, so that disengaged citizens have a much wider available range in choosing the pundit whose political attention filter they're most willing to trust. The blogging format also permits in-depth exploration of topics, while also allowing readers to absorb information to whatever extent they choose.

If occasional outbreaks of tabloid sensationalism are the price that must be paid for bloggers to attract a large enough general audience to fulfil a meaningful monitorial citizen role, perhaps it's a price worth paying. As long as the bread and circuses stunts are interspersed with more meaty analytical posts, intellectual depth and rigour need not be sacrificed. There are quite a few blogs where excellent analytical political journalistic work is posted at least as frequently as some of our more prominent broadsheet op-ed pundits. However, don't take my word for it. Click on some of the numerous blog links in this article and read for yourself. You're sure to find ideas that delight, challenge and stimulate, as well as some that provoke disgust, depression or despair. At least in that sense, blogging closely resembles mainstream journalism or, for that matter, human existence in general.


Ken Parish is a legal academic at Northern Territory University in Darwin, a former Labor Member of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly, and the webmaster of Troppo Armadillo, which hosts musings on law, politics, society and life in general from a motley crew of cross-disciplinary bloggers.


See also:

Suggested citation
Parish, Ken, 'Monitorial cyber-citizens?', Evatt Journal, Vol. 3, No. 5, August 2003.<http://evatt.org.au/papers/monitorial-cyber-citizens.html>