04 June 2010

Book Review: The Myth of Digital Democracy by Matthew Hindman

It's well known by now that I am currently working on my dissertation and researching the influence of social media in politics.  The working title is: "Democracy in the Blogosphere", but after reading this book I feel I should make a change to the title. Blogging, as I am now, is one thing and doesn't fully grasp the meaning of social media.  But micro-blogging and using Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, LinkedIn etc...that's an entirely different category.

I think when I purchased this book, I had the high hopes of it at least mentioning some Web 2.0/micro-blogging actors, after all it was published in 2009. Unfortunately, I was only left with rants about a "Googlearchy", poorly used data and no solid argument for why there is a myth to digital democracy. There were so many conflicting statements in this book, I nearly couldn't finish! As a Master's student I feel maybe Hindman, academically, has more knowledge than myself. I mean, there's an entire chapter on statistics and economics and an appendix attached at the end as well! But as an Average Joella, that's spent the past 15 years online, in chatrooms, learning HTML, discovering messaging clients, building websites, designing blogs, creating profiles etc, his work trivialises the user and the potential of the Internet.

He opens with a recount of the Howard Dean campaign in 2004, with which I can agree, brought a momentous change in US political history.  It provided better avenues for fund-raising, and campaign volunteering and became a template for the 2008 election season.  Hindman then moves on to show that more liberals visit what he sees as 'political websites' than conservatives in the US.  This can also be understandable as most political activists come from the liberal viewpoint.  Where I begin to disagree with Hindman starts with his assumption of a "Googlearchy."


This Googlearchy, basically states that the more hits/views/visits a site receives, the higher it will show on a google search.  This is also determined by how many other sites have posted links to that site.  This makes sense.  If I search for "Ohio Universities" I expect Ohio University in Athens, Ohio to show up as it's closest to my word search, and most likely is linked to by several other websites.  I also expect a Wikipedia article to show up if I search for Vietnam War as many people use Wikipedia for basic information.  Hindman uses this same understanding to explain how an average user finds a political website.  This brings me to my second problem: the data.


Firstly, he assumes that as the average user searches with only one to three words the same will apply for political topics and navigate no further than the first page.  The latter is true, we more often than not stick to the first 10 findings on Google.  However, to say that a user searching for information on a political topic will only use one to three words, is demeaning to the user.  He uses sample searches such as "abortion", "gun control" and "the death penalty" to form his argument and show that you don't get the information you want through a search.  Sure if you wanted a basic definition of those topics you would only search a few words - but if you're a pregnant Christian teen in Tennessee I could imagine your search about abortion would be a bit more elaborate.


Secondly, I also find the dates of his data collection in comparison to his publication date troubling. There were a few moments where statistics from 1997 were used to argue a case for a book published in 2009.  If this were a subject on chemistry, perhaps this would be ok - but we're talking about the INTERNET! Information from 2006 can even be seen as obsolete today.  I would expect a book about the "myth" of digital anything, to keep current with the rapidly changing digital times.  There was a section where Hidman uses data from a 2003 publication to strengthen his argument that showed users had a hard time finding a website of any political candidate.  I think anyone would have a hard time linking to a political candidate's website in 2003 as it was quite scarce for them to exist! He opens his argument stating that it all begins with Dean in 2004, but uses data from a publication in 2003 (which probably collected their data in 2001/02) to make an argument in 2009.  The way we used the internet 3 years ago has changed - and Hindman needs to focus more on HOW we use it and not WHAT we are using.


Lastly, there is a great devotion of pages to the phenomenon of blogging and political websites.  I found it hard to see any of his data reliable at this point, not only because it was outdated but because he was searching the wrong websites.  Hindman found that there was little to no traffic to political websites and blogs, and of the blogs that were heard by the public, it was by elite, educated, white male professionals that created them - not the average citizen.  He used Hitwise, a website visitor tracker, to determine what was classified as "political" or "news" websites and N.Z. Bear (now called The Truth Laid Bear) Bloggosphere Ecosystem to determine blog traffic.  Perhaps this information would have been relevant a few years ago, but with the advent of Facebook's Open Graph, Twitter (neither of which were discussed in the book), the ability to comment, like and share on most websites - there is a lot left to be said. For the top 10 blogs that he researched, today some of them no longer even reach the top 250.  


I began to wonder if Hindman even had an interest in social media, and if so - how this was so deliberately misplaced from his book.  The video posted below shows Hindman in September 2009 on a panel for a discussion titled "Social Media, So What?"


I suggest you watch the vid and/or read his book for yourself to decide where you stand.  I expected more from this title, so my understanding of a "myth" in his terms is still left blank.  I don't believe blogging or social media is about how many people hear you - but about who hears you.  Even if the top 10 bloggers are the 10 most read 'political' blogs, the comment box invites any citizen to join in the conversation.  For what was phrased as 'political' websites he only focused on traffic to those that were instert-your-party-here.org or something.  However facebook pages for political leaders were not even considered. Social Media is about HOW we use it not what we use, and there is a reality to our participation in the online world of politics. 












1 comment:

  1. Nice! Good insights. What month was it published in 2009? I'm thinking that it must have been before the Iran Twitter Green Revolution stuff. That was what solidified my thoughts that Twitter was not a flash in the pan. I don't think you can talk about digital democracy, without mentioning that.

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