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Politics without Majorities

What Social Media Means for American Democracy


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by Mary Joyce
for the New York State Bar Association's 2010 Presidential Summit

A (Very) Short History of Social Media


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When technology guru Tim O'Reilly declared the beginning of the age of Web 2.0 in 2004 there was a
feeling of excitement and transformative possibility. The web was no longer a great library, it had become a
read-write environment where ordinary users could upload and share content easily at low or no cost. Blogs
were the harbinger of the read-write web. The “former audience” in the words of citizen journalism
evangelist Dan Gillmor, could now broadcast their own opinions, either by having their own blog or posting
comments on someone else's. But text was only the beginning. Though podcasting came and went, photo
sharing stayed, and video sharing really caught on. But even content-specific platforms were limited. Social
networks rose in popularity, their value defined not by the content shared but by the connections between
users. With the rise of social networks, Web 2.0 became social media. The focus is no longer on the web.
The focus is on us.

The 1:9:90 Ratio in Politics


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The original democratic hope for the Internet was “every man a pamphleteer,” a phrase referring to the
political importance of pamphleteers at the time of the American Revolution and ascribed to the Internet by
the Supreme Court in the 1997 case of Reno v. ACLU. In that case, the majority opinion defended freedom
of online speech by stating that “through the use of chat rooms, any person with a phone line can become a
town crier.... Through the use of Web pages, mail exploders, and newsgroups, the same individual can
become a pamphleteer.”

This vision did not come to fruition, though. Despite the possibility of mass participation offered by social
media, most people are still simple consumers - not creators - of content. The rule of thumb, as coined by
authors and bloggers Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba, is the ratio1:9:90. On any given social platform, 1%
of users will be high-volume content producers (an active blogger), while 9% will contribute occasionally (a
blog commenter), and 90% will consume but not produce content (a blog reader).

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Still, the political impact of that highly-productive 1% should not underestimated. Active bloggers have real
power to set the political agenda. On the left, progressive blogs like Daily Kos, My DD, and Andrew
Sullivan's Daily Dish were critical in raising early support for Obama and for organizing the attempt to unseat
the centrist Senator Joe Lieberman in 2006. On the right, it is no coincidence that Eric Odom, one of the
leaders of the loosely coordinated Tea Party movement, is an Internet marketer by profession. These new
opinion-makers, producing for a mass audience at low cost, have joined the media landscape alongside the
traditional broadcast formats of radio, print, and television. The most popular political blogs have
readerships that rival the circulation rates of big city newspapers.

More interesting still is the influence of the 9%, the occasional contributors who, with the right contribution,
can be tremendously influential. Most of the high-impact content created by 9%-ers is video, the most
spreadable (viral) form of social media because it can be viewed quickly and can easily pack an emotional
punch . The prime examples of 9%-ers making a big political impact are the “macaca” video of former
Senator George Allen, the cell phone videos captured by Iranians during the post-election protests, and the
”1984” Hillary Clinton satire video from the 2008 presidential campaign.

Though the 1%-ers have the most reliable impact on politics, the 9%-ers are potentially the most
destabilizing because their influence is rarely anticipated. We expect celebrity bloggers like Markos
Moulitsas to affect national politics. We do not expect campaign workers like S.R. Sidarth, who shot the
macaca video, to do so.

So what about the 90% of social media users who consume but do not
produce public content? They are the audience, but their role should not
be seen as passive. The audience today has a greater choice in the
media they consume than ever before and their choices are reshaping
the media landscape. A recent poll of online newspaper readership in the
UK (see image from The Economist, left) revealed that no paper held the
attention of a majority or even plurality of people who read news online.
Even a popular national paper like The Daily Telegraph had only 8% of
total online readership. Mid-market newspapers and news aggregators took a smaller cut, but no one
dominates the media conversation as was possible in the era of network TV where all eyes were watching
a handful of newscasts every night after dinner.

The 90% take advantage of this increased variety and divides its attention widely among different media
outlets. They are the king-makers in the age of social media politics because money and influence accrue to

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the outlets that can attract the most attention. The competition is bitter and even traditionally powerful
media producers, especially newspapers, are finding it difficult to compete.

This, however, does not mean that the market for political news is
evenly divided. Though newspapers are now competing with
blogs and CNN is broadcasting YouTube videos to take advantage
of the popularity of citizen-generated media, there are still outlets
that are more influential than others. The new shape of the
political attention curve is called the “long tail” (see image from
Hubspot.com, left). A scientific principle popularized by author
Chris Anderson in his 2006 book of the same name, the long tail
refers to large amounts of content with small individual audiences. While the head of the tail refers to a few
media outlets with high popularity and attention – a top blog by a 1%er, a television station, a national
magazine - most attention is spread over the many media outlets of the long tail – content created by 9%-
ers. The 90% of Internet users who are consuming this media concentrate on the popular media outlets, but
they are “promiscuous” with their attention, likely to view a major news portal and family photo album on
Facebook in the same day.

Where national political media was once dominated by the “big three” television stations – NBC, ABC, CBS –
it is now fragmented. The atomization of attention has led to an atomization of identity, where people can
read exactly the type of media that appeals to them, whether it is radical progressivism, bourgeois
environmentalism, fiscal conservatism, pro-life values, or libertarianism. Each citizen can read the niche
political content that appeals to her. If she doesn't find what she is looking for, she can start a blog and
create her own. The long tail reigns supreme and users are creating new political content every day that
further fragments attention and identity. The age of majorities is over.

A Political Landscape without Majorities


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In a media environment where the consumer has a seemingly endless variety of content to consume, the
competition for “eyeballs” has never been fiercer. Too often, this competitiveness leads to a race to the
bottom. Content receives attention because is arouses passions, and moderation and compromise have
never aroused passions. The major television networks have made a decision to serve not the center, but
the niche: MSNBC and CNN went left while Fox News went right. It is the more strongly biased outlets that
get the most attention, with Fox News getting consistently higher ratings than more moderate CNN.

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Every television station is trying to out-shock and out-pander to its chosen audience. On MSNBC, Rachel
Maddow mocks Tea Party activists as “tea baggers” (ask your teenage child what it means, it's not very
polite), while Glenn Beck of Fox News calls President Obama a racist. While we can definitely argue that this
strategy is not in the public interest, in the new media environment it is one of the few strategies that
remains competitive. Social media is often even worse, not even claiming to be “fair and balanced,” as Fox
News does, but openly targeting a niche: Huffington Post for the left, Red State for the right, BlogHer for
feminists, Change.org for activists.

In order to survive in this environment, politicians must address voters'


chosen identities, and target at an ever finer level of granularity. At the
Obama campaign, where I served as New Media Operations Manager
during the general election, we created presences on a variety social
media platforms. At least part of this decision was driven by the need to
speak to voters in the niche within which they self-identified (see graphic
from BarackObama.com, left). One could connect with the campaign on
the most popular networks, like Facebook and MySpace, but also on long
tail networks like MyBatanga and MiGente (Latinos), BlackPlanet (African-
Americans), AsianAve (Asian-Americans), DNC Partybuilder (Democratic
party activists), and LinkedIn (white-collar professionals). Our site also featured videos and other content
aimed at specific demographics: “Seniors for Obama,” “First Americans for Obama,” “Students for Obama,”
“Environmentalists for Obama.” Segments were built on a variety of self-identifiers, from race and ethnicity
to age, profession, gender, and political preference.

At worst, targeting and segmenting results in “dog whistle politics,” where coded messages are used to
present a campaign differently to different segments in a cynical attempt to be all things to all people. At
best, it is simply a recognition of the current political landscape and the divided media that both reacts to
and reinforces these divided identities. In a political age without majorities, the goal is to add together
different segments until you get to 51%.

Who benefits from a politics without majorities? Strangely, both current elites and newcomers. Current
elites benefit because they have the resources to run segmented campaigns (which, in effect, means running
multiple campaigns). Yet newcomers also benefit. Because it is possible to use social media tools like a
Facebook group or a Twitter feed, to speak to particular segments at low cost it is possible for anyone to
grab a niche, a place in the long tail. However, there is a caveat for these newcomers. They are most likely
to succeed at issue-based campaigns, reaching deep into a single niche, as 350.org does in rallying people

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who care about the environment, MoveOn.org does in rallying progressive activists, and Avaaz.org does in
rallying people how care about international human rights. These campaigns may succeed in reaching deep
into a given niche, but are unlikely to reach across multiple niches without increased resources.

Democracy Without Majorities


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While the rights of minorities are protected, American democracy is based upon the principle that decisions
are made by the majority. For a country built around the decision-making power of majorities, a political
landscape where majorities are increasingly illusive challenges the status quo.

It is is not clear exactly what political future awaits a


segmented America and a number of outcomes are
possible. The pessimistic prognosis is best encapsulated
by Cass Sunstein, a former University of Chicago law
professor who is now Administrator of the White House's
Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Sunstein
observed in his 2007 book Republic.com 2.0 that the
divided nature of the Internet, and particularly the
blogosphere, allows people to consume only information that they like, creating “echo chambers” in which
people become increasingly narrow-minded and radical. Their views are reinforced by information that
confirms what they already think and is rarely challenged by contradictory views. In this kind of democracy,
consensus is rarely reached and leaders win elections and legislate in order to appeal to segments of the
population rather than the no man's land in the middle of a political debate.

This future is best illustrated by a network map of the American blogosphere (image above) created by
researchers Lada Adamic and Natalie Glance. It shows dense interlinking among left-leaning blue blogs and
right-leaning red blogs, but very little inter-linking across political perspectives. This research was published
in 2005, and since then we have seen social media segment the political conversation even further. There
are no longer only two poles, there are several. We are no longer merely a house divided, but a house
where everyone goes into their own room and stays there.

A more optimistic prognosis stresses the capacity of the divided media space to quickly surface new view
points, empowering the previously powerless and challenging the authority of traditional elites. There is
mobility within the long tail and as the previous sections showed, content from the occasionally creative 9%
can jump into the high-attention space traditionally dominated by the 1%-ers. Since the majority of

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Americans (the75% with Internet access) have the capacity to publish content online, there is always a
chance that this information will prove salient to a large percentage of Americans, moving it from the long tail
of limited viewership to the head of high attention. Examples here are the anti-ACORN undercover videos
produced by young Republican activists, which became a touchstone for the American right, and the video of
the death of Neda Agha-Sultan, which became a rallying point for critics of the Iranian regime. Both videos
were produced by the “former audience,” citizens who were moved to become media-makers and
broadcasters and whose content subsequently affected national and international politics.

A democracy based on this kind of media production would be more egalitarian because a greater number
of people would have the ability to influence the political agenda. It would also be more unstable. The
dominance of current elites would be uncertain and groups of self-organized citizens would be able to make
credible threats to established institutions. (The current power struggle between the Tea Party activists and
the Republican Party is a fascinating case in point.) Whether a re-shuffling of the political power structure
would be positive or negative depends greatly on who is best able to take advantage of social media. Will it
be self-serving fringe groups or activists with a more public-spirited bent? It is too early to know.

In previous eras a lack of choice created majorities: with little competition, television, print and radio dictated
public opinion. In the current era of infinite choice, we can allow ourselves to be divided by those choices, to
wall ourselves off into echo chambers, or we can choose to look outward and consider the priorities of our
fellow citizens, who are able to express themselves as never before. The creation of our political future is
more participatory than ever before.

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About the Author


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Mary Joyce is an internationally recognized trainer, author, speaker, and consultant in the field of digital activism.
Mary is the co-founder of DigiActive, an all-volunteer organization dedicated to helping grassroots activists
around the world use digital tools to increase their impact. In 2008 she was chosen to be the New Media
Operations Manager for President Obama's election campaign, where she ran day-to-day logistics for the new
media department at the Chicago headquarters. She has also been a digital activism consultant since 2006.
Her clients include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Open Society Institute, and Berkman Center for
Internet and Society at Harvard University. She is currently working on a book, "Digital Activism Decoded: The
New Mechanics of Change," which will be published in the spring of 2010.