As noted here earlier, one of the expanding roles of bloggers is that of political educator to the public. To that end, I often refer students to Watchblog, whose principle of “critique the message, not the messenger” and its three-column-formatted roundup of blogging by “Democrats and Liberals,” “Moderates and Independents” and “Republicans and Conservatives” provides a one-stop marketplace of ideas.
PBB: What is the essence of Watchblog, that is what do you see its role and function in the world of blogs?
Remer: IMO, the essence of WatchBlog is its capacity to maintain civil discourse in what is ultimately a public laypersons arena where they can pretend to become politically active. When one is paid by a party to disseminate political information, that information MUST conform to supporting that party regardless of issue or event. Political truth is in the eye of the beholder and there are a number of opposing beholders out there. WatchBlog assembles non-professional consumers of political news, events, and philosophies who are capable of acceptable writing skills, and gives them a platform upon which to extoll the virtues of their analysis as consumers of political news and events to other consumers of political news and events, in a relatively safe social environment.
In other words, the essence of WatchBlog is political news and event discussion by, and for the lay person without the fear of being bashed or threatened personally for disseminating, defending, or discovering their “political truth”. Go to a store or restaurant and try to engage strangers in a political debate. It won’t happen, or if it does, it carries the risk of elevating to a physical conflagration. WatchBlog gives writers and responders alike a safe place to exchange ideas, critique each others views, and hatch new truth’s from differing political viewpoints.
In addition, it is not unusual at WatchBlog to see partisan writers critical of their own party’s actions or spin. In the world of commercialized politics this is very rare. This adds a dimension of credibility and respect for WatchBlog as a site and its participants and fosters a steadily growing audience for consumer driven political news and analysis not as readily found in the original spin issued by the paid consultants, PR firms, and political party leadership.
PBB: Blogs are both praised and condemned for their partisanship. How do you see the role of comparative and contrasting partisanship such as you present on your web page in offering people a “marketplace of ideas?”
Remer: WatchBlog operates from the assumption that with so many partisan points of view on any given issue or event, it is difficult to acquire a well rounded understanding of political news or events without weighing and assessing the validity of those partisan viewpoints side by side. Watchblog’s presents political issues, philosophies, and news from multiple partisan viewpoints. WatchBlog targets multiple audiences: some who seek to assemble their own understanding of politics from the valid arguments presented by all the partisan points of view, and others who seek reassurance by affiliation with others of similar persuasion. For political news and analysis web surfers, there are those who seek information and those who seek identity through affiliation with a political party. Watchblog attracts both kinds of audience. Those seeking information tend to value the side by side comparative analysis of differing political views. Those seeking identity tend to read and respond primarily in either the column representing their party, or the opposition column where they inject their party’s critique of the opposition party.
Those seeking information synthesize their views from the merits of arguments of multiple parties. Those seeking identity have the added value at WatchBlog of reading what to say in the column of their affiliation and rubber stamping that verbage in the opposition party’s column thereby deriving the enjoyment of role playing a political activist from their armchair and keyboard. Thus, WatchBlog has a much wider target audience and utility than a blog operating from a single party perspective.
PBB: What advice would you give journalists on how they can use blogs and bloggers as sources of information and opinion?
Remer: This is a very complicated question on which many books have been written encompassing the technological hurdles of scanning and sifting information from the exponentially growing number of blogs. My best advice to journalists would be to not let the numbers solely dictate the value of information gained from blogs. If journalists use harvesting software which uses statistics to point to blogs where topics are hot and gathering momentum, they may occasionally scoop an article for the mainstream media which emanates from blogs. But, following the herd is more often than not, going to fail to produce distingushing content. At best, it keeps one’s content current and competitive with what competitors are running most of the time in the MSM (main stream media).
Some select blogs are first and foremost a primary source for innovative political ideas and trends which may emanate from the citizenry as well as a source for feedback on how well the content issued by political figures is being received by differing classes of citizens.
One recommendation for journalists covering or sourcing from blogs, is to select a few blogs by articulate lay persons for monitoring on a regular basis for creative content as well as blogs which provide high quality lay analysis representing a particular segment of our society. For example, selecting a couple of blogs written by articulate but only high school educated working class or maternal bloggers, another couple by college educated middle class bloggers, and another few by managerial or entrepreneurial type bloggers and assessing the differences between their views of current political events like Pres. Bush’s state of the union speech. Such personalized response to political events or news by selected bloggers can flesh out the software harvested content sifted from the whole blog universe based on statstics as to what is grabbing the average citizen’s attention.
For editorial and op-ed pieces this can provide valuable insight as to how effective and why, the political news is being assimilated and responded to. Ultimately, blogs provide a kind of psychological insight into how political news and events in America are being assimilated and responded to. This is a kind of insight which statistical sampling of the blog universe will often not provide as they monitor short lived fads running through the blogosphere as opposed to entrenched ideas and stands being taken and defended over time.
PBB: Same question for my students, what advice would you give them on how to be smart consumers of blog-sourced information and commentary?
Remer: Look for attribution by bloggers. Bloggers who responsibly attribute their sources are doing much more than just voicing an opinion. They are analyzing with a conscience of responsiblility toward their visitors and sources. This is a quick and dirty way to weed out bloggers who string words together for nothing more than the sake of their own ego gratification.
Avoid rubber stampers. Avoid blogs which duplicate content and little more. They are a waste of time, save for their utility of linking through to the source.
Keep an eye out for non-profit organizational blogs. These blogs are rapidly going to become the seedbeds of new and cutting edge grass roots movements and can serve to reveal up and coming trends or news which may break as MSM stories in the future. MoveOn.Org was such a phenomena as is Common Cause currently.
Make a habit of reviewing blogger’s biographies. This is a short cut to determining whether a blogger is worth following for awhile.
Note whether advertising is displayed on the blog. Ads can offer some insight as to motivation of the blogger. If their content appears sensational and their blog contains paid ads, the blogger’s motivation is at least partially revealed as is the value of their content.
PBB: For politicians and political workers, what will be the future role of blogs in campaigns and elections?
Remer: Certainly not as flame fest free for alls. Blogs are first and foremost a free and easy way for citizens to blow off steam without having to really become politically active. That is the pitfall for politicians and political workers who seek to use blogs in campaigns and elections. Why donate $100 when you can regurgitate what your party or candidate wants to hear on their blog and walk away feeling like you contributed something of value? Or flaming and derogating opposition parties or candidates on their blog and feel like you contributed something of value.
The key to successful use of blogs by politicians and political workers will lie in skilled and finely honed design and constant management of the blog. While net surfers view the internet as free, the cost of establishing and maintaining a blog that furthers the aims and goals of a political campaign or cause, is not free, and the costs for effective blog management by political workers will continue to rise as time goes by. The reason is that such design and management requires a blend of expertise both in web site development and design ( a very brainy kind of experitise) as well as outstanding psychological and sociological education which is required to motivate appropriate blog participant behavior and discourage inappropriate behavior without appearing partisan, unfair, or arbitrary (more of an art)..
Those campaigns that lack such expertise will be limited to blogs that do not invite public participation within the blog itself, as in not making comments available to the public in response to written materials on the site by the campaign staff.
Certainly, interactive web sites for campaigns are here to stay for no other reason than the very inexpensive store front and gateway they present to the public for the purpose of joining, donating, or volunteering. But, this is still a very new phenomena where relationships are being built in cyberspace without the benefit of face to face and voice to voice interaction, although the technology is rapidly growing to permit such videophonic blogging in the near future. I would think that once the cost of videophonic blogging becomes affordable, campaigns and political workers will be able to in part replace door to door canvassing with their blogs, and keyed chat rooms for volunteers and volunteer coordination with actual real time conferencing which will reestablish the personal face to face bonding and interactive coordination that is now found in campaign headquarters.
More important, videophonic blogging will have the potential of turning every donor into a volunteer as well, by including them in project coordination and implementation. And this can be a huge cost saver for political campaigns since such coordination can become centralized and structurally formalized while incorporating members and donors into the process from any residence in the country. Just as consumers are not limited to what is available at their local computer store inventory because of internet shopping, political campaigns won’t have to establish local community offices from which volunteers work. Videophonic conferencing and interactive blogs may just revolutionize local grassroots politics in just this fashion, in part replacing expensive advertising and PR firm hiring just to to create public awareness that one’s campaign is active in their local area. Campaigns will have the potential of reaching right into peoples homes through the internet and videophonic interactive blogging.
Of course human touch won’t be a component, and such interactive blogging may never replace the need for pressing the flesh campaigning, but, it certainly can reduce the amount of time and expense of limited resources in reaching out and ‘virtually’ touching folks in their homes, on their Ipods, and even internet fed billboard displays which one can interact with using a mobile device.
And political action web sites are still up and coming, despite elected officials lack of ability in many cases to sift through and respond to all the emails and faxes generated by memberships of such ‘political cause’ sites. If there is a growing anti-incumbent punch in November’s elections, look for these political action web sites to be taken far more seriously by elected officials following the election.
Originally posted February 3, 2006 at PolicyByBlog