Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Why are we so hard on our politicians - and ourselves? A postscript

In an earlier post I asked why were so hard on our politicians, suggesting that this was damaging democracy itself.

There was a short session on ABC Radio National tonight in which Anthony Moran reported on a new book written by he and Judith Brett. (Ordinary People's Politics: Australian's talk about their life, politics and the future of their country, Judith Brett and Anthony Moran, Pluto Press ISBN 1 86403 257 X) . I quote in part:

When commentators argue over what ordinary people think and feel about politics, their focus is often too narrow. It has become a cliche of Australian political commentary that ordinary people aren't interested in politics anymore, that they are disengaged from public life and institutions and focused instead on their private concerns, and that they can't stand politicians. Well, if it's true that they don't like or trust politicians today, it's also true that they never liked or trusted them very much in the past either. Declining trust in politicians since the 1970s closely mirrors declining trust in other professions such as bank managers, lawyers and journalists - and the reasons for that include a citizenry more questioning of all kinds of authority and expertise. Political engagement waxes and wanes, depending on the times and the pressing issues. In fact, evidence from surveys points to a citizenry that is more informed than ever before, and levels of political apathy are not as high as they were, for example, in the 1960s.

I found Anthony's brief remarks interesting. They draw out the way in which changing attitudes towards politicians are a sub-set of a broader pattern of change. We all know this, but it is still a helpful reminder. I also find it interesting that so much of the discussion about social change including changing social attitudes keeps on coming back to the seventies as the key decade.

Anthony's comments also suggest a pattern of political engagement and interest that is far more complex than the simple question of direct involvement in formal politics. I think that this is right and it's an interesting issue.

Take blogging as an example. The proportion of the population that reads blogs is small, the proportion actively blogging smaller still. Many bloggers are still very defensive about the activity. Yet when we stand back and look at the overall pattern some very interesting features emerge.

The first is simply the law of large numbers.

The proportion blogging may be small, but the absolute number of blogs is substantial simply because the population is large. If only half of one per cent of Australians have blogs, then this equates to 100,000 blogs. I have seen numbers suggesting that up to 4 per cent of the population has/has had a blog. If true, this equates to 800,000 blogs.

Many of these blogs are inactive, a number strictly social, a way of sharing photos and chit chat. However, again the law of large numbers comes into play. If only half of one per cent of existing Australian blogs involve regular reflection, analysis or commentary, then we are still looking at somewhere between 500 and 2,000 blogs.

Of course, if bloggers simply write for themselves without readers (a common fear among bloggers), then the story ends here with 500-2,000 active but unread commentators. In fact, and I find this the really interesting part, there appear to be clear patterns in the way in which ideas and information spread among the blogging community, both writers and the larger readership group.

Here I am not talking about the so-called A list bloggers, those who have established major world wide audiences in particular areas, but about the way in which individual blogs carve out often small niches of influence. These niches overlap, so that in the case of the Australian reflective/commentator blogs we have, say, 500-2,000 overlapping circles of various sizes adopting very varying positions.

Often, conversation occurs among people with like ideas. Arguably, the main effect here is to reinforce common positions, but there is also an energising effect that does have direct political impact.

Beyond this, conversation also takes in areas of overlap between different positions. Individual effects may be small. Neil's expertise on education and the Higher School Certificate causes me to change some of my own views. A small change at individual level. But multiply this across the total blogging audience and the aggregate impact can be substantial, again because of the law of large numbers.

I accept that bloggers are almost by definition an unrepresentative group. But each blogger knows a circle of people outside blogging, so that the blog discussions get carried out into a wider circle.

Linking all this back to my opening point, Anthony's suggestion that the pattern of political involvement and interest is far more complex than the simple question of direct involvement in formal politics. I think that the blogging case shows this very clearly.

Which actually leads me to wonder just how blogging is starting to affect the political process. But I think that I will leave this hanging for the moment.


Anonymous said...

Jim, I'm sure you're posting a rhetorical question. Nevertheless, I don't think blogging will have much impact at this stage on politics. I find that my "circle" of blogging friends is mostly American/Canadians. Very few Australians so far. I did find it important to gain an "audience" when I began blogging (talking to myself seemed a pointless exercise).

Jim Belshaw said...

Lexcen, it's late amd I am trying to ccok tea after a parent teacher session for youngest, but I had to respond.I think that blogging is/will have far greater impact than any of us realise.

I have only been blogging actively for a short while,but I can see it already. I will try to respond properly later. It all comes back yo the law of large numbers.

Travel Italy said...

Jim - Lexcen - I think one characteristic highly underated is the thinking people (I did not say intelligent) can exchange ideas, debate and formulate new thought processes across borders. This has the effect of strengthening one's ideas and convictions while showing a different way of thinking about the same subject.

I believe it does influence politics:

1) before blogs, thinking people thought alone or with their close friends. So, while a large number of people were thinking about a subject they were not organized in a way to have any voice. Today, the chatter is a voice and while politicians still attempt to have their talking points, the discussion follows what people are thinking about. The end is that the politician either gets off the talking points or is labelled as not being in touch with the people;

2) Individuals now have the possibility to see that the problems or subjects are more or less the same across boundries. This brings the idea that the problem is not really the subject instead the politicians are the problem. It forces politicians to take on arguments it does not want to take on.

I have seen numerous examples of these concepts in the past months. Things I thought I was alone on, only to find them main stream media within a month. This does not mean that I started the diffusion but that others were thinking about the same things and the chatter made the topic mainstream.

BTW: remember the discussion of building at home because of association of costs to products. The first major corp announced yesterday that it will be building a huge production facility for flat screens here in the US.

Jim Belshaw said...

I thought you captured one aspect of this rather well, David. Mind you, it's not all positive in that it also allows those holding extreme positions to find and talk to each other. I noticed this very strongly when I did that tour of the blogosphere that started the migration matters series.

One of the things that I am interested in as an analyst is to try to chart and understand the discussion/difussion process. This includes the way in which party officials, media watchers and journalists monitor the blogosphere to identify issues and attitudes.

There is a gap in my knowledge here in that I know that monitoring occurs but do not know how structured it is.

In the case of talk back radio for example, I know that the pattern of calls is analysed quite closely. Because the listener demographics for each station are known, you can then infer how particular issues are travelling with particular groups. This is obviously harder to do in the blogosphere.

Small Business USA said...

Jim - I am not sure that it is not positive. The exchange of ideas will happen, no matter how extreme. Not allowing this to happen is the concept used in many empires to control the people: burn the books because some smart extremist may be able to overthrow us!

I believe that this actually encourages moderate thinking. As you are exposed to new ways of seeing the same problem you can consider the consequences. Your personal extremism will most likely be moderated by someone else's extremism. Somehow I think this applies: An individual can reason but the mass is downright ignorant.

Could it be that the mass becomes the individual when he can express his opinion, losing some of the frustration as he finds that others may have similar concerns?

To your personal interest on the tracking it is actually quite simple. The sites install more or less maliscious spyware on your computer and follow your clicks. Since I have been in this business since before it was a business, I keep extremely high security on my computer and laptops. I cannot even access the CNN pages. FOX news does something similar but times out after about 2 minutes and lets me see the info without being able to install the spyware.

Jim Belshaw said...

Sensible points SBU.

I think the tracking issue you raise is a somewhat different issue since the focus is on the individual/individual computer. In the media monitoring case the interest lies in what is being said and by whom.

I am not talking big brother here, although dictatorships do use the techniques. In the talk back radio case, the types of issues monitors are interested in include number of callers on issue, number for and against, trends in opinion, the nature of the words used. The information is then used to tailor future responses.

We already know that party officials and advisers do monitor at least some blogs. What I am wondering about is how much further it goes and how in something as chaotic as the blogosphere.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the remark about my effect on your thinking on education, just as you in turn have been moderating my politics! It is interesting to note the 2006 HSC Advanced English Paper 2 took a conservative turn; the "King Lear" question could have been asked in 1966, for example; in fact this is a trend discernible at least since last year. I may say something about it later on, when I have got over Alan Jones and the Mufti!

Jim Belshaw said...

Neil, I am glad that the influence is two way! I am not suprised re your comment in King Lear. People do adjust to prevailing winds.

On the mufti, and this bears upon this discussion thread, you seem to have picked up the translation issue very quickly. Listening to the radio this morning I felt very informed already!