Friday, July 23, 2004

Reading:: "The Power and Politics of Blogs">

Originally posted: Fri, 23 Jul 2004 09:07:36

The Power and Politics of Blogs

By Daniel W. Drezner and Henry Farrell

Blogs are coming under increased scholarly scrutiny. A collection on blogs and rhetoric, Into the Blogosphere, just went online. Our very own white papers series at the CWRL has a paper on blogs and pedagogy. Of course, Drezner and Farrell's paper is a bit different from these. For one thing, both authors are political science professors; for another, they both produce well-trafficked blogs. These two factors give them a somewhat unique view of the blogosphere as they try to answer the question: "Why do blogs have any influence at all" in politics?

Good question. Drezner and Farrell provide statistics that suggest exactly how few people read blogs for information and opinions (only 4% of online Americans). Yet blogs demonstrably affected media coverage in everything from the Trent Lott scandal to the current scandals involving Sandy Berger and Joseph Wilson. Why? Among other factors, Drezner and Farrell argue that

blogs have the comparative advantage of speedy publication -- they have a first-mover advantage in socially constructing interpretive frames for understanding current events. As a result, political commentators will rely on blogs as sources of interpretive frames for polticial developments. Under a specific set of circumstances -- when elite blogs concentrate their attention on a breaking story or an underreported story -- the agenda-setting power of blogs may create focal points for general interest intermediaries. (pp. 4-5)

The authors go on to offer up a network analysis of the blogosphere -- not the Latourean kind with which I'm familiar, but the kind that takes statistics. I barely passed statistics, so let's skip a bit and home in on a point that's more interesting to me. Specifically, the blogs that are most influential to politics are those that influence the mainstream media -- and those blogs are often written by people who are (socially) networked with the mainstream media. Andrew Sullivan, Mickey Kaus, James Taranto, and others come to mind here. And just as politicians have learned to deal with the mainstream media through tactics such as leaks, they are beginning to learn how to limit blogosphere damage by watching for indicators and moving quickly to deploy their own frames of reference in the mainstream media first. Politicians can't get in front of the blogs, but they can beat the blogs to the mainstream media.

All in all, an interesting read.

Caveat: Drezner says this is a "first draft," although the name of the PDF is "blogpaperfinal."

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Reading:: Using the Internet to Raise Funds and Mobilize Supporters

Originally posted: Fri, 23 Jul 2004 07:52:00

Using the Internet to Raise Funds and Mobilize Supporters: Lessons Nonprofits can Learn from the Dean For America Campaign

By Convio

My wife went to a talk on this topic yesterday and sent me the link afterwards. As some of you might remember, Howard Dean did surprisingly well in opinion polls leading up to the Democratic primaries. After a surprise third-place finish in Iowa, though, he made a fatal misstep in front of the TV cameras that led people to doubt his ability to be president.

This white paper, written in December 2003 -- in the halcyon days of the Dean campaign, before that fatal misstep -- discusses why the Dean campaign was so successful in fundraising, grass-roots organizing, and getting the message out. There were various reasons, but this paper points to the role Convio played.

A largely unreported story is how the organization is using Internet software and online marketing tactics to democratize American politics -- enabling "average" people to participate as never before. This approach, based on "viral" marketing or the "ripple effect," allows the campaign to provide supporters with the motivation and online tools to touch the people they know, and on and on for a continuously growing support base. (p.2)

As you might expect, this is partially hype and partially the line taken by the Dean campaign at that point: the theme that average people are locked out of political participation was central to the campaign, and Convio integrated that theme fully into its materials. But there really is a phenomenon at work here, one that Zuboff and Maxmin hinted about in their book , although they didn't do it justice either. Essentially, the Dean campaign was able to form an online community in which people could make personal contacts, share information and opinions, and build support networks. When you get a fundraising letter from your local politician, you may cut her a check because you believe in the cause. When a Dean supporter got an email requesting donations, though, s/he cut a check because s/he had made friends online, had become part of the movement, and had even contributed to the online materials through reports and threaded messages. They had actual investment.

Sort of. To put it another way, the Dean campaign discovered that the key to fundraising was to make sure people could participate in the campaign while sitting in their own chairs at home, drinking Mountain Dew and scratching themselves in their underwear. That is, the allure of the Dean campaign is the same allure that causes people to write book reviews on Amazon or swap tips on customizing their cars. Yes, you believe in your candidate and cause, but you also have a ready-made community you can access anytime, a community to which you can make visible contributions. No wonder the white paper suggests that other nonprofits do what the Dean campaign did:

Dean created an ongoing dialogue with constituents through online surveys, polls and petitions, as well as online forums (Web logs, also known as blogs) to allow constituents to voice their opinions, make suggestions and communicate with other supporters. (p.5)

Dean and Convio did Field of Dreams one better: they understood that if you give them tools, they will build it.

Ironically, the same viral, participatory environment hastened Dean's collapse. Hours after the Iowa concession speech, through the magic of apple's GarageBand, parodies began making their way into people's email boxes and bloggers picked up on the story. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

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Monday, July 19, 2004

Reading:: Rhetoric and the Arts of Design

Originally posted: Mon, 19 Jul 2004 19:25:00

Rhetoric and the Arts of Design

by David S. Kaufer, Brian S. Butler

I first read Rhetoric and the Arts of Design in fall 1999, and was inspired to do so again after talking with Dave Kaufer at this spring's RSA conference. Particularly after Dave pointed out parallels between it and my own book.

What has always interested me about this book is that it puts together such a careful, ordered model of rhetoric. The book takes the Lincoln-Douglas debates as an extended example, dissecting them in terms of the different components in each speaker's arguments. These arguments, Kaufer and Butler assert, are actually designed, and that's important:

The public would like, collectively and as individuals, to live with sturdier bridges, safer buildings, more reliable computer programs, and easier to read manuals.

Rhetorical design should be no exception.

You can see why I'd be intrigued. Kaufer and Butler likens rhetoric's relationship with literature to graphic design's relationship with the fine arts: in both cases, the former is practical and oriented to action. And in this book, they argue at length for seeing rhetoric as a design art that, once understood in that way, can be examined and taught more systematically. Their system is rooted in blackboard architectures, "a well-known cognitive science paradigm" that is

especially robust for modeling systems, like design, that where a task requires the opportunistic application of many heterogeneous "experts" all looking at the same problem (represented ina common workplace called a "blackboard") but with each expert looking at the problem from a specialized set of competencies and goal priorities. (p.267)

In Kaufer and Butler's scheme, these "experts" are "modules," particular rhetorical strategies mobilized in service of the emerging argument design. The most relevant modules are plans, tactics, and events. Kaufer and Butler tend to anthropomorphize these modules as experts in some places. For instance, this (initially) disconcerting passage appears on p.151:

Douglas' dilemma was skillfully crafted to make Lincoln say something that would force an inconsistency in his Plans. The Plans module, knowing nothing about the rhetorical situation, would have no awareness of the tactical threat against it. Indeed, if the Plans module were able to understand Douglas' questions, it would have no idea how to respond, for it knows only how to tell what is predictably true and false about the social world. It is left to Lincoln's Tactics to deal with the dilemma, and the Tactics module understood there is pressure to answer a question even if the answer causes further problems down the road. Lincoln's answer, because it shares the same structure as plans, throws a wrench into the Plans module. When Lincoln's Plans module next sampled the design structure, it finds a structure like "I do not pledge to the Republican platform at Springfield" in the midst of its public module, seeming to disenable Lincoln's organizational authority. Plans had no idea where this type of structure comes from but it does understand that the structures create personal inconsistencies in the public model, and that the inconsistencies need to be reconciled if the rhetor is to continue to tell predictable truths and falsehoods about the social world. (pp.151-152)

Kaufer and Butler admit to "partial anthropomorphizing" (p.263) like this, but they do it in service to the blackboard architectures approach they're pursuing. And although this sort of anthropomorphizing sounds suspect -- reminding me of Hutchins' critique of cognitive psychology in Cognition in the Wild -- it begins to make a lot of sense if understood analogically. In short, Kaufer and Butler aren't proposing homunculi, they're proposing a heuristic model, and that distinction is vital to understand if the book is going to make sense. Once I got that distinction, Kaufer and Butler's modules turned into powerful categories for examining public debate; I found myself applying them with great success to the current political debates in this current, superheated primary season.

What Kaufer and Butler are after, essentially, is a model of public rhetoric as conscious design. At times I found myself thinking of similarities with Latour's sociotechnical graphs, which also attempt to model statements -- and Freed, Freed, and Romano's Writing Winning Business Proposals, which continues to be one of my favorite heuristic approaches to argumentation. Rhetoric and the Arts of Design takes its place next to these as an enormously useful resource for understanding and modeling public rhetoric. But what struck me as I read this book was that it doesn't address the sorts of things I've tried to address: the materiality of rhetoric, its ad hoc and convergent nature in private and semipublic practice, and particularly its use outside of argumentation and debate. Which is to say that Kaufer and Butler have set themselves a task that is separate from mine. But they've provided tools and an example of modeling that will be enormously useful to me as I proceed.

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