Third Avenue, posting at The Sharpener, bemoans the low readership of British political blogs compared to the big American blogs.
But how much of a problem you consider a small blogosphere readership depends largely on what your hopes are for the blogosphere.
If influence over the political or news agenda is your object, then none of this matters. Under the existing system in Britain, as Guido Fawkes rightly says, a handful of articulate individuals can still push their way into an agenda-setting function. For the most part, that’s also what’s happening in the United States. It’s worth remembering that even in the United States, only 26 percent of Internet users read blogs, and only some of those read political blogs. Moreover, a small number of those readers are the ones that give the blogosphere its power. Despite the idealistic blogosphere rhetoric about “citizen media”, blogosphere influence comes from the fact that journalists like blogs because they help in their job of aggregating information and filtering out the noise.
In other words, a small, elite readership is really all that matters if political influence is what you’re hoping for. And that’s currently what is happening on both sides of the Atlantic. A few months back, the American blogger-turned-political-commentator Matthew Yglesias put it like this: “This thing of ours is a good way of trying to influence elite opinion and maybe alter the media climate, but it’s an enormous mistake to confuse it with anything like a viable basis for a mass political movement.”
A small readership a more serious problem for those of us who like the idea of the blogosphere being the first step in the democratization of participation in the public sphere. Even more worrying, though, is the low level of reader participation in most British blogs. So far, British blogs are not even taking the most tentative steps that the Americans are. The big American blogs — the ones that matter in terms of affecting the mainstream news agenda, like DailyKos or Little Green Footballs — have grown so much because they have become the hubs of national communities of like-minded political junkies who regularly read, comment and tip off the lead bloggers.
No blog in Britain has generated anything like this; comments on British blogs are comparatively sparse. Consequentially, British blogs effectively remain a one-way broadcasting medium, and there’s nothing radical about that. Until one of them can shape a Kos-style interactive readership community, British blogs will be little more than outlets for the personal opinions of a few articulate news junkies.
If you want blogs to act as a distributed fact-checking mechanism for mainstream journalism, create a “court of appeal for news judgement”, or begin the transformation of news media “from a lecture to a seminar”, this sort of mass participation is crucial.
The current political climate in the United States encourages the participatory aspect of the blog medium. Americans are in the midst of a culture war in which both sides feel besieged and suspect that the other side dominates the cultural institutions of the nation. This is not the case in Britain, of course. But perhaps there is some deeper cultural issue at work here, too. Are Brits less inclined than Americans to publicly respond to a published argument? Where is Outraged from Tunbridge Wells when you need him?