By Jefferson Flanders

Back in 2006 I wrote about the emerging role of the Internet in enabling greater political communication and debate in “The One Percent Rule and the Power of One.”

Two Web-savvy observers, Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba, had summarized the One Percent Rule as “roughly 1% of your site visitors will create content within a democratized community.” Charles Arthur of The Guardian was even more specific: “if you get a group of 100 people online then one will create content, 10 will ‘interact’ with it (commenting or offering improvements) and the other 89 will just view it.”

In my 2006 post, I had noted that the Power of One—of an individual deciding to speak up—had even greater meaning in societies without any lasting tradition of freedom of expression, and the Internet (then primarily through blogs) made that possible as never before.

I concluded:

Even if the Internet’s latest wrinkle, the social networks and blogs of Web 2.0, fails to usher in a Golden Age of democratic political expression, it still represents progress. The One Percent Rule is, after all, descriptive, not prescriptive; the Web still offers those willing to invest the time and energy a means to manifest the Power of One.

Some six years later that progress continues. A recent survey conducted jointly by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Project for Excellence in Journalism (“Understanding the Participatory News Consumer“) found that “37% of internet users have contributed to the creation of news, commented about it, or disseminated it via postings on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter.” The Pew Internet survey found that some 9% of Internet users had contributed their own article, opinion piece, picture, or video to an online news site.

The Pew Internet results need to be viewed with some caution. The questions asked those surveyed if they have ever participated or contributed, so it’s not clear how active these content creators actually are. When Pew asked about daily activity, a much smaller number—19% of respondents—said they looked online for news or information about politics and only 4% said they created or worked on their own online journal or blog (which might or might not focus on politics.

The number of Americans blogging has remained relatively constant over the past several years at roughly 11-12% of Internet users; of that group, some 8-9% of bloggers focus primarily on politics according to Technorati. If you do the math, you’re left with roughly of 1% of Internet users focused on political blogging.

These survey figures do suggest a growing level of grassroots participation in political communication and discussion. One concrete example: The Huffington Post, which has succeeded through the contributions of some 3,000 bloggers, most posting content on political topics.

It’s not just the quantity of political content on the Web that impresses, but also the greater detail it offers. Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal recently pointed to the renewed appreciation of political speechmaking triggered by how the Internet allows convenient and unfiltered access:

It is restoring rhetoric as a force. When Gov. Mitch Daniels made his big speech — a serious, substantive one — two weeks ago, Drudge had the transcript and video up in a few hours. Gov. Chris Christie’s big speech was quickly on the net in its entirety. All the CPAC speeches were up. TED conference speeches are all over the net, as are people making speeches at town-hall meetings. I get links to full speeches every day in my inbox and you probably do too.

Along with the access and opportunity for greater political participation offered by the Web comes a downside: nasty partisanship amplified by e-mail blasts and Twitter feeds, personal attacks by anonymous posters in comments sections, and ample cyber-room for conspiracy theorists and extremists. Yet, on balance, the Internet represents a marvelous tool for our democratic Republic (and for all those around the world who aspire to liberty and political freedom).

The Web offers uncensored access to information and opinion. It provides places for debate and vehicles for communication and connection. And, most importantly, it’s open to individuals who are free to voice their concerns and express their views. How can this not be a good thing? For those who care about the First Amendment, it’s a development to be applauded.

Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue

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