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The notion that social media is a great leveller is wrong

For someone as active as I am in social media, perhaps the title of this blog entry is a little extreme. But bear with me. Or, to be more precise, bear with me those of you in the ever dwindling band of people who are going to read this.

This blog, I have concluded, exists mostly thanks to a combination of fortuitous circumstances 6 years ago that has seen me through to this, my 1461st post.

The main piece of good fortune was time. I was a (relatively) early adopter to the blogging medium. I knew the game before the game became mainstream. A year after this blog launched it was ranked 10th in Iain Dale’s blog rankings. Now it’s not even in the Top 100 at Total Politics.

Look at the traffic. Of the top 5 posts by numbers of readers in the past month, 3 (Jobs, Commission, Lingon) were not written this year, one (iPhone) relates to something that’s very tangential to my main subjects, and one (Nick Pisa) is current, but builds on old posts. By being early, and having some rudimentary ability to write and design, I was ahead of the game, and partially stayed at the front for a while. Once blogging became mainstream I’m nowhere, and it’s simply by being ranked highly in Google that keeps the site traffic trickling in.

While bloggers in Egypt or Tunisia are framed as vital dissidents against the regimes in question, the UK media’s go-to bloggers – people like Tim Montgomerie – are folks who have cleverly used blogging to build hybrid media organisations, something which I of course do not begrudge them. But the era of being able to carve out a niche as an amateur blogger in politics are very much over.

The same has happened on Twitter. I have just over 4000 followers, and the number inches up at a glacial pace. A few years ago I was one of the most followed UK political nerds on Twitter. Now I am nowhere. Even within that 4000 the level of engagement and response is low – I’m not sure Crowdbooster analyses all of my 10k tweets, but of the ones it does cover, I have only ever had 2 tweets that have been retweeted more than 30 times, and not a single tweet retweeted 40 times. My best ever RTs represent less than 1% of my followers.

To give a further example, this week I have attended two political events: IPPR on Euroscepticism, and Hansard Society on social media in politics. Despite the politician panellists at both events being active on Twitter, and the topics they presented being ones central to what I do, naturally @DAlexanderMP @douglascarswell @julianhuppert and @BaronessDeech have not followed me. Rather sadly I would not even expect them to, and indeed Carswell, Huppert and Deech follow only around 100 people each.

Far from being a great leveller, social media has instead lead to a slight change in the definition of our political and media elites. Apart from that small window of opportunity for the early adopters to gain a foothold, the rest of the time the game is as hierarchical as it ever was, the structures geared towards those that shout the loudest and with the best connections, not the people that actually might know the answers. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

Photo: "Walking Away" by NinJA999 on July 13, 2007 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution

8 Comments

  • Ben Lowndes |

    You’re right in many ways, particularly about those who do not ‘follow back’ or simply talk to their high profile contacts whilst ignoring the rest of it.

  • PG |

    I too was an early adopter of blogging (began in September 2002), but I have a slightly more optimistic take on social media as leveller.

    First, I don’t consider Twitter to be the best metric of where people are seeking the views on serious subjects. While it occasionally makes on-the-ground reporting of major events more possible, that work generally comes from previously little-known people (e.g. the guy who Tweeted the U.S. incursion into Pakistan that ended in killing bin Laden). Most of the time, the Trending Topics on Twitter are about celebrities or are memes like #ifyouwannagetwithme that try to provoke clever responses (this latter usage is reportedly particularly popular with black and Latino Americans, especially those using Twitter on a mobile device rather than a computer).

    Personally, I first got on Twitter (relatively late, early 2009) so I could follow a genre novelist and track where the NYC food carts would be on a given day. In contrast, I began blogging because I wanted to lay out my own thoughts and engage with others who had similar interests in law and politics. This led to my being invited to contribute to or co-found multiple group blogs on those topics. From what I’ve seen, blogging actually vaulted several of the folks who started blogging about policy and politics at that time into U.S. media positions — Megan McArdle (The Economist and The Atlantic Monthly), Chris Geidner (Metro Weekly), Ezra Klein (Washington Post), Ross Douthat (NY Times) — that they were unlikely to have achieved in a pre-blogging era. So far as I know, none of them were particularly well-known or connected prior to blogging.

    Within law, where there really can be said to be meaningful expertise, I think it’s a good thing that law students’ blogs have been mostly brushed aside, as true experts in various specialties have taken up the format. It still staggers me that one of my co-bloggers, still a law student at the time, got cited in an appellate court opinion simply because at that time, there weren’t so many people blogging on the nuances of criminal procedure.

    In other areas, even later-comers have achieved fame and media deals, such as Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen (began June 2006, well after cooking heavyweights such as Martha Stewart and Jamie Oliver had a web presence), if they attract a sufficient audience.

  • Mark Pack |

    A few niche bloggers continue to make their mark in the political sphere – e.g. Mike Smithson and Anthony Wells, though in both cases there is a semi-related source of income (bets and getting a job with YouGov respectively).

    But overall I agree with your picture (and it’s notable that Lib Dem Voice is the only “home” site for a major political party now that doesn’t involve paying people to work on it – we’re the last 100% volunteer “home” site).

    My overall view is that the internet has opened things up in the sense that new people can elbow their way in to the elites, but there are still very much elites. Open elites are better than closed elites – and it mirrors a structure we see outside politics, e.g. with Linux where there is a huge number of people involved in writing the code but also a small, clear group of people with key decision making power. They’re an elite – an open elite but still an elite.

    See http://www.markpack.org.uk/8506/how-the-internet-is-changing-british-politics-and-what-2010-will-bring/ for a bit more I said about this in a lecture in 2010.

  • Jon |

    @Ben / @Anne – yes, I agree with that. But among the 4k that follow me there are rather few who are really well connected in their respective professions, and among those I don’t think there are many that ever read my stuff.

    @PG – some interesting examples, and I have (partially) achieved that sort of thing (by writing pieces for CiF for example). This ties in with @Mark’s point – that elites remain, but they are at least a little more open.

  • Aymeric L. |

    It’s Not How Many Followers You Have, It’s What You Write!

    Sorry for being off topic :)

So, what do you think ?