The Party Line Online: An Oligarchy of Opinion on a Public Affairs Listserve

Article excerpt

Abstract

During a 6-month period analyzed in this study, a small number of ideologically like-minded participants dominated a listserve created in a small Midwestern city for discussion of public-policy issues. That dominant group exerted an oligarchy of opinion that led to online discussions about, and raises larger questions about, whether the listserve was achieving its goal of "creating a community-wide discussion." This study examines two controversial issues about which the preponderance of opinion expressed online did not reflect the preponderance of opinion expressed in letters to the editor in two newspapers in the same city and, in one case, at the ballot box. Also examined are online conversations about how the dominant opinion on the listerve may have caused some subscribers to participate as "lurkers" rather than as writers who expressed their opinions online. The best way to show the flavor of the listserve was to quote extensively from messages posted there. Many of those messages contained mechanical and/or grammatical errors. Because the errors were so common, using the traditional "sic" to cite them would have disrupted the narrative flow of this study and may have been construed as an implicit-and unfairly negative-criticism of the quality of the postings. As such, the messages were quoted verbatim, and "sic" was not used to identify errors.

Online Forums: Background

The political commons has always been contested ground. At its most obvious level, the contest is about opposing ideas and which will prevail. But before ideas can do battle, the contest is about who will have a chance to speak and, therefore, which ideas will be heard.

Of the first battlefield it can be said that the reality of the political commons has had far less luster than the ideal. In Athens, direct democracy had room only for freemen. As Schudson (1998, pp. 17-18) and Phillips (1993, p. 36) point out, even the hallowed New England townhall meetings were exclusive affairs.

But computerized communication has been hailed as a way to make democracy more democratic, to let new voices and new ideas join the political fray. With access easier and cheaper than ever and with no gatekeeper to decide which ideas "deserve" to be hoard, proponents say online communication will give everyone, or virtually everyone, a channel for participating in the public forum. Furthermore, proponents argue, the online opportunity might be a way for those outside the mainstream to be heard.

One such proponent, Steven Clift, founder of Minnesota's E-Democracy project, states it succinctly: "The Internet can improve democracy... " (2001). Buchstein (1997) writes that optimists believe "electronic media will conquer many of the problems that made direct democracy an impracticable idea" (p. 249) and that

the new technology seems to match all basic requirements of Habermas's normative theory of the democratic public sphere: it is a universal, anti-hierarchical, complex and demanding mode of interaction. Because it ... generates public opinions through processes of discussion, the Internet looks like the most ideal speech situation. (p. 251)

Optimism about the possible benefits of computer-based technology is obvious in the title of the opening section-The Vibrant Social Universe Online-of a report by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project (p. 2). The report states that "many Americans are using the Internet to intensify their connection to their local community" (p. 2). The report adds that the Internet has the potential for "glocalization" (Wellman, 1997), "the capacity ... to expand users' social worlds to faraway people and simultaneously to bind them more deeply to the place where they live" (p. 2). Because Internet sites "have been both physical and virtual, these group interactions are richer than those found in 'tertiary' associations" (Pew, p. 10). In Virtual Community (1993), Howard Rheingold writes that computer networks could "catalyze . …