The Logos of the Blogosphere: Flooding the Zone, Invention, and Attention in the Lott Imbroglio
Pfister, Damien Smith, Argumentation and Advocacy
Less than a decade after the network of weblogs called the blogosphere emerged, so-called news and politics bloggers have been recognized as potent agents of public deliberation. However, before December 2002, bloggers toiled in relative obscurity as boutique websites with small audiences and questionable influence. Since then, bloggers have been instrumental in constituting the networked public sphere, (1) a concept that captures the evolution of the public sphere in an era of widely diffused digital mediation (Benkler, 2006; Friedland, Hove, & Rojas, 2006; Lim & Kann, 2008; Xenos, 2008). Bloggers are now considered key intermediaries brokering developments in the contemporary and continuous news cycle (Boehlert, 2009; Davis, 2009; Kahn & Kellner, 2004; Perlmutter, 2008). Despite the acclaim bloggers have received from scholars who recognize their contribution to informal deliberation about civic controversies, there has been a dearth of theorizing about the unique argumentative practices bloggers bring to episodes of deliberation. This essay identifies how citizens in internetworked societies generate communicative power by copiously producing digital discourse, or flooding the zone, and theorizes how this metaphor sheds light on internetworked patterns of deliberation. Flooding the zone can be connected to rhetorical invention, the generative process through which novel arguments are articulated, and this linkage clarifies how bloggers are able to shape the news agenda through public argument.
Scholars of public deliberation are attending anew to rhetorical invention of public argument (Heidlebaugh, 2008; McNamee & Shorter, 2004). The importance of invention to public deliberation is neatly summarized in the now familiar debate over Cass Sunstein's (2001, 2009) work on the internet and political fragmentation (see Dahlberg, 2007 for a broader overview; see Adamic & Glance, 2005 for direct application to the blogosphere). Sunstein cautions that digital media produce a cultural environment with a latent risk of political fragmentation. Citizens in an era of information abundance can-must, even-tailor their attention economies to like-minded interlocutors who confirm pre-existing ideological inclinations, resulting in extremism and a gradual weakening of the social glue that underpins democratic deliberation. Digital media become a "driver of homogeneity" rather than a "driver of opposition" like the broadcast media purports to be (Lev-On & Manin, 2009, p. 7). According to Sunstein, digital media enclaves produce more intense rancor in public discourse and foreclose opportunities to discover the common ground necessary to legitimate public deliberation. The risk of digitally enclaved deliberation is that citizens abdicate a core (liberal) democratic responsibility: listening to differing opinions.
But enclaves are not entirely antithetical to democratic practice. Amplifying an underappreciated element of Sunstein's (2001) hypothesis on enclaves, this essay examines the role of "argument pools" in deliberation (p. 68-80). Sunstein argues that enclaved deliberation is occasionally desirable because it increases the sophistication of reasoning, thus deepening the reservoirs of argument citizens draw upon in making decisions. The civil rights movement is his signature example of how protected sites of deliberation prepared citizens to articulate well-practiced arguments in broader spheres of public deliberation. Robert Branham's (1995) exploration of how debating in prison fueled the argumentative range and prowess of Malcolm X is an extreme, but salient, example of how enclaves at a remove from the conventional public sphere can eventually fund public deliberation. Enclaves, which can encompass cultural, material, and/or mediated publics, are rich sites for invention (Squires, 2001; Zulick & Laffoon, 1991). Despite the group polarization risks that Sunstein identifies, I argue the blogosphere performs a valuable democratic function in countering the homogeneity of the institutional press by supporting a communicative site for expanding the topoi, or lines of argument, that shape public deliberation. …