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The blogosphere: Neither Hayek nor Habermas January 14, 2010

Posted by Sverre in : Academic matters, blogging , trackback

While researching for my master thesis (yes, it should have been finished by now. It isn’t – for several reasons.) I stumbled across an interesting article by Cass Sunstein1 about the blogosphere and whether or not it adheres to the ideals of Hayek’s information market or Habermas’ public sphere. His conclusion is that it doesn’t adhere to either very well. The article is a couple of years old, but still interesting. Political science bloggers Dan Drezner and Henry Farrell are among the sources he cites.

I quote the abstract:

The rise of the blogosphere raises important questions about the elicitation and aggregation of information, and about democracy itself. Do blogs allow people to check information and correct errors? Can we understand the blogosphere as operating as a kind of marketplace for information along Hayekian terms? Or is it a vast public meeting of the kind that Jurgen Habermas describes? In this article, I argue that the blogosphere cannot be understood as a Hayekian means for gathering dispersed knowledge because it lacks any equivalent of the price system. I also argue that forces of polarization characterize the blogosphere as they do other social interactions, making it an unlikely venue for Habermasian deliberation, and perhaps leading to the creation of information cocoons. I conclude by briefly canvassing partial responses to the problem of polarization.

The argument about Hayek’s information markets is simple and easily understandable. The blogosphere has no market pricing mechanisms or anything like it, thus there is no market-like aggregation of information. I can easily accept that argument. The argument against a Habermasian public sphere is about group polarization. Conservative bloggers read conservative blogs and become more conservative as a consequence. The same is supposedly the case for other groups. Does this correspond with perceived reality? I’m not quite sure what to think. I lean clearly to the left in what I read, but I do read and cite quite a bit of right-oriented material too I think. What about you? Do bloggers get drawn to writing about blogs with the same views as themselves? Does this mean we really have a blogosphere with little real discussion? I need to think on this a little.

  1. Sunstein, Cass R. (2007) “Neither Hayek nor Habermas” Public Choice 134(1-2), Springer Netherlands, pp. 87-95. Available online in fulltext through SpringerLink for those with acess: http://www.springerlink.com/content/b8167107l4662l47/ []


1. LFC - January 16, 2010

There probably is polarization in the blogosphere, but I would think a nuanced study (maybe some have been done) would need to divide the ideological universe into more than just two camps.
I am somewhere on the left side of the spectrum, and I look occasionally at two or three right-wing blogs to see what they are saying. But only occasionally, because the amount of time I have to read blogs is limited. For one thing, I have my own blog to write, and as you know keeping a blog going even intermittently isn’t that easy when it’s a one-person operation. And of course one wants to read non-blog material too.

2. sverrebm - January 16, 2010

After thinking a bit about it I think I’m pretty much in the same situation as you. Also, I think it’s a matter of scope. I seem to read almost exclusively left-oriented stuff on American politics for example, a rather peripheral field for me. On Norwegian politics, on the other hand, I do read a number of both right and left wing blogs regularly. Seems like I need to have something else in common (for example interest in some specialist field) with a blog to read it if we don’t have a similar political view.

Mostly I sort on general quality and how much a blog seems to catch my interest rather than political colour. How well my practice coincides with the average I have no idea. It would be interesting to read some more studies on this. I suspect we would find one category of bloggers that mostly take part in a sub-blogosphere getting exposed to polarizing effects, with other bloggers bridging gaps between several sub-blogospheres much like Habermas’ idea of overlapping public spheres forming one large public sphere.

It actually sounds quite a bit like some of the ideas from Transformation of the Public Sphere when put like this… hmm… I need to read Sunstein’s arguments again.

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