Testing the power of the medium – my final case for a web-only thesis

Participation is fundamental to the framework of any democracy. Increasing the number of participants is a vital component if we are to truly have a “government of the people by the people for the people [that] shall not perish from the earth”.

Technology has consistently been used to accomplish the necessary expansion of political engagement. Old printing presses were relied upon to distribute the founding documents of the United States. Presidential debates were televised to take advantage of the new medium once television became widespread. Streaming online video became a reality and debates were broadcast on YouTube where viewers were able to record and ask questions.

Technology is at the heart of all three of these advances in political participation. Without technological advances United States politics would still be in the age of paper broadsides and lengthy debates that were only seen if one had the luxury of leaving home and traveling to the candidates. What technology has allowed for is the dissemination of knowledge and an opening in the tools of political participation to an ever broadening portion of the voting public.

What is different about today?

While television and streaming online video are not explicitly political tools it is hard to argue against the political ramifications of such tools.

The political importance of television and online video is certainly tremendous but even these technologies follow the traditional paradigm of political participation. They adopt the stance that it is the candidate who has the message to convey to voters and attempt to provide a better way to get that message out.

Today we have technologies that are fundamentally approaching communication from a different viewpoint.

Instead of following a one-to-many model like traditional technologies these tools are creating communication that is by the people and among the people.

Suddenly there is the potential for the hub of communication to no longer rest in the hands of media broadcasters; now there is the ability to have the central forum of communication and civic engagement be distributed among millions.

This is a situation that is largely made possible by the technological advancements of the last 18 months. In that time Twitter has seen incredible growth and blogs at WordPress.com have come to garner over 150 million visitors a month.

Not only have these services seen incredible surges in active users but they have worked hard to make their tools more accessible. For example, Twitter has created a messaging technology that can be as complex or as simple as the user demands. One can communicate on Twitter through a number of desktop and mobile applications or they can use a device as simple as a cell phone. To communicate with millions on Twitter you need nothing more than an email address and a text message.

The scaling of tools like Twitter and WordPress to tens if not hundreds of millions of users presents an interesting context through which political participation can be investigated. The question that must be answered is: to what extent does the greater accessibility of web communication technologies like Twitter, WordPress, and RSS create a radically different definition of political participation and participants in the politics of the United States?

Reviewing the existing literature

Image courtesy of austinevan on Flickr.

Image courtesy of austinevan on Flickr.

Over the last few years there has been a significant body of literature written concerning the role that technology plays in supplementing the existing framework of political participation in the United States. In addition, there has been a tremendous amount of literature by leading figures in the technology community. Many of these writings address the potential that the expanding avenues of web communication have to create and expand communities.

These discussions have largely remained separate from one another. The political writers consider modern technology as an addition to the system while the technologists conceive of it as a paradigm shift that holds the potential to drastically alter the ways in which humans organize and communicate with one another. What has not yet been done is an attempt to bridge these two discussions and bring greater context to each.

These bodies of literature provide the background for an investigation of the extent to which the greater accessibility of web communication technologies like Twitter, WordPress, and RSS create a radically different definition of political participation and participants in the politics of the United States.

The political basis of this research will investigate various texts concerning political participation in order to create a unified definition of participation and participants. Texts such as Benjamin Barber’s Strong Democracy and Diana Saco’s Cybering Democracy will be central to this portion of the research.

Each of these texts address the role and definition of participatory politics. They focus upon the individual interactions that provide the basis of political society. Barber centers his writing around the way private and public interests come into play through political interactions while Saco uses the new social spaces created by the internet as a means to investigate the ramifications for democracy.

The role of space and social interaction is central to both texts. Barber views the physical location of a citizen as an inherent part of strong democracy.1 This physical proximity to other citizens allows for the types of meaningful conversations that he outlines earlier in the book to occur. For Barber strong democracy is, in part, defined by the ability to take private interests and reformulate them as movements toward a communal goal.2

In a similar vein, Saco’s Cybering Democracy investigates the role of the internet in politics through the lense of physical and socially constructed space. Saco relates the difficulties that faced the Founding Fathers to a similar challenge that is facing modern American politics. This problem is one of scale and specifically how to bring worthwhile and meaningful interaction to a geographically and culturally diverse set of citizens. The internet provides a new construction of social space and the challenge is to find a definition of politics that scales to this level.

These two conceptions of space as it relates to politics are important because of the ways in which they acknowledge the role of technology but ultimately priviledge the existing forms of political communication and participation. For example, Barber acknowledges the need for people to connect with others who share similar concerns and political priorities, but he views this as needing to happen on the physically local level where people can have the face-to-face interactions he sees as foundational to democracy.3

What neither writer addresses is the role that technology and the internet can play in transforming these physically local interactions into ideologyically local experiences. The technological advancements of the last 18 months (i.e. the rapid rise of Twitter and WordPress) have made helped make it possible for a greater number of people to communicate across geographic boundaries and find and communicate with people who share similar political concerns.

Thus, citizens are no longer confined to the political movements that are present in their city or their neighborhood. People can now communicate and organize around issues that are important to them but may be insignificant in their immediate locality. What remains to be investigated is whether this results in significant political engagement. Are people taking advantage of these technologies or are they still in the realm of the potential?

In part this issue is left unaddressed by Barber and Saco because many of the developments that will be central to this thesis have occurred in the past 18 months. Barber’s Strong Democracy was originally published in the 1980s, when computers were just starting to become devices available to the general public. Even Saco’s far more recent text was published a full seven years ago, before two of the central technologies, WordPress and Twitter, were even invented.

The theoretical concepts of political communities and participation outlined by Barber and Saco can, and arguably should be, applied to the recent advances in web technologies.

The writings of many leaders in the technology industry will help contextualize the theories of Barber and Saco’s works. Central to this literature are texts by software developers, community managers, and journalism professors.

While some politicians have struggled to adapt their grassroots organizations to the internet, software developers in large part have succeeded in creating passionate and thriving communities among the users of their products. In addition, professors like Clay Shirky are in a unique position in that they must consider how to adapt communication to the newest technological advances.

Jono Bacon’s The Art of Community and Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody will inform the investigation of communities and organizations that are created by online communication. These are communities that rely heavily upon technologies like Twitter and WordPress. Important to this analysis is the fact that both of these texts were published this year which allows for a more recent investigation of technology and politics to be undertaken.

Bacon was the long time community manager of one of the more successful open source operating systems and inarguably succeeded in helping to stimulate an active and engaged community around a desire to create a better user experience.

Shirky, on the other hand, is a professor at New York University’s graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program and has written extensively about the power of the web to transform communities and communication. Here Comes Everybody attempts to define how organizations will function in an age when the participants no longer require the complex hierarchical organizational structure that large scale communities in the past have required.

Each author provides a unique perspective on communities created through web communication and will provide important background examples to clarify just how politically active and affective the communities can be.

Crowd wisdom and politics

Finally, James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds provides a perspective on how these communities could be leveraged for specific actions within society. While not expressly political nor technological, Surowiecki’s text nevertheless provides an interesting model onto which these technologies can be grafted.

The central premise to this book is that a crowd of people with a diversity of opinion whose independent and decentralized actions are aggregated together can frequently arrive at conclusions that are better than those of the smartest individual in the group.4 Surowiecki provides a model that is becoming increasingly relevant as technologies are becoming more widespread and communication shifts more toward a web-first mindset. As more people become engaged with these technologies, Surowiecki’s notion of the wise crowd becomes even more important.

The final book that will bridge the gap between the political and technological fields may at first appear to be one that is inherently disconnected from discussions of modern politics and technology. While it was written in the 4th-century BCE Aristotle’s The Politics is still relevant for its discussion of man’s place in political society.

Aristotle’s notion of man as an inherently political animal is important to a discussion concerning the political potential of technology.5 If man’s ultimate fulfillment is to be found in politics then these tools which make up part of everyday communication will carry a far greater potential if they are to be leveraged for political movement.

Furthermore, it provides a theoretical backdrop from which to analyze the actions that will come out of the communities described by Shirky and Bacon. The theoretical nature of Aristotle’s writings means that his views concerning the formation of political societies and associations of men can still be used to understand a cultural context that is far removed from that of Ancient Greece.

In addition, part of Aristotle’s notion of political society is remarkably similar to Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds. In Book 3 of The Politics Aristotle writes that:

The many, of whom none is individually an excellent man, nevertheless can when joined together be better–not as individuals but all together–than those [who are best].6

Ultimately Aristotle’s writing on political society and his views on the results of increasing participation will provide an important historical context from which the arguments of the more recent writers can be better understood.

The gap in current literature

What none of these authors do is expressly discuss the political potentials of these new technologies. Barber and Saco take a very preliminary look at the role of technological communication in relation to politics, but even Saco was writing only four years after the founding of Google and before the invention of such technologies as Gmail, WordPress, and Twitter.

Furthermore, there is currently a gap between the two bodies of literature: the types of political communities that are possible using these technologies have yet to be seriously investigated.

On the one hand, Barber and Saco discuss politics in terms of very general concerns over technology and the internet. While Saco writes of the internet fairly extensively, her book Cybering Democracy was still published when the internet was in its infancy. On the other hand, writers like Shirky and Bacon deal directly with the types of organizations and communities that can be created online but they do not do so from an expressly political standpoint. What is lacking is any substantive discussion concerning what types of political communities can be created by utilizing the communication tools that have matured greatly over the past 18 months.

In addition, if the technology is going to be even remotely useful politically then the leaders of technology need to be brought into an inherently political dicussion. They are ultimately the ones who understand the tools most completely and it is through their writings and observations that the true political potential of the technology can be investigated.

Too often technology is relegated to the sidelines and thought of as something that is purely consumerist and disposable. What must be elucidated is that there is a significant portion of software developers and technology companies that see themselves as changing the world. The millions of users actively engaging with their communication software seem to provide a compelling argument that the developers are stimulating real change.

Furthermore, while they may not explicitly say it, many companies are working on changing the world in a distinctly political manner. Companies like Twitter and Automattic, the parent company behind WordPress, are working to provide a platform that gives voice to millions of people worldwide. This puts the technology and the software at the very center of a potentially powerful political community.

We are at a tipping point in terms of the political potential of these technologies. Past political writings, such as Barber’s and Saco’s, have broadly discussed technology in its role as a supplement to things like traditional community organizing and voter registration drives. There is a potential within these technologies to dramatically redefine political participation and participants that is worth investigating. Ultimately, it is worth researching whether these technologies are providing for a paradigm shift in United States politics or whether they are simply creating new means of communication around the traditional political structures of the American political system.

Content determines form

To take advantage of the technologies that are the focus of my thesis I aim to craft a special section of this site for the project and to present the content online and more importantly, online only.

The project will include an introduction and conclusion that will provide unity to 3 individual essays, each of 3,000 words, that will focus on specific aspects of communication on the web.

These 3 aspects will be:

Why post only online?

While a print product is possible a project produced specifically for the web has the potential to be far more powerful, relevant, and contextual than anything that can be done with the same project in print.

First, the ability to link to sources is a tremendous advantage to writing online. The reality is that many readers do not read footnotes; thus, those readers are not seeing the citations and sources that make up an integral part of any lengthy piece. Writing for the web allows these sources to be placed directly in the text by linking to them. Since many of my sources are available online this means that I will be able to direct readers to the original.

The context of any source is key, particularly in a project that will be over 9,000 words. What better way to provide that context than to rely upon something as simple as clicking?

Second, the print medium inherently does not handle non-print sources very well. Videos, podcasts, and other non-print forms of sources must be manually typed in a browser. It is fairly safe to assume that academic papers which reference a video most likely do not succeed in having the reader actually view that video in its entirety. The reality is that there is too much friction involved in having to go to a computer, type in an address carefully, and then watch the video. Posting content online allows for these other forms of media to be placed inline with the text which will be important for my project as I plan on referencing a significant number of video and audio sources.

The greater context and likelihood of viewing sources means that the project will more readily accomplish the goal of sources: acting as a filter of wider information sets. Scott Karp writes of the reading experience online:

When I read online, I constantly follow links from one item to the next, often forgetting where I started. Sometimes I backtrack to one content “node” and jump off in different directions. There are nodes that I come back to repeatedly, like TechMeme and Google, only to start down new branches of the network.

This type of jumping from node to node is exactly the type of curiosity and engagement that I would hope to stimulate. It is certainly valuable for people to sit down and read a 1000+ word piece from beginning to end. However, it is also a tremendous learning experience if that original piece motivates a series of links that lead the reader through an exploration of the topic that they would not have otherwise experienced. That exploration through a series of links is an experience that only the web can provide.

Let the community in

By posting this project online there is the potential to greatly open up involvement from those outside of the traditional Whitman community. A piece as long as this thesis will truly gain traction in the hands of the readers. By expanding the pool of potential readers and participants voices and critiques that would not otherwise be heard can be brought in.

This project will allow others to comment on the pieces outlined above. It will provide a source that others can link to should they feel compelled.

The printing press, is it still the best we can do?

The printing press, is it still the best we can do?

Finally, it would be hypocritical to be writing about the political potential of web communication only to have the finished product take the form of print, a style of communication that has existed for the last 500 years.

The format of a project should reflect the claims made within. By creating a print product as the end result the advocacy of a shift in political participation would ring hollow; instead, those claims would be invalidated by proving that print communication is still the dominant force and that the web is merely an afterthought.

The reality is that the communication on the web happens faster, reaches more readers, and is inarguably the future of writing. Most importantly, the maturation of online publishing tools represents the biggest paradigm shift in publishing since the creation of the printing press in the 15th-century.

This is a shift in technologies that many media outlets have already begun to realize, working toward an expansion of political coverage and organization. In many ways publishing on the web represents the fulfillment of the political process. It is the ability to speak to a potential audience of millions and to leave open the possibility of those readers commenting and in some sense creating the finished product.

Every idea and thesis is simply one viewpoint. A singular viewpoint necessitates the engagement of others in discourse around that topic. Without a web component this interaction with the final product would be confined to a minimal audience within the existing Whitman College community. Posting the project online engages more opinions and viewpoints with the work and creates a community that incorporates greater diversity.

Ultimately, Andrew Sullivan says it best when he writes of publishing online:

It was obvious from the start that it was revolutionary. Every writer since the printing press has longed for a means to publish himself and reach—instantly—any reader on Earth.

The technology exists to bring any reader on Earth into our political discussions, the question is: will we use it?

Let’s test the medium

Finally, many of the points above argue that the web is truly capable of creating and organizing meaningful political interactions. From my own personal experience tremendous things are created through common interests and online communication but why not put these claims to the test?

If this thesis is to make the claim that the paradigm shift of online communication opens up avenues of political participation that could not have previously been conceivable then why not test that out?

Ultimately publishing this thesis online, spreading the word about it online, and receiving feedback from the rest of the online community would provide a tremendous litmus test for the claims made within.

Perhaps this would do nothing more that create passing interest among a few people.

Perhaps the project would generate interest from professors and students from other universities.

Perhaps it would stimulate moments of reflection in those students taking similar courses.

Most importantly, perhaps it would garner such a wide range of readers that my arguments are challenged in a publicly accessible forum and are contested in such a way that they are pushed, developed, and reconsidered to give a better picture of the political potential of communication on the web.

Update –

In addition to the above links and embedded sources I have posted the initial bibliography of sources and it is available for download. While not all of these sources made it into this proposal due to the space restrictions of the assignment they will nonetheless greatly inform the discussion of political participation and online technology in my thesis.

  1. Barber, Benjamin R. Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. 267
  2. Barber, 119.
  3. Barber, 267-270.
  4. Surowiecki, James. The Wisdom of Crowds. New York: Doubleday, 2004. 10
  5. Aristotle. The Politics. Translated by Carnes Lord. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985. 35
  6. Aristotle, 101


WWWilly says:

Great blog design! Very clever.

-W3 &;-)

@rohanjay says:

Excellent design! Tumblr template sometime? I’d pay for that…

ben smithson says:

I like your nod to the typewriter. Nice.

Anu Nigam says:

Great post Andrew. Since I’m in Silicon Valley it’s nice to get a different perspective. I’m interested to know how younger people like you consume news. How do you start your day? I get the sense it is different then older people. I don’t want to bias you, but I’d like to hear about that.


Andrew says:

Hi Anu. Thanks for the comment. The way I structure my consumption of information is something that I’ve been working on as a blog post for a while now so stay tuned, there should be a post on that coming soon.

Susanne says:

Initially I thought the typewriter was a nice touch but in practice I found it made your piece very hard to read and ironically seems to highlight the drawbacks to a web-only thesis. That said, the project certainly has merit. One challenge you will face will be finding the right balance between design possibilities and content requirements. More comments coming to you via email.

Andrew says:

Thanks for the comment Susanne. I definitely recognize that while many liked the typewriter view it may not work for everyone. I wanted to try it as an experiment and also as a bit of an ironic nod to the content that I am proposing.

It was also something that I put together in the afternoon after writing the prospectus. Obviously the design for the finished product will have far more time put into it as I’ll have half of the semester to plan and execute it. Hopefully with that extra time I’ll be able to find something that works for everyone.

Part of the final design will be to keep the focus on the content. Any great design doesn’t detract from the content. Perhaps with this it went a little too far but the feedback from this post will definitely help come up with a final design that works. Thanks again!

[…] awareness of how other people interpret your communication skills. Offered just in paper form, pieces of Andrew Spittle’s senior thesis would gather a readership of his professors, close friends and family. On the web, his potential […]

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