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Self-Segregation and Polarization among Blog Readers

- July 1, 2008

Henry, Eric Lawrence, and I have just finished a working paper that analyzes the first decent dataset of blog readers. The paper is here on SSRN or here, ungated.

The paper is motivated by normative questions about whether blogs facilitate deliberation and participation. We analyze this 2006 survey, in which about 15,000 respondents were asked whether they read blogs and which blogs they read. Some findings:

* 34% of respondents said they read a blog. 14% of respondents named a political blog.

* Political blog readers are, unsurprisingly, more educated, more partisan, and more interested in politics. These traits help give rise to the other findings described below.

* Almost all political blog readers read only blogs from one side of the political spectrum. Only 6% of political blog readers named both left and right blogs. Thus, most blog readers are “carnivores” rather than “omnivores”: they like partisan red meat, as it were. This is the self-segregation that the paper discusses.

* There is almost no overlap in the ideological orientation of readers of left- and right-wing blogs. Below is Figure 6 from the paper, mapping the ideologies of readers of some prominent blogs. The figure presents “violin plots.” The shape of the violins corresponds to where people are located on this measure of ideology. The white dots are the medians. Readers of the left-wing blogs are clustered on the lefthand side. Readers of right-wing blogs are on the opposite side. This is the polarization that the paper discusses.


* Blog readers are more likely to participate in politics than are people who don’t read blogs. Left-wing blog readers are more participatory than right-wing blog readers. We speculate that left-wing blogs have more fully embraced the tasks of social movements, thereby seeking to mobilize their readers.

These survey data do not allow us to make causal claims, but determining causation is is not the point of the paper. Instead, we use the observed patterns of association to draw implications for the normative value of political blogs. For most people, reading political blogs does not lead to deliberation — that is, to an exchange across partisan or ideological lines. People mainly inhabit “comforting cocoons of cognitive consonance.” But reading blogs may facilitate other normatively valuable behaviors, such as participation. Indeed, blogs like the Daily Kos explicitly want to stimulate participation more than deliberation (see Henry’s previous post).

This is a working paper, and suggestions are welcome.

(See also Henry’s post at Crooked Timber.)