oD Blog

Effective blogging in a digital commons

Three questions are important to us. First and foremost, who is the content or knowledge for? Which conversations is it already part of? How can the wider audience be built for that conversation most effectively?

Rosemary Bechler
12 May 2014

We had just sent out this year’s Call for Editorial Partnerships 2014, when Stuart White, longtime friend of our OurKingdom section, invited us to participate in a panel discussion at the Department of Politics and International Relations in Oxford on how politics academics might blog most effectively.

This was too good an opportunity to miss - to meet potential new guest editors for our front page, canvass longer term partnerships bringing fresh vocabularies to openDemocracy readers worldwide, and explain how we set about building wider audiences for people’s ideas.

I was also attracted by the opportunity to back this up with a more in-depth set of arguments about what I think we are trying to do at openDemocracy, since the minute you pose the question about effective blogging for politics academics or indeed anyone else, we find ourselves asking three further questions that are important to us: 

  • - First and foremost, who is the content or knowledge for?
  • - Which conversations is it already part of?-       
  • - How can the wider audience be built for that conversation most effectively?

This is the case, even if your answer is, “I want people to know about my research. The audience is a cross-section of people in my field, and the kind of conversation I would like is around the cutting edge of recent developments in my subject.” Of course, you are less likely to turn to openDemocracy for such a purpose, but even in this case, I might well try and persuade you not to underestimate the curiosity and staying power of some of our readers.  

There is an enormous attraction for people who are reasonably confident in their own spheres of influence, in being allowed to overhear genuine and frank discussion between experts over some area of mutual passion that is outside their immediate ken. (I think of Cathy and Heathcliff with their noses pressed up against the windows of Thrushcross Grange in Wuthering Heights, as a paradigmatic opening move in an education for life, and, of course, in the necessary overcoming of the inequalities involved – though this was certainly not the intention of those being overheard.)

And before we move on, note the emphasis on ‘conversation’ even in this case – a root concept, I think, for really effective blogging, and one we will come back to.

You are only really likely to turn to openDemocracy, however, if you are not only looking for an audience, but interested in involving yourself in a certain type of mutual empowerment – or at least the end of the spectrum helpfully referred to by Stuart White in his invitation Shall we blog?, as ‘the democratic model of impact’. Hence our commitment to editorial independence, and also our interest from the outset in exploring the future demos being constructed through transnational if not global conversation.

As Stuart articulates it rather well, we see ourselves as directing our efforts towards ‘the citizenry in whom sovereignty properly resides’ and we are most concerned about our impact as, ‘a matter of contribution to a public debate’.

But what kind of debate? Not, for me, the stagy cockfights prevalent to such vacuous effect in the bubble of Westminster politics, where you sit back, rather as my uncle used to do with a curling lip to watch the wrestling, waiting to see who has been set up to fell whom.  These postures belong to what I think of as a politics of impotence, a spectator sport still far too prevalent in comment spaces on the net.

But if you want to attract readers who will sit forward to make up their own minds and help resolve problems, there can be few better ways of doing this than to offer nuanced opposing perspectives on the same subject, inviting people to participate in that most sophisticated and egalitarian of human inventions – a genuine conversation.

Stuart, I see, recommends the debate format as a way for bloggers to cooperate in order to attract a wider audience.  Such a commitment has important repercussions. As an editorial team, we don’t pretend to be neutral about the issues we publish on. We encourage each other to put our own voices into the debate but in a fashion that asks for responses and counter-argument, so that our readers can make up their own minds. This is at the heart of our method.

We were taught to do this by the dual baptism that launched and in a way named us when we launched in 2001: 9/11 which turned openDemocracy into 24/7 net publishing followed by preparations for and instigation of the Iraq war. We simply became the platform that our diverse users from around the world very much needed at the time, and I think that principle of being open to the users and the debates that are needed has stood us in good stead ever since. It helped us to get things the right way around for what I’m hoping to persuade you may be an era of communication of an elusive new type – that is, the Internet of Relationships.

Now of course, one might be committed to open-minded and nuanced debate in all sorts of ways, and for many different reasons. Certainly openDemocracy editors and everyone else who works there have different and also changing reasons for their commitment. At the moment, given my responsibilities for our pages on Can Europe make it? – I am particularly exercised by Europe’s democratic deficit in the run-up to the Euro-elections, and how this has paved the way for new vulnerabilities to populism as well as arbitrary exercises in power – in short, to a dangerous disconnect between politics and the real, multicultural world.

If I had to come up with one defence of high quality, pluralist debate right now, I would say that we need it to counter the resurgent rediscovery in so many countries of a monocultural National Us, acquiesced in if not stoked up by increasingly insecure political classes.

But you may have a much more specific democratic deficit in mind. If, for example, I was involved in some of the excellent research that goes on in Oxford into immigration, or climate change, or just scientific research in general – I think I would be particularly keen on finding ways of helping to form and encourage literate publics capable of digging deeper and of pushing back more determinedly against the attitudes and assumptions widely available.

And here I’m not talking about pushing back against state bureaucracy or corporate power, or low levels of government accountability or even low levels of public influence on decision-making - all very relevant to politics today - but also against the concentrated media power that is already deployed in pretty determined conversations of their own in all the above fields, often to rather deleterious effect.

Can there be any doubt that a better-informed citizenry should make it much more difficult for elected politicians to play fast and loose with the facts, or claim privileged access to knowledge? Or that the unelected experts on whom they rely, had they to answer to such demanding publics, would delude themselves less that public policy can be based on a narrow rationality, or that politics as an arena for emotion and intelligence could ever be pushed to one side?

But beyond that, those of us interested in democracy must surely have a common interest in the culture of deliberation and contestation in our societies and the health of that culture.  We need much more sophisticated and diverse publics who want to have some say, who want in – we might say that we are looking for engaged communities of interest.

So now, here we are at openDemocracy, getting more ambitious by the minute.  Now we don’t just want bigger audiences for a transnational conversation, audiences who are not trapped inside national silos etc. etc. - but we also want them to be engaged and literate and able to fight off the blandishments of consumer capitalism… in short empowered, at a time when all the trends seem to point in another direction. Surely, we may as well all pack up and go home to our respective allotments now!?

But I would like to be the bearer of some good news – of something that I think tips the balance in favour of openDemocracy. This is not in the first instance a matter of commitment, but something rather in-built into the net that I would refer to as the democratic advantages of the digital commons.

Respect for this and its effects, I would argue, is crucial for effective political blogging today. It is why indeed, after more than a decade of publishing, we have begun to refer to oD as in itself, a digital commons.

Why so?  This is not just because the vast majority of our archive of over 25,000 articles were contributed for free, although I sometimes think that we don’t stop for long enough to consider the sheer generosity and desire to share that is implicit in that gifting for over a decade. Maybe it has taken until now in such neoliberal times, for a Jeremy Rifkin to appear with another phrase for sharing in his latest book, The Zero Marginal Cost Society – he calls it “laterally scaled intelligence” – that helps us to perceive it not only for the miracle and the obligation that it is, but also the harbinger of a digital era of collaboration to come.

It was a big step forward for us in 2005 under the guidance of Tony Curzon Price when we committed ourselves to creative commons licensing, which meant that we undertook to lock pieces open for distribution and sharing as our contribution to the complex social process of building a commons. We decided that this was more important to us than what we can make from a unit of writing (or indeed what our authors could), and set out to experiment in the many better ways there are of sharing, as opposed to selling, knowledge on the net.

Of course, this immediately slaps you up against the competitive instincts of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), and all the ramifications of the commodification of knowledge exclusive ownership entails.  Since that time, we have been working out the full implications of that decision. And that – we are beginning to realize – is to set out on a very long journey indeed, a journey in which everything gradually changes – your relationships, your product and your priorities.

Again I am not just thinking about the fact that openDemocracy now has to take personally some of the vaster challenges, such as the requirement to defend the public sphere and network neutrality against, for example, the corporate monopolisation of social networking. Nor is it just corporate capture which is threatening an emergent collaborative commons in this historic battle. What about the challenge to our democracies posed by vested state interest in the application of data mining and processing techniques, releasing a potential for sheer revenue maximization, let alone arbitrary and suspicious power over people, that brings states into natural alliance with oligopolies in finance, energy, defence, media and, of course, IPR?

But I’m also talking here about the minutiae of our everyday practice. If you make the shift from placing the value of intellectual property in distribution rather than in exclusive ownership, then this gives you a different interest in requests to republish, referral statistics, twitter recommendations, Reddit successes and the unusual national mix of readers we might glean for our partners from Google Analytics. 

When we are accused, as we very occasionally are, of undermining the profitable commodification of knowledge, it is worth remembering just how aggressive IPR has become in its inexorable rise during the digital era, and that all the practises we hold most dear at openDemocracy – political debate, education, research, artistic expression – were not so long ago protected by provisions for ‘fair use’.

These were, after all, precisely the provisions that restricted monopoly in the American constitution, in which it was fully recognised that creativity and innovation must depend on the use, criticism, supplementation and consideration of previous works.

Sometimes it feels as if you are swimming against the current. You will want to circumvent the aggregative power of Facebook which invites you to winkle out your best articles from its debating context to maximize your numbers of ‘likes’. You don’t wish to encourage your readers to click ‘best’ comment in a way which immediately throws any conversation flow permanently askew. And the habit of attributing every half thought to a colleague in academic papers seems far-removed from having reader empowerment as its aim. It belongs to a career structure and indeed an entire mode of production that is no longer your world – though it is one with which you very much wish to collaborate.

On other occasions, the attempt to contribute to a healthy culture of contestation feels as if it is engulfed in a war against the very infrastructures and manners of collaboration – we could call it a war against civility – in which Al Qaeda and trolling are just two of the latest weapons in the armoury of the other side, both curiously complicit to the same end.

But if it has taken us a while to begin to realise the full scale of our ‘commoning’ commitment – Dan Hind hosts our latest foray here - the democratic advantages of this ‘brave new horizontal world’ are now pretty well irresistible.

Let’s just list a few of them. The aforementioned network neutrality underpins a nondiscriminatory, open, universal communications commons in which every participant enjoys equal access and inclusion. The net as we have it now favours users in this regard rather than the network providers. Enter what was formerly the audience onto the world stage.

Thanks to the first cyberspace pioneers, moreover, its architecture has always permitted simultaneous, uncoordinated bottom-up, user-driven innovation.  Just think about how this overhauls the basic model for our politics as for our cultures: those one-way hub-to-spoke structures running from a high cost centre to cheap, reception-only systems at the periphery, with no communication between end points and no return loops to send observations back to the core.

Yochai Benkler was the first to notice the importance of conversation in this new form. The internet has allowed us, he said, to replace a public sphere made up of finished statements in a rather passive culture of media consumption, with one that ‘invites us to a conversation’. People can express themselves in combinations, on subjects and in styles that could not pass the filter of marketability in the mass media environment, and they are beginning to do so. I notice Rifkin uses the same notion when he wants to envisage the coming together of a Communications Internet, an Energy Internet and a Logistics Internet to make up the Internet of Things(IoT).  This interoperability, he says, would require traditionally siloed units to, “begin a conversation on how they might each add value to the other in advancing the new vision of an IoT world.”

But I think he ought to rename the Internet of Things, the Internet of Relationships.  What is crucial for all concerned is that sites cluster around communities of interest and become their own authority, with their own filtering for relevance and accreditation, so that each editorial partnership requires its own shape and values.

Conflicting theses can be put to the test in multiple versions, through forking and not through winners and losers.  Ideas can be shared, mixed and remixed. But these communities of interest are built according to the users’ interests and through the creation of trust.  Steven Weber made a useful point in The Success of Open Source (Harvard UP, 2004), comparing open source to modern religious communities, “ It is the leader who is dependent on the followers more than the other way around… the primary route to failure for them is to be unresponsive to their followers.”

Procuring attention in the networked environment is more dependent on being interesting for an engaged group of people, than it is in the moderate entertainment or infotainment of large numbers of the weakly engaged which constitutes mass media success. (Here, by the way, in the production of good will through the building up of social Capital, I hope we may begin to see the glimmer of an answer to the populist virus in our midst and its politics of impotence.)

Effective blogging

So now perhaps we are in a better position to talk about effective blogging within the particular eco-system which is the net. Blogging is a conversational mode at its best, and voice is crucially important, both to create interest and to elicit trust. People want to know what motivates you and will draw their own conclusions.

That’s one reason why we always tell partners that we can’t just deliver them a wider audience. For sustained impact, we can only grow you an audience from your own inner circle of enthusiasts. This set may consist only of you, but that is a beginning! Communities have to be built in widening concentric circles around a core enthusiasm, which means that there is not much point in making the effort reluctantly. You have to want that conversation.

Moreover it is a good rule of thumb, amongst so much plenty, to consider that you are always more dependent on your users than they are likely to be on you – this can be transformative in many different ways, including the need to translate out what one has to say in a way that will be accessible and enjoyable.

Of course we are at the first stage, which might be a long one, of what Rifkin calls a “hybrid economy, part capitalist market and part Collaborative Commons”, and this means that different forms of authority co-exist on the net, and new subject-subject relations dwell alongside the older subject-object forms. Hence for example, the slagging off culture that prevails in so many comments spaces. Here are some of the more resentful members of those former audiences cutting their baby teeth on the new possibilities for voice, and very irritating it is for everyone else while this stage persists.

Nevertheless, it is already obvious that however galling, this too is only a stage in the development of a new and egalitarian hive of activity in which those who read you or ‘follow’ you probably like you to know that they already realize that you might need them more than they do you. To put it simply, you have to make yourself useful.

We at openDemocracy are beginning to get used to this. Over the last three years, we have been adapting ourselves to an important shift in the way we try and secure the visibility they deserve for those involved. There is much to be done, but we are finding our feet. While in most months, our front page continues to be the most viewed page, and the editorial highlights that foreground our recommendations are still a good editorial tool - in terms of the way in which an ever-increasing number of articles are being shared and accessed, the front page has declined quite significantly.

What has taken its place is social media, driving people to different parts of the site through multifarious sources.  Total visits are up by 120% over the last three years and at present nearly 20% of our referrals come from Facebook and Twitter, with Facebook on mobile devices a particular area of growth. Our sections together with our main site special projects, now each with their own front page, social media promotion and Facebook page, have hugely grown - our oldest section, Our Kingdom, has 150% more visitors per month than it did in 2011, whilst monthly visits to openSecurity have increased by over 500%.

So what we are doing successfully is not telling people what to read in some centralized fashion, but growing hubs, centres of interest, with their own audiences on openDemocracy. This is a set of diverse, but altogether longer-term relationships than the front page and newsletter/RSS feed-based impact we were providing as recently as 2010, when both together were responsible for 40% of the page views of our most viewed articles.

We have always aspired to be an open and pluralist website, responsive to our active and energetic contributors and readers, and now it seems that we are beginning to succeed. 

And my advice to prospective bloggers? The new culture that is developing in the digital commons is transnational, more egalitarian, more transparent to its users, less deferential, more diverse and above all, self-authored. But the water is warm: do come on in!

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