Finally something like this. A political scientist takes a serious and systematic quantitative look on the question of the Internet and political participation.
His motivation: "Popular enthusiasm for technology has made sober appraisal of the Internet's complicated political effects more difficult."
Couldn't agree with him more. Ingrid Erickson & I recently mapped the close history of the concept "public sphere" within socsci and STS; see the blog entry and our working paper online @the Fordham University McGannon Center series. The optimistic undertone can be found in most articles discussing the Internet and its political potential. Still, the lack of empirical analyses is evident, especially of those looking beyond networked social movements as 'counter public spheres'.
Hindman quite rightly points out an important distinction about democratization (as a characteristics / potential of the Internet) as either normative or descriptive. It's incredible how often the normativeness lurks into research, without the researcher / author explicitly acknowledging it (having read through quite a few abstracts of related recent research, I know now it's not only me committing this sin of opaqueness. I bet the Habermasian allure of normative ideas and ideals gives many of us a sense of purpose). But ideals can only be applied when we observe, describe and understand what's going on right now; what our starting point in the process towards that desired state of affairs is.
Hindman also notes several factors that should, at the outset, make any big thinkers of Internet utopias a little wary. The digital divide is an undeniable fact, still. Direct (political or any other) speech in the internet doesn't mean that the speaker is being heard (by peers, political elites). Gatekeepers of information -- that were thought to hinder plurality of voices heard via old media -- exist in online communication as well.
Hindman presents several cases through which he aims to gather understanding of the potential of Internet-based democratization, in descriptive terms. His operationalisation of the issue includes analyses of 'site visibility', search engines, online concentration, and the characteristics of political blogs.
I can't claim I understand all methodological solutions (especially the metrix for link structures are beyond my current capabilities) but the takeaways are clear. An interesting and far reaching theory developed by Hindman & collaborators is 'Googlearchy', or, 'the rule of the most heavily linked'. This means that the more links to a site, the more easy to find and thus visible the site; that there is a 'niche dominance' so that a small portion of sites of any online community dominate; and that this niche dominance is self-perpetuating (more links attract more links...) As for online concentration, Hindman observes that the main top 10 news sources are even more concentrated online than in traditional media (and, at the same time, certain tiny online outlets receive proportionally substantial attention) -- but the middle-class outlets have experienced decline. And those political bloggers? It seems that the 'ordinary citizen' as political blogger with a substantive following is an oxymoron. The scene seems to be somewhat dominated by those well-educated and established middle-class white males (have I heard this one before?)
Conclusion: Hindman parallels participation in politics to participation in e-commerce. The infrastructure of participation may alter the patterns of who's participating and how. Surely the fantastic examples of political activities via online and mobile media are also clear. And Hindman is quick to note that the Internet has many positive applications and implications to us ordinary citizens, including fundraising and easy mobilising. At the same time, he clearly shows that many of the (academic) normative debates have gone too far ahead of empirical evidence.
Salute to Hindman. There is nothing wrong with normativeness and optimism, but it's a fixation of mine to resist the 'evident' discourses and slogans. The next steps following Hiondman's intervention should include more analyses, and more qualitative studies, on people's experiences of the realities and expectations of political participation in today's multimedia environment. Politics, democratisation -- or participation, as I argue in this McGannon Center working paper -- can take many different forms.