Anyone interested in how progressives are using the Internet as a vehicle for political and social action should pick up Jessica Clark and Tracy Van Slyke’s accessible, provocative book, Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media (The New Press, 2010). Their micro-analysis of networked progressive activism forms a topographical map of the loosely affiliated groups and individuals who have emerged as a movement in a rapidly changing media environment. Using this map, readers can sort their way through the thicket of interrelated legacy publications, websites, blogs and social networking sites that constitute the hubs and highways of the progressive movement and understand how progressives have been using new media to push back against the political status quo. Especially for those who are engaged in the process, having the opportunity to understand how their efforts are reinforced and influenced by the contributions of those in other portions of the far-flung blogosphere gives purpose and definition to the broader workings of an often ill-defined entity.
The book’s title refers to the volume Echo Chamber by Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph Cappella of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School, which explores how the right built a media juggernaut that has energized conservatives around a well-reinforced group identity. Clark and Van Slyke acknowledge the idea that partisan communication engages people politically and take Jamieson and Cappella one step further: what Rush Limbaugh and Fox News have done for the right, the Internet has done for the left – only more effectively, because the open architecture of the Web meshes with the philosophical predispositions of the left to create a politics of community that leverages the best the Internet has to offer.
The authors combine theory and case study observations with their practical experiences as progressive activists (Van Slyke was once publisher and Clark executive editor of In These Times magazine). Clark and Van Slyke approach technology, journalism and political action as elements of a system, and showcase the way changes in each have facilitated changes in the others. Where a decade ago there was no progressive media strong enough to challenge either mainstream reporting or the right’s well-financed “noise machine,” the middle of the last decade witnessed the evolution of an interconnected media network fostered by emerging technology and the motivational pull of Bush administration policies. Initially, there were big gaps in the network, limiting its reach and effectiveness linking up emerging progressive media portals with established progressive organizations, elected officials, and mainstream media. But, these gaps were filled organically and, in retrospect, quickly, producing a fairly robust progressive infrastructure capable of influencing political outcomes and policy debates.
Rather than approaching the Internet as a singular entity, Clark and Van Slyke identify four overlapping layers of networks that collectively delineate the contours of netroots activism: networked users; self-organized networks; institutional networks; and networks of institutions. Networked users are people like you and me – the tens of millions linked to the online public sphere who use the Internet to read, respond to, recommend or create online content. Self-organized networks are integrated groups of users who proactively come together to create online communities. Institutional networks are either created by organizations that exist in the bricks and mortar world as they look to transition to the Internet world, like NOW, the Sierra Club, and the ACLU, or web-natives like MoveOn.org. Networks of institutions form when online entities use social networking tools to exchange information, coordinate strategies, and amplify messaging. Clark and Van Slyke contend that for online progressives to have maximum impact, they need to integrate all four layers into political action strategies – and they identify places where this integration is taking place and making a difference.
The authors elaborate a set of interrelated approaches they feel could amplify the impact and expand the reach of online progressives, aimed at combating the power of established political and media elites, the stickiness of right-wing messaging, and the assumptions of conventional journalism by drawing on the potential for openness and diversity that flow naturally from the Internet’s decentralized architecture. Clark and Van Slyke use the term “media makers” to describe those who have some influence over the shape of these strategies. It stands in sharp contrast to the companion term “media owners” – used to describe the limited few who had influence over the means of communication in the centralized world of conventional media – and is descriptive of the way progressives have been figuring out ways to unlock the political potential of cyberspace.
There’s a lot to talk about here, a lot of provocative questions to consider about the implications for policy, politics and journalism. The authors quote Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks on the difference the Internet has made: “Before, you had to beg someone to put you on the air,” he said. “In this [Internet] model, you create your own air. We’re broadcasting because we say we are.” Beyond the Echo Chamber is infused with this proactive spirit and sense of potential, grounded in a subtle understanding of networked politics.