18 July 2008

Lurching Out of the Basement

Occasionally I still like to crack wise to clients and potential clients about my role in social media, and explain to them that I deal with the people who "live in their parents' basements, wear pajamas and eat cheetos all day, writing rants on the internet." It usually brings a chuckle and then I explain to them that the stereotypes couldn't be more wrong.

A few months ago, someone flipped a switch in corporate America. Mommybloggers are suddenly the most awesome juggernaut of marketing prowess in human history. Now the head of the Democratic National Committee and essentially every Democratic politician in the country decides to genuflect before the bottomless ATM we call the liberal blogosphere. Not to be outdone, conservative political types are organizing online and the traditional political media takes notice.

This didn't happen overnight. These conferences have been happening for years. It's just that now people are noticing. And frankly, there are still a lot of people out there who are still trying to figure them out. For example, there's this piece on political blogs from the LA Times written by two professors from George Washington University:
Political blog readers tend to read just a few blogs. About 40% of them named only one political blog they regularly visit, and 90% said they read four or fewer blogs.

They also tend to visit blogs that share their viewpoint. Think of such blogs as their red meat. Indeed, 94% read only blogs on one side of the ideological spectrum, with 90% of liberals and 90% of conservatives sticking to like-minded blogs. Self-proclaimed "moderates" don't blog shop either, with 89% exclusively reading either liberal or conservative blogs.

To determine just how polarized blog readers are, we constructed a measure of political ideology by drawing on blog readers' attitudes toward stem cell research, abortion, the Iraq war, the minimum wage and capital gains tax cuts. Using this measure, we then arrayed respondents from left to right. Here's what we found.

Readers of liberal blogs were clustered at the far left, and readers of conservative blogs were bunched at the far right. There was little, if any, overlap between them on these issues. The two sides have less in common politically than, say, liberals who watch PBS and conservatives who watch Fox News.
The GW study strikes me in some ways as an outlier. First, the survey took place in 2006, and in blogosphere time that's ages ago, and my gut says things have changed considerably in that time. In my experience those who read blogs read many more than four regularly. And while many readers have a clear world view, they are more than willing to read blogs from other points of view - if for no other reason than to have something to complain about.

I also found it interesting that the bloggers on the left asserted that their positions on the issues the GW professors selected were consistent with "mainstream" views. "Extreme" is in the eye of the beholder, and I think those sorts of statements add to the stereotypes we see toward bloggers.

The issue to be wary of here is that in many ways these communities are converging. Perhaps not political left and political right, but even there you'll see situations where the two communities will work together on issues like net neutrality. Again I'm thinking of mom as that cross-cultural discussion driver - people who have diverse interests and are active in all of them. So much of this is happening online and the technology tools are maturing to the point where it's easy to participate in multiple discusisons in different communities.

So the companies that spend their time shoving brands in front of moms need to be aware that mom voices her concerns about the issues those companies face as much as she talks about the products those companies sell.

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