A Criticism of Relying on Usenet Newsgroups in Political Communication Research

Some posts on twitter from VincentR, ngeidner and me has inspired me to post a section from a response paper (slightly edited) I wrote for a course earlier this year. Maybe this will motivate me to start posting regularly again…we’ll see. Anyway, here are my thoughts:

I have a bone to pick with using Usenet newsgroups as the focal sample representing online discussion, as in Davis (2005), Papacharissi (2004), and Wilhelm (2000). During the early days of the Internet UUCP (later Usenet) was a revolutionary technology that facilitated unmoderated peer-to-peer asynchronous discussion. In the last decade as the technology stagnated, it has hardly been a burgeoning, exemplary place for discussion. When I started working in the computer industry (1994) Usenet was nearly as big a draw to the Internet as the worldwide-web (WWW) and e-mail.

As web browsers and markup languages rapidly evolved, Usenet stayed static, and the number customers interested in Usenet software declined. Indeed, as of 2000 the number of Usenet subscribers was declining, despite increased traffic. The traffic increase came because of the alt.binaries subgroups, which included mainly pornography and pirated software. As technology such as DVDs, MP3s, and higher capacity hard drives diffused, Usenet became an increasingly popular place to distribute this type of data because it was a decentralized, archived space. This development, in turn, caused the cost of maintaining a Usenet server to increase exponentially. Because fewer users were interested in logging in, many Internet Service Providers began to discontinue the free service for users by 2000, causing a new specialized Usenet web application market to form. Google joined this market but, like many new Usenet servers, filtered out a large number of groups and messages.

In sum, the decline of Usenet makes it an inappropriate place to generalize findings about mainstream online political discussion. Usenet has become a specialized technology that does not attract regular Internet users. This argument may not apply to Davis and Wilhelm because their samples come from the mid-to-late nineties, while Papacharissi’s analysis is undated. But, the makeup of Internet users has changed from 1996 to the present day (Rogers, 2001). There is evidence that shows the mid-nineties were more likely to be affluent, white, and male. While these gaps have subsided somewhat with time, these early samples may have problems with generalizability because of the specialized makeup of the samples.

In addition to the generalizability problems with Usenet, I believe it is also not exemplary of a meaningful online discussion forum.  Davis does a good job discussing alternative forums of asynchronous online discussion including mailing lists and blogging. There are also many web forums as well as synchronous chat rooms. None of the scholars here discuss the importance of users feeling like they belong to the online group in which they are participating (Nick Geidner’s “perceived network connection”?). I believe focusing on connectedness in an analysis of listserves or chatrooms may lead to very different results compared with Usenet. I also think connectedness will impact the dependent variables that scholars this week are studying. It is true there is evidence that indicates some online forums, such as blogs, attract an ideologically polarized audience that don’t meet a deliberative norm of equality (Eveland & Dylko, 2007). At the same time, there are many listservs and chatrooms that may enter into political discussions but are not explicitly political groups. In the later cases, there is a high chance of variability in political opinion.

References

Davis, R. (2005). Politics online: Blogs, chatrooms, and discussion groups in American democracy. New York: Routledge.

Eveland, W. P., Jr., & Dylko, I. (2007). Reading political blogs during the 2004 election campaign: Correlates and political consequences. In M. Tremayne (Ed.), Blogging, citizenship and the future of media (pp. 105-126). New York: Routledge.

Papacharissi, Z. (2004). Democracy online: Civility, politeness, and the democratic potential of online political discussion groups. New Media & Society, 6, 259-283.

Pegoraro, R. (2000, February 4). Is Usenet becoming yesterday’s news? The Washington Post, p. E01.

Wilhelm, A. G. (2000). Democracy in the digital age. New York: Routledge.

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