This week I'm attending the Internet Law Program cosponsored by Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society. The program is a sweeping review of the legal issues surrounding cyberspace -- some are clearly legal issues (e.g., can France claim jurisdiction over Yahoo! to stop them from selling nazi memorabilia on their auction site) and others are more philosophical in nature (e.g., what is ultimately more restrictive, government directly regulating internet pornography or porn sites regulating themselves?). The legal underpinnings are interesting but I'm not surprised to find that the conversation is much more animated when we are discussing the real world context of this stuff.
In an interesting exchange this afternoon, Professor Charles Nesson led a discussion on the Internet and emergent democracy. The discussion was principally focused on the question of whether the Internet aids democracy (or perhaps is a democracy in and of itself). In typical lawyer fashion, the discussion stalled almost immediately while everyone debated the definition of "democracy." But once Professor Terry Fisher had created a definition framework, the conversation was back on track -- Fisher made the distinction between political democracy (the ability of the people to have a say in political process), economic democracy (the ability of the people to have a say in their ways and means of making money) and semiotic democracy (the ability of the people to influence mass culture).
The more specific question being discussed was whether or not blogging was evidence of the success of the Internet as an inherently democratic medium. I should apologize now -- I can feel myself slipping into academic law school mode writing this, but in reality the discussion turned to pretty concrete questions of the power of the Internet. Even the most idealistic in the crowd did not spend much time defending the idea that the Internet is in and of itself a pure democracy. People quickly agreed that the Internet is a powerful tool of democracy -- because it is relatively cheap, easy, broad, etc., the Internet allows individuals greater leverage than they would likely have had before the Internet. And, as a tool, the Internet can be used to empower each of Professor Fisher's democratic forms: individual political voices (e.g. MoveOn and the MoveOn Primary), individual economic voices (e.g. GetActive as an organizing tool for the AFL-CIO), and individual cultural voices (e.g., HotOrNot and Are You Hot?, the awful TV show spawned from HotOrNot).
But what about blogging? Is it evidence of democracy at work? My strong opinion is that blogging is indeed an excellent example of the democratization of information. Bloggers are turning journalism on its head in some respects. Look at the controversy surrounding my blogging of the Wall Street Journal Conference, when all the professional journalists were under a gag order. Suddenly the only source of information about what Gates and Jobs said at the conference is coming from bloggers, and the professional journalists are forced to cite bloggers as the source for their stories, rather than the speeches they themselves heard. Many bloggers are also able to report on highly specialized fields, so while they may not appeal as broadly as a New York Times, they have the potential of providing much more granular information. And that information has the capacity to have a greater effect on those targeted individuals who read it than the New York Times will have on the general public reading it. VentureBlog isn't intended to speak to the general Internet-surfing public -- it is intended to be read by entrepreneurs and VCs and students of the investment process, most of whom will hopefully find VentureBlog a better source for the sorts of information they find interesting than wading through the technology sections of the Times and the Journal.
The efficiency with which blogs are now spreading points to a discussion earlier in the day led by Professor Lawrence Lessig. Lessig argues that one of the primary forms of regulation in cyberspace is architecture. The way in which a technology is architected can impact the ways in which it will be used or the ways in which it will inhibit certain uses. In discussing blogs, one of the participants made the point that blogs are not much different from good old bulletin boards and therefore the blog hype is unwarranted -- bulletin boards were never considered the great democratizer of media, so why should blogs? The answer is in the architecture. The difference between bulletin boards and blogs is simple: RSS. The architecture of RSS feeds and modern publishing platforms make the dissemination of information created on an individual level potentially massive. It makes it possible for someone like me to became a source of news that is cited in the mainstream media. Thus, to Lessig's point, by virtue of the architecture of modern blog tools, the limitations of bulletin boards are removed and the information can flow freely.
Despite the potentially democratizing nature of the Web, I think one of the important lessons learned from the Internet and this afternoon's discussion is that the Internet and blogging are indeed just tools. They can be tuned to better promote a point of view or better disseminate information, but they are only as good as the "content" they are spreading. VentureBlog is cited by other blogs when we have something interesting to say. And the more interesting the things we say, the more referrers and traffic we get. But it is not the inherent nature of blogs or of the inherent nature of the Internet that causes that dissemination of information. Similarly, while MoveOn may be able to give Howard Dean a better platform from which to disseminate information about his campaign for the presidency, MoveOn can not make Dean a better candidate. Howard Dean using MoveOn will never have the impact that Bill Clinton would have had using MoveOn. So I think that the democratizing nature of the internet is one of access -- the Internet empowers a vast array of participants to produce and share their own content, the most successful of which will rise to the top and become a mass phenomenon by virtue of the power of that content and the robustness of the tools that allow the virus to spread.