Is netroots non-diversity a myth?

DRAFT!  Work in progress

Originally written August 2

Most recently revised September 22

Originally written as a response to Chris Bowers OpenLeft post The Myth Of The Non-Diverse Netroots; please see the quantitative debate there.   There are a lot of additional observations and references in my Gender, race, age, and power in online discussions, chapter n

The “mutual guest-blogging” project I’ve been leading on OpenLeft has been taking place in the context of a surprising amount of coverage of diversity issues in the blogosphere in the mainstream media recently. Articles like Amy Alexander’s The Color Line Online: Minority Bloggers Fight Inequality in The Nation and Karen Jesella’s Blogging’s Glass Ceiling in the New York Times (nicely analyzed by PhysioProf in Teh Laydeez Are So Cute When They Try To Blog on Feministe) are the highest-profile treatments I’ve seen of this topic since Jose Antonio Vargas’ A Diversity of Opinion, if not of Opinionators in the Washington Post a year ago.

It’s also come up in a broader context in stories like Jose’s Liberal Bloggers Brace for Victory in the Washington Post, and Kirsten Powers’ Net-roots Ninnies: Dem’s Left Dum Bam Slams in the New York Post.

— me, in Gender, race, age, and power in online discussions, chapter n + 1

I had sent Chris Bowers of OpenLeft a link to an early version of Gender, race, age, and power in online discussions, chapter n + 1 … in response to which, he posted The Myth of the Non-Diverse Netroots.

The specific data that was discussed in thread was illuminating.  Looking at gender, Chris noted that 60% of Democrats are women, along with 37% of newspaper stuff and under 30% of Democratic Congresspeople.  Daniel De Groot presented information from polls of Daily Kos readers (36% female/60% male) and Netroots Nations attendees (48% female/50% male).  I analyzed the nine “big blogs” of the progressive blogosphere that Chris had identified, and discovered that only 22% of the founders and 22% of the editors are women.

Hmm.  That seems pretty conclusive to me: women are dramatically under-represented in power positions, relative to their numbers in the netroots as a whole; and women are underrepresented in the netroots relative to their numbers in the Democratic party and society.  Overall the representation is worse than today’s media, and on a par with Congress — neither of which are usually held out as paragons of diversity.  That doesn’t seem mythical at all.

Diversity’s a complicated topic, and the same word often means different things to different people. Start with the word “diversity” itself, which can include

  • cognitive diversity, where a more diverse has more different experiences, information, expertise, techniques and cognitive styles to bring to solving a problem. Scott Page’s book The Difference is an excellent look at the value of cognitive diversity in prediction and problem-solving; my Cognitive diversity in the 2008 US election is an early attempt to relates this to online activism.
  • identity diversity (sometimes called demographic diversity), which focuses more specifically on identity labels: gender, race, age, etc.
  • diversity of ideas, ensuring that different perspectives are heard

The mutual guest-blogging on OpenLeft project had an explicit focus both on identity diversity and diversity of ideas; the first topic focused on a perspective that is (at least in my opinion) hugely underrepresented on OpenLeft as well as the larger progressive blogosphere: feminist and womanist views. In a great example of the power of a cognitively-diverse group, we came up a list of seven initial invited individuals and blogs who are extraordinarily diverse both in terms of identity and their feminist and womanist perspectives, despite an acknowledged lack of diversity in our own information sources. Yay us!

Even though only four of the invitees accepted, it’s still an intersectionally diverse set of identities and perspectives — especially including my intermission post, and Chris’ “Myth” post (which was written as a response to my attempted summary).

Contrast this with the norm in the progressive blogosphere. On the identity front: how many black people do you see posting on the front pages of the “big blogs” of the progressive blogosphere: dKos, myDD, etc.? What percentage of the posts do they account for? How does this compare with the demographic distribution of the progressive movement, or society as a whole?

And how many feminist and womanist perspectives do you see? How much news relevant to feminists and womanists is covered? How broad a range of perspectives is even acknowledged? It’s just one data point, but googling references to “womanist” on gets 24 hits, feminist gets 5280, and conservative and progressive are both over 70,000 ..

Of course, I’m talking here about the front-page posts on the “big progressive blogs”, which is different from their readership, and that in turn is different from the netroots as a whole.  For that matter, one of the interesting points that came up on Chris’ thread is that the boundaries and definitions are debatable. Is the Huffington Post a blog or an internet newspaper (which contains a blog along with much else)? Is the One Million Strong for Barack group on Facebook part of the Netroots? Good questions. And clearly there’s a lot more data that could be usefully gathered.

Still, based on the observed evidence, and especially given the default “power law” dynamics of the web (and specifically blogging) towards a “rich is richer” dynamic and the differentiated access to time and resources necessary to build a significant blogging presence, the burden of proof should be on those who are claiming that non-diversity is a myth. Until that evidence exists, I’m going to agree with the others who see it as real.

A different way of looking at it, though, is to focus on the current imperfect diversity in various dimensions as highlighting now much room there is for improvement. I thought Chris Rabb of Afro-Netizen said it well in Amy Alexander’s Nation article, so I’ll give the last word to the two of them — realizing the same’s true for other dimensions of diversity as well:

Although some blogs and websites–DailyKos, Huffington Post, TPM–might be viewed as constituting an A-list, bloggers of color are now in a position to redefine the nature of that hierarchy, says Rabb. Critical mass alone, the growing number of bloggers of color, however, cannot force the blog hierarchy to open to nonwhites. “This is more about power dynamics than proportionality,” Rabb wrote in an e-mail. “One-third of all movie-goers in this country are Black and yet African-Americans have no real power in Hollywood. Either there is a commitment to leveraging institutional power and individual behavior around involving people of color in politically compatible ways online, or bloggers of color must develop well-resourced entities that do for these communities what predominantly white ones have not,” says Rabb. “I suspect the ideal situation is insisting on both.”