Blog Strategy and the Anonymity-Pseudonymity Continuum

The McCain campaign’s approach to blogs:

The McCain campaign in late May launched a new blogger outreach section on its website that encourages supporters to lobby for their candidate across 94 blogs that range in political bent from far left to far right.

The campaign arms the blog-raiders with one of McCain’s speeches on the need to transcend partisan politics to deal with the problems that the nation faces.

As the Wired article notes, an initial attempt at this over at the left-leaning Daily Kos was spotted and called out within four minutes. It’s a terrible approach, because it misses an essential aspect of understanding blog communities: the anonymity-pseudonymity continuum.

This is the “no one knows you’re a dog” problem. Bloggers, working within a text-based medium, only have their words to represent them; there are no visual or non-verbal clues, so essential to “real life” communication for filling in what we know (or think we know) about each other. For bloggers, trust and credibility can only be built up over time, through their words, through their actions, through becoming valued and trusted members of the community, and this applies as much to a group blog (such as Daily Kos) as it does to a gathering of commenters (like you see at sites such as Swampland, or Firedoglake).

When we first create an account on a blog, we are anonymous — nameless, faceless, no credibility. Over time, as others get to know us through our comments and blog posts, we slowly move along the continuum . At some point, our anonymity fades — our anonymity becomes pseudonymity. The distinction between these two aspects of blog identity is described in this post by blogger Marcy Wheeler, who writes under the name “emptywheel”:

Pseudonymity is the maintenance of a consistent identity, one to which credibility–or lack thereof–attaches just like it does to the name Bob Cox or Marcy Wheeler. Anonymity is something different, one that doesn’t exist in any fully formed blog.…pseudonymity is one of the most important aspects to retaining the vitality of the blogosphere.

This “constant identity” is reinforced through the day-to-day engagement within the community of a blog. There is a “getting-to-know-ness” about blogging as a social practice, as, over time, bloggers learn more and more about the real-life situations, attitudes, personalities, and politics of others in the community. Reputation and standing within the blog community is based entirely on the history of one’s comments (sometimes called “mojo” or “karma” on blogs) built up over time. Anonymity is fleeting, while pseudonymity is rooted in real world social relations.

All of which is to say that the idea of McCain supporters posting Republican talking points on liberal blogs like Daily Kos is ridiculous, not because of ideology, but because of trust. There’s simply no reason to trust someone who signs up for an account on a liberal web site and argues from the right.

The point may be a bit subtle, and should not be confused with what Ethan Zuckerman has written about homophily; that is, how “birds of a feather” tend to blog together. Or confused with Cass Sunstein’s sharper critique about group polarization; that is, how after deliberation, people tend to move in a more “extreme” position.

While both of those ideas may also be true, I think, in practice, McCain’s blog strategy won’t work, not because liberals won’t listen to conservative ideas, but because his supporters will simply be perceived anonymous bloggers (in fact, his supporters may have trouble getting their points across on moderate and even right-leaning sites, too). His swarm (if it amounts to that…) of supporters, creating accounts on blogs and posting away, won’t take the time required to move across the anonymity-pseudonymity continuum, in order to cultivate the trust needed to bridge the gap between the noobs and the community of bloggers and commenters already present.

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