The ecology of the ePundit: Surveying the new opinion-making landscape
First Monday

The ecology of the ePundit: Surveying the new opinion-making landscape by Eve Forrest and Alistair S. Duff



Abstract
This paper explores hybrid forms of contemporary political opinion-making online, which we name ePunditry. The ePundit utilizes Web 2.0 technologies and networks to distribute their work: changing and challenging the boundaries and hierarchies of the existing opinion space, across multiple platforms. Drawing on the language of media ecology we define and give examples of ePunditry. We also consider the impact of the ePundit upon the wider media landscape, alongside the empowered role of the readership.

Contents

Introduction
A definition of ePunditry
Who is the ePundit?
Wider ecologies, shifting structures
The co-evolution of the reader
Conclusion: Inside the embodied opinion “collideorscope”

 


 

Introduction

“People aren’t doing anything new ... they are doing old things in new ways.” [1]

Before the computing age, some of the most vehement political opinions on a public platform were shouted from a soapbox. Back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as pamphleteers were circulating their printed opinions, it was the loud-mouth on the street corner that got the public’s attention. The opinions shrieked and spouted by different people were not always of value or even coherent. Their speeches provoked outrage, audience participation and sometimes violence. It became a common sight for a crowd to gather around and hear an orator speak and shout them down, under the auspices of entertainment. Of course, while everyone watching in the crowd had the potential to be a soap-boxer, in reality only a small minority would ever let their opinions be known. It was (and is) a certain type of personality confident enough to shout about their own political opinion to a wider audience. Later, political opinion-making moved from public squares to the elite spaces (Jacobs and Townsley, 2011) of mainstream media. Opinion was written by senior journalists and a few selected others, such as academics and politicians (Day and Golan, 2005) communicated through newspaper columns, television and radio programmes. Moreover, the top-down structure of these spaces permitted only a limited right to reply from listeners and readers. Jacobs and Townsley (2011) note the arrival of new media and self-publishing via blogging heralded “a transformation in the landscape of political opinion, altering the conditions under which opinion is produced, circulated and interpreted” [2].

Blogging has existed for almost two decades however there continues to be no consensus when scholars try to define the word (Garden, 2011). Blogs used to be described in very basic terms. The original label was a catch-all term meaning a form of online diary or a “personalised easy–to–manage Web site with content presented in reverse chronological order.” [3] However the label of blog has expanded and evolved far beyond this original definition. This is best illustrated by the former top blog ranking list compiled by Technorati, last produced in 2014, before being discontinued (Bhuiyan, 2014). The highest ranking ‘blogs’ were sites such as Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and Mashable, all of which operate as global opinion and news platforms in their own right. Blogs are now regarded as legitimate “places of their own.” [4] They are individual landscapes replete with their own hierarchies, customs and modes (Lowery and Latta, 2008; Papacharissi, 2012).

Online opinion-making through blogging has flourished and has facilitated the percolation of opinion from the bottom up (Blood, 2000). Blogs can represent a variety of opinions and ideas on various news topics (Travers Scott, 2007) circumventing traditional media structures (Bruns, 2010) reaching various niche audiences. Historically there has been mixed feelings towards bloggers from the mainstream media, ranging from “collaboration to outright antagonism” [5]. However blogging continues to be a popular way of circulating a unique brand of personalised writing. Crucially blogging also led to a paradigm shift in reader participation and production when it came to content, a process Bruns (2006) names ‘produsage’.

Altheide (1995) suggests the term media ecology is useful because it “implies relationships related through processes and interaction” [6]. The continued dynamic fluidity of interactions between different modes of opinion online has led to changes in how opinion content is communicated and created (Bruns, 2010). Traditional and newer platforms all host, hyperlink and share instances of opinion-making as it is performed by various different actors. The work is also commented upon and recirculated by readers, in their own self-curated online opinion spaces. This digital architecture has meant opinion-making has been transformed into a series of multiple dialogues. Opinions are heard and shared between various audiences and writers, across many different platforms.

In this paper we survey the terrain of the opinion-making landscape, exploring these newer iterations and hybrids of commentary and expertise. Considering the wider structural changes within mainstream media architectures, we draw upon media ecology metaphors, to reflect upon how political opinion is written, regarded, regurgitated, recycled and debated, ad infinitum across various sites online. We additionally examine the changing dynamics between audiences and texts, as well as offering thoughts on future iterations of opinion. Anderson and Tracey (2002) note people are still doing old things but in new ways. In the context of opinion-making, we contend this comes in a hybridised form of communicative power, which we term ePunditry.

 

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A definition of ePunditry

We define ePunditry as opinion-making primarily distributed online, and where the ePundit takes full advantage of the networked, user driven platforms of Web 2.0 technologies. Bruns and Jacobs (2006) recognise that blogs are so ubiquitous that definitions must stem from how the form is specifically utilised. The ePundit offers contemporary commentary and opinion in a whole host of different interest areas such as sport, fashion and parenting. The focus in this paper is on political opinion content.

Shirky (2003), writing about power law dynamics and future blog audiences, predicted blogging would evolve in different ways as uptake in the practice grew. He postulated some successful blogs would become absorbed into the mainstream media and become primarily “broadcast outlets”. A larger amount of “long tail” blogs would operate at a much lower level, and become a conversational mode of communication, with a small audience. Finally, he lists a smaller in-between category for “blogs that are published by a few, only have a medium sized audience, but whom the authors have a relatively engaged relationship”.

These categories matter because they demonstrate in practical terms that writing is a dynamic entity, always in development, and continuously adapting to change (Bruns, 2010). Furthermore, they underline the variability and layered complexities within online writing practices, which produces highly personalised content. ePunditry is therefore not a singular, homogenised product rather it describes a variety of evolving processes within opinion-making practice.

The style and tone of ePunditry has mutated after two decades in development, bridging across and beyond Shirky’s (2003) categories. New technologies have meant alternative modes of ePunditry have become both possible and popular. Although the political ePundit still mainly delivers their opinion through blogs (and micro-blog platforms such as Twitter), the content they create is certainly not limited to only text based output. Following the recent trends for interactive Web content, many ePundits are moving beyond writing, into the realms of visual and verbal communication performances (Papacharissi, 2015b), via podcasting and vlogging (video blogging) on their own YouTube channels.

These developments in the mode and delivery of opinion-making demonstrate that ePunditry is now part of what Papacharissi (2015a, 2015b) names as the new “affective” turn in media. This involves an opening up of traditional mainstream architectures through various formal and informal narrative devices which mix news, opinion, personal stories, images and audio across multiple platforms. This affectivity could be seen as a further extension of what Bardoel and Deuze (2001) identified as the inherent “multimediality” [7] within early forms of networked journalism, only possible in the Internet era. They also explain that these changes signalled the growth of “horizontal communications” as opposed to the “vertical, paternalistic relationship” of the journalism performed in previous decades.

ePunditry has moved from existing outside traditional media structures, placed within its own separated blogosphere (Travers Scott, 2007; Rettberg, 2008) to become an integrated part of the mainstream communicative environment. The more formal boundaries that used to exist between these two ‘places’ (Schmidt, 2007) have become porous and they operate as a series of networks, interconnected by converging information and content streams (Jenkins, 2006). The ePundit features on television and radio programmes, is writing for newspapers and found on other aggregated opinion sites online.

Furthermore as Lowrey, et al. (2011) highlight, some popular blogs have become organisations in their own right. The ePundit is employing staff, generating their own advertising revenue and monetising their opinions, as content is generated through collaboration, public debate and argument. While some of these sites still continue to describe themselves as blogs, they have evolved into something far beyond the alternative “grassroots” (Gillmor, 2004; Travers Scott, 2007) label which they were initially ascribed.

The word pundit is loaded with meaning in the context of opinion and expertise, as performed in the media. Its historical foundation is based on the Hindu term pandit meaning a learned person of religious scriptures (Nimmo and Combs, 1992). In the modern age of journalism and broadcasting, pundit is used in a more pejorative sense to describe a performance of pseudo-expertise by those who believe themselves to be learned, but who are not necessarily wise.

Tetlock (2005), in his longitudinal study on public expertise, concluded the majority of pundits he studied (particularly as he names them, the “media mavens”) were very poor at prediction. Over his 25 years of tracking public expertise and conjecture across television, radio and opinion columns, most experts were consistently unsuccessful in predicting market collapses, major historical events and election outcomes. We do not suggest here ePunditry is any more accurate than what has gone before. Despite consistent inaccuracies and overconfidence (Silver, 2012) punditry, and ePunditry, remain popular as forms of communicative output.

In the pre-Internet era, the senior journalists who often featured as pundits on mainstream media programmes were seen primarily as insiders to the political process. Some offered a form of public intellectualism and were viewed as being information “interpreters” (McNair, 2000) to their readership. Their experience meant they were able to reach into, as well as stimulate, the public imagination on various topics of public interest, holding court with other elites of the political classes (Day and Golan, 2005; Mitman, et al., 2012).

The opinion space of television, radio, newspapers, as well as online, has gradually become populated by many other voices, who do not have a background in journalism but who are viewed as equally powerful. Jacobs and Townsley (2011) list the other possible contributors to the opinion space, ranging from “former politicians and entertainers to political strategists and speechwriters” [8]. The voice of the ePundit can be added into this large and diverse pool of opinion practitioners. The term ePunditry deliberately evokes the varied histories and paradoxes associated with older and newer voices within the space of opinion. It is a term “busy with meaning” [9] and used both pejoratively and positively, reflecting the cacophony of opinions, thoughts and multiple voices found in the large online opinion “milieu” [10].

 

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Who is the ePundit?

Although it is impossible to provide a complete list of online opinion-making, a short overview of some of the more prominent ePunditry is offered to demonstrate the variety of writing and content available. However the different forms of opinion-making listed is certainly not exhaustive: ePunditry is a global phenomenon, in the countries where commentary is permitted to flow freely. In other countries such as China, where opinion is more heavily policed by the state, “new media can become a new venue for individuals to exercise citizenship; not through overt resistance, but through a process of re-subjectification via mediated expression, social interaction, and circulation of their own media stories” [11]. Yu (2007) points out that generally speaking political blogging in China is tolerated rather than repressed by the authorities. In other countries such as Saudi Arabia, blogging can be far more dangerous and some writers have been imprisoned by authorities for their views (Brown, 2015). Nevertheless larger studies of the Arabic blogosphere have noted that there are positive signs of ‘a more inclusive public dialogue’ [12] through blogging compared to what was available in the pre-Internet era.

The ePunditry selected has been chosen based on a number of different criteria. The Web analytics sites Alexa and Teads were used as a primary indicator of blog popularity and reach. However smaller ePundits would not register on such global indexes. For balance, blog lists compiled by different online news sites were also used to offer a more rounded perspective on political ePunditry. The U.S. political podcasts mentioned were found via Podbay, a site which compiles a dynamic list of podcasts ranked on iTunes downloads. Other individual bloggers were found via Google searches and content analysis of separate blog rolls, news and opinion sites.

Many of the lists that used to be compiled of the most popular political blogs are now no longer being updated. The Total Politics blog list was last published in 2011. BlogPulse (a blog search engine) stopped in 2012 and as previously mentioned the last Technorati blog list was produced in 2014. This perhaps signifies how embedded and entangled political blogs have now become within mainstream content. There are so many, there is no longer any value in counting them (Helmond, 2008).

As a sub-species, the ePundit has rapidly evolved but can all too easily wither and die. In such an atmosphere the Internet is littered with the bones of blog sites which were started in earnest, then later abandoned (Henning, 2003). The act of writing content within the highly pressurized always on digital environment has pushed some bloggers into early retirement, through stress and exhaustion (Perlmutter, 2008). This distinctively transient atmosphere means compiling a definitive list of ePunditry very difficult. (See Figure 1 for a full list of the ePundits, URL and country of origin).

 

List of ePundits, URL and country of origin
 
Figure 1: List of ePundits, URL and country of origin.

 

The choice of online opinion-making available to audiences represents a vast melting pot of ideas. It ranges from individuals with both large and more modest readership numbers, writing about specific aspects of world politics and political science. For example Ronny Patz writes about EU politics at Polscieu, Mustapha Hamoui at Beirut Spring writes about Middle Eastern politics and Andrew Tickell, writing as Lallands Peat Worrier, considers issues of Scottish politics and law-making.

Other writers feature in specifically dedicated blog sections of larger news sites. For example Kevin Drum writing for U.S. site Mother Jones, or Stephen Bush who writes (and edits) U.K. site The Staggers, the blog for the New Statesman magazine. Larger groups of ePundits are also housed within other opinion-heavy Web sites such as Slate, Bella Caledonia, Feministing, Politico and Salon however they are not necessarily housed within separate blog sections. These commentary collectives are where many freelance opinion writers gravitate, since they can pull in much larger audiences than they could on their individual sites.

ePunditry is not only being read, it is also being heard. Increasingly ePundits are producing podcasts that examine political media coverage and events. Mark Thompson is a U.K. blogger who frequently interviews journalists and other commentators for his podcast ‘House of Comments’. Popular U.S. podcasts such as ‘On the media’ (produced by National Public Radio) and ‘Political Gabfest’ (produced by Slate) feature commentators, ePundits and reporters discussing politics in a more relaxed, irreverent style.

Some ePunditry is explicitly political. The U.S. blog platform Daily Kos hosts a large community of much smaller-scale, liberal-leaning ePundits, as well as featuring writing by serving members of Congress and well known celebrity activists. On the other end of the political spectrum is U.K. site Conservative Home. It is a blog which (as the name suggests) is concerned with right-of-centre politics, and hosts a wide range of commentary from ePundits and politicians from this perspective. While the examples above primarily feature U.K. and U.S. writers, the site Global Voices prioritises worldwide opinion-making. It hosts and translates work by ePundits from the Middle East, Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa who are all given equal prominence. Much of the ePunditry featured within Global Voices could also be described as digital activism. Increasingly ePundits are connecting opinion, politics and advocacy. Jillian York describes herself as a writer and activist and combines both strands when writing for news sites such as Al-Jazeera and the Guardian, as well as on her own blog.

ePunditry challenges what political as a general category means, both in the widest and “narrowest sense of the term” [13]. Some ePundits and the larger blog sites which feature their work, consider issues beyond party politics and issues of central government. For example the hugely popular German blog site Netzpolitick is concerned about civil liberties and copyright, as well as issues surrounding domestic and international politics. The U.K. blogger Jack of Kent (real name, David Allen Green), who is also the legal correspondent for the Financial Times, specialises in law reporting, however this subject area inevitably crosses over into issues of political policy. Euroblog written by Jon Worth considers E.U. and German politics, alongside issues of technology and transport.

Other ePundits focus less on the textual per se and more on analysing specific numbers, opinion polling, and data sets. This type of punditry is primarily data and information-driven rather than rhetoric-based. It is practised most famously in the U.S. by Nate Silver on FiveThirtyEight, and in the U.K. by Mike Smithson on Political Betting, and Matt Singh of Number Cruncher.

The sites listed so far offer serious and more in-depth commentary on specific political issues however ePunditry varies greatly in layout, style and tone. The work of U.S. blogger Instapundit (real name Glen Reynolds) is longstanding in terms of Internet history: the site was established in 2001. He often posts short, one or two line ideas, sarcastic comments and hyperlinks to news stories. Each represents a textual stream of consciousness or brief thoughts and there can be as many as 20 or 30 per day on his site. His public thinking extends beyond writing into broadcasting too. Reynolds’ hosts his own programme on YouTube via the larger PJ Media group, alongside other politically right-leaning commentators. Other ePundits use satire and humour to offer their audience a more playful type of political output.

The U.K. site Guido Fawkes established a little later than Instapundit in 2004, adopts a largely sensationalist tone, with multiple short posts per day, utilising images and videos adding to its deliberately gossipy and tabloid structure. Although Guido was originally written by Paul Staines, who still remains as editor-in-chief, he employs a small number of other writers to produce content. The site also has a spin-off column of the same name in the U.K. tabloid The Sun. These various examples demonstrate the breadth and depth of opinion found online, hosted within a multitude of environments. The impact of these changes upon the geographies of traditional media has been profound. It is to these wider ecologies we now turn.

 

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Wider ecologies, shifting structures

The idea of approaching media relations through the lens of the ecological metaphor has been around for the last 50 or so years but more enthusiastically extolled by researchers over the last decade (Madianou and Miller, 2012; Scolari, 2012; Wilken, et al., 2013). The metaphor has also been extended into different forms of new media practice. For example Levinson notes Twitter is an example of “phylogeny recapitulating ontogeny: the development of one organism replaying the evolution of all life.” [14] The borders between ePunditry and mainstream political content have gradually become deeply connected and highly porous, as the Internet has worked to “democratise and decentralise political journalism” [15].

For Scolari (2012) different forms of media are rather like “a species that live in the same ecosystem and establish relationships between one another” [16]. Under these criteria the development of ePunditry and the evolution of blogging inevitably led to changes in the roles and performances of professional journalism, as the newsroom extends into various digital spaces (Jurkowitz, 2014). Journalists are expected to be a hybrid species too, engaging with readers and multiple sources, on different platforms (McEnnis, 2015) such as Twitter and Facebook, fluent in various textual and visual modes (Bruns, 2010).

These changes highlight the much deeper and widely publicised shifts in the context of media ownership, production and consumption over the past two decades. The consolidation of corporate media companies (Woodly, 2008) has led to a centralisation of news gathering; redundancies continue in newsrooms as sales drop and newspapers close (Mitchell and Masta, 2015). While there is still a demand for national and local news across many different platforms; wider budget cuts have meant it is produced with fewer staff (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2008).

However this shedding of employees could be viewed as part of a new media lifecycle which initiates “other populations and forms of news and information, from blogs ... to social collectives ... to foundation supported efforts and to groups formed on social media” [17]. News streams are co-created by groups of users (Burgess and Green, 2009) as “collaboratively generated flows of information, rendered as citizens and journalists are experiencing, observing and reporting events” [18]. Twitter in particular, can “quickly open up a new forum for political discussion, crystallized in the inventive use of hash-tags as forms of software literacy” [19]. Opinion streams have accelerated in pace, not always driven by traditional gatekeeper agendas (Newman, 2009; Bruns, et al., 2014; Howard and Hussain, 2013).

Other forces have also impacted the shaping of political commentary and news agendas, outside the journalistic sphere. The infiltration of PRPs (public relations practitioners), corporate lobbyists and advertisers, SPADs (special advisors) and spin doctors (McNair, 2004) in briefing the media and heavily shaping its content, has been criticized strongly (Chomsky, 1988; Davis, 2002; Davies, 2008). Blogs are not immune from this influence either. Many sites include native advertising, and sponsored advertorial (Lowrey, et al., 2011) as one possible revenue stream. Nonetheless, in the context of these wider contemporary shifts in news production, some ePunditry tasks itself with gate-watching (Bruns, 2005) to be used as a tool to inspire political activism (Penney and Dadas, 2014) amongst citizens. This is opinion-making kicking back against a Fourth Estate which some believe is now serving wider corporate interests (Davis, 2002) rather than the public.

Howard (2011) writes that online networks “provide an infrastructure in which power is centred, where ideological competition and conflict occurs and through which physical conflict is coordinated, recorded and represented.” [20] These are ‘places’ where anyone now has the potential power to become an “information broker” [21] via ePunditry on blogs and on platforms such as Twitter. The structural changes Howard refers to could be construed in a more literal way, when considering where opinion is placed, for example, within online news sites. Previously, in traditional paper columns, opinion was housed in the opposite editorial (op-ed) section of the newspaper, deliberately segregated from news content. This traditional division is difficult, if not impossible to sustain in the age of “prodused, hybrid and ambient” [22] information and content. Furthermore, newer online only outlets such as Vice and Cracked provide blended articles which include news and opinion, as well as adding humour and visuals. This playful style of opinion is deliberately constructed to target a younger demographic and has been influenced by the more informal communication style of blogging.

Papacharissi writes “affect has energized the rituals of public and private life, but the discussion of its place in politics tends to assign it a back seat to reason” [23]. This could also be true of the former delineation made between opinion and fact more generally within the media. Traditional journalistic norms dictate that news is objective and rational. Opinion-making (while often containing fact) is driven by emotion. Schultz (2007) interestingly proposes a contrary view, for example that many journalists believe in trusting their “gut instincts” leading them to follow a story. The irrational in some cases can be the driving force of the rational.

Increasingly when opinion is not becoming suffused into factual reporting, the content sits side by side or as viewed in dynamic social media news feeds, one on top of the other. As Jones notes “the Internet is a medium that allows individuals to put people in groups who would in all likelihood never consider themselves able to be conjoined” [24]. Twitter, Facebook and other feeds become self-curated opinion streams as users pick and choose their own content (Bruns and Highfield, 2012; Papacharissi and Oliveira, 2012; Holcomb, et al., 2013). However these spaces are also governed by algorithms that structure content and prioritise certain messages over others. Considering Howard’s earlier word choice, it is wise to remember these different structural changes to the mainstream landscape represent opinion-making under the wider conditions of late capitalism. It is primarily consumer-driven in the era of more choice, not less. In this regard, another key change ePunditry has brought, is the empowerment and emboldened activity of the reader.

 

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The co-evolution of the reader

“Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts.” [25]

User created content has altered the structure of opinion and news spheres (Bruns 2006, 2010) via blogs (Rettberg, 2008), micro-blogs such as Twitter (Papacharissi, 2012), as well as on other, non-traditional news sites, such as Reddit and YouTube (Burgess, 2012). Levinson notes “the Internet reverses the trajectory of a handful of messages getting to a legion of passive users.” [26] This is not just direct contact by the readership to the author. It is also a redistribution or “produsage” (Bruns, 2006) of that text by the readership, with both negative and positive inflection.

For a while, the only way for the audience to get their opinion into the press was via the letters page, a highly curated space with limited publishing possibilities (Jorgensen, 2002). The audiences of other media have had limited success in getting their opinions known. It is really only on radio and the punditry heavy “talk-in” shows, which offered a forum for listeners to have their say (Sobieraj and Berry, 2011). In the language of ecology, audiences have co-evolved thanks to the changes brought by software advances.

Scolari (2013) discusses human–media co-evolution writing “if every text constructs its own reader ... then every media constructs its own consumer.” [27] This has been turned around in the Internet age, as audiences re-construct or re-tell texts they read and watch in different ways (Spurgeon and Burgess, 2015). As earlier noted in this paper Papacharissi remarks that “affect conveys the intensity with which an opinion is felt, and when expressed, it can intensify the sense of empowerment, with the release of emotion” [28]. This motivation is one of the reasons many users decide to leave comments on posts, and interact with ePunditry. The content is creative self-expression, encouraging the opinion-expression of others.

The ePundit is always “intricately intertwined” [29] with their readers. They are keen consumers of other related content. Some decide to switch off the comment function, however most welcome discussion and debate, which can at times become aggressive, rather than constructive. Caution must be advised here and it would be unwise to think these comments offer any kind of representative sample of the total readership. Much like our first example of the soapbox, it takes a certain personality to be a heckler, as it does to be a speaker.

Manovich (2014) states the “in the domination of software on the cultural landscape” it is not the medium but the “software [that] is the message” [30]. What Nietzsche predicted, has come to pass. New forms of writing such as ePunditry develop not only our thoughts but the way they are communicated and how we engage with each other, and ourselves.

 

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Conclusion: Inside the embodied opinion “collideorscope”

The “e” part of ePunditry stands for electronic, but ephemeral, and embodied could also be adequate substitutes. Opinion has a deeply corporeal foundation and when considering technologies that facilitate opinion-making, they begin with the body. Electrical impulses tell the vocal chords and mouth to manipulate airflow, allowing the speaker to pull an opinion through conscious thought, turning it into sound. The urge to communicate opinions, tell stories, share thoughts and ideas with one another is a deeply rooted part of our human psyche. It is perhaps for this reason the technologies and platforms which facilitate and extend these expressions have been, and continue to be, so successful.

In discussing Finnegans Wake, a novel which often reverts to the “tribalism of oral culture” [31] McLuhan (1962) interprets James Joyce’s “collideorscope” as the “interplay in colloidal mixture of all the components of human technology as they extend our senses and shift their ratios in the social kaleidoscope of cultural clash” [32]. The “collideorscope” of opinion-making found online represents new acts of everyday anarchy, imagination and activism through a variety of content. The ePunditry described herein are varied hybrids of textual, visual, and oral. Just as the patterns of a traditional colour kaleidoscope are unique every time the user shakes the tube, so, too, is the diversity of writing online as it co-evolves, hybridises, and metamorphoses into different forms. The ePundit is “competing and co-opting within the Internet’s space of flows” [33] and, as this piece is being written (and read), the landscape will have continued to have evolved, changed and regenerated into something new.

It is the continued evolution and regeneration of ePunditry that underscores the limitations of this paper. We fully acknowledge that the writers mentioned here cover only a tiny fraction of political opinion-making. Furthermore the majority of these are English-speaking and offer a predominantly Western perspective on politics. In the spirit of the subject, readers of this piece will hold vastly different opinions on who is the most influential ePundit. This issue also highlights the difficulty in measuring the influence of opinion on the wider political-public sphere. Unlike the arena of news, where the reach or impact of stories can, to a certain degree, be evaluated, opinion is very different. What metrics could be used to accurately measure the impact of an opinion? How often a blog page is viewed or how often a link is re-tweeted? Is an ePundit’s success measured by the number of appearances on traditional platforms or how many followers they have? If one million people read an opinion via ePunditry, is that as influential as a handful of elites in Westminster or The Whitehouse? These questions are important to ask but difficult to answer, perhaps the reason that studies in the field of political opinion have been limited. We call upon researchers to embrace these complexities and to consider opinion-making online in more depth.

It is possible that the development of public thinking via ePunditry represents a fundamental ontological shift, rather than just an inevitable change or development in media habits from old to new. Krüger (2007) offers a radical suggestion via the writing of McLuhan, Lovelock and de Chardin. Citing Lovelock’s Gaia theory, Krüger states the development of the Internet can be read as “an organic part of Earth’s history” [34]. In the context of Lovelock’s position, the expansion of opinion and self-expression online is not just a key part in the development of the Internet but, more significantly, of humankind.

Perhaps the rise of individualistic opinion-making marks the beginning of the end of quality journalism. Maybe instead ePunditry represents a continued opening up of opinion-making. It offers an outlet for many to share their political thoughts and make their feelings visible to others online. To say either of these positions is right or wrong would be entirely conjecture. Is all ePunditry wise? Certainly not, however media ecologists remind us it does not really matter in the end, as both medium and message are important when analysing the varied output of the ePundit.

The final evolution of the ePundit may end up as a version of de Chardin’s radical noosphere. Here “the convergence of thinking” via the “collective cerebralisation” [35] offers a creative and chaotic opinion cosmology, found on a variety of platforms. The future might be a highly transient opinion space, which bubbles up as a form of cybernetic collective consciousness. Opinion in this regard, has always been an ephemeral phenomenon. In conversation, as soon as an opinion leaves the mouth it disappears into the ether perhaps heard and reacted to, perhaps not. Previous paper opinion incarnations were equally impermanent too. Who remembers the column of our favourite writers the day after publication? (McNair, 2011) Who can say anyone reads them at all? Perhaps all opinion-making is what Nimmo and Combs (1992) refer to as symbolic healing: it looks and feels the part but makes little difference.

ePunditry exists on various platforms, reaching wider and disparate audiences however it is still too early to judge its impact or influence fully. The key question for future discussion is what difference, if any, can opinion writing ever make to the public’s wider engagement with politics? (Howard and Hussain, 2013; Jacobs and Townsley, 2011) It is perhaps too cynical to name all opinion-making as nihilistic or egotistical, but what is its use, if it makes no impact? A side effect of convergence is “hierarchies become less important as new hybrids are created” [36]. In our opinion, there is plenty room for the multiple hybridised voices of the ePundit within the milieu. It remains a thriving, albeit chaotic, ecosystem. End of article

 

About the authors

Eve Forrest is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Informatics at Edinburgh Napier University.
E-mail: e [dot] forrest [at] napier [dot] ac [dot] uk

Alistair S. Duff is professor of information policy in the School of Arts and Creative Industries at Edinburgh Napier University. He is currently principal investigator on the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project, Informing the Good Society: New Directions in Information Policy.
E-mail: a [dot] duff [at] napier [dot] ac [dot] uk

 

Acknowledgments

This work was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council [grant number AH/K002899/1].

 

Notes

1. Anderson and Tracey, 2002, p. 160.

2. Jacobs and Townsley, 2011, p. 78.

3. Larsson and Hrastinski, 2011, n.p.

4. Leow, 2010, p. 235.

5. Highfield and Bruns, 2012, p. 90.

6. Althide, 1995, p. 10.

7. Bardoel and Deuze, 2001, pp. 14–15.

8. Jacobs and Townsley, 2011, p. 75.

9. Fuller, 2005, p. 2.

10. Parikka, 2011, p. 36.

11. Yu, 2007, p. 424.

12. Etling, et al., 2010, p.1,240.

13. Highfield and Bruns, 2012, p.91.

14. Levinson, 2011, p 14.

15. McNair, 2011, p. 74.

16. Scolari, 2012, p. 209.

17. Lowrey, et al., 2011, p. 256.

18. Papacharissi, 2015a, p. 35.

19. Parikka, 2014, p. 91.

20. Howard, 2011, p. 90.

21. Howard, 2011, p. 94.

22. Papacharissi, 2015a, p. 29.

23. Papacharissi, 2015b, p. 9.

24. Jones, 2010, p. xix.

25. Nietzsche in Kittler, 1999, p. 200.

26. Levinson, 1999, p. 38.

27. Scolari, 2013, p. 213.

28. Papacharissi, 2015b, p. 109.

29. Ekdale, et al., 2010, p. 230.

30. Manovich, 2014, p. 80.

31. Lash, 2002, p. 182.

32. McLuhan, 1962, p. 75.

33. Dutton, 2009, p. 11.

34. Krüger, 2007, p. 140.

35. Krüger, 2007, p. 150.

36. Madianou and Miller, 2012, p. 172.

 

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Editorial history

Received 10 December 2015; revised 15 March 2016; accepted 21 March 2016.


Copyright © 2016, First Monday.
Copyright © 2016, Eve Forrest and Alistair S. Duff. All Rights Reserved.

The ecology of the ePundit: Surveying the new opinion-making landscape
by Eve Forrest and Alistair S. Duff.
First Monday, Volume 21, Number 4 - 4 April 2016
http://www.firstmonday.dk/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/6351/5359
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v21i4.6351





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