I trust that most of you remember the rather astonishing events of late 2011/early 2012, during which something resembling an Internet insurrection helped stop the Administration’s proposed “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) dead in its legislative tracks. [I was pretty actively involved in the efforts, and blogged about the events on a number of occasions - here, here, here, ...]
A few months later, after the dust had settled a bit, I began a talk about the death of SOPA with: “What the hell happened?” It sure felt like a tidal wave of opposition to the bill — it certainly felt that way to the politicians in the White House and Congress, who couldn’t disavow their prior support for the bill fast enough, once the heat was turned up (to mix my metaphors). Where did it come from, and what did it mean?
Yochai Benkler and colleagues at the Berkman Center (Hal Roberts, Robert Faris, Alicia Solow-Neiderman, and Bruce Etling) have published a rather remarkable study that sheds some really interesting light on those questions. It’s a study of the public debate on the Net leading up to the “mass mobilization” against the bill, using, in the authors’ words, “a new set of online research tools . . . combining text and link analysis with human coding and informal interviews to map the controversy over the relevant 17 months” to analyze “the shape of the networked public sphere engaged in this issue.” It’s a fascinating picture — actually, a series of pictures, chronologically organized, showing the development of the controversy as websites moved in, or out, of the central focus of discussion.
The data suggest that, at least in this case, the networked public sphere enabled a dynamic and diverse discourse that involved both individual and organizational participants and offered substantive discussion of complex issues contributing to affirmative political action. This story depicts a depth and range of activity that is more consequential than most discussions of the networked public sphere in the last decade would predict. Instead of fragmentation and polarization, there was widespread attention across partisan and substantive divides, spanning Tea Party Patriots and libertarians along with traditional liberal and conservative factions. Tech media played a critical role, but game sites and political blogs were also significant. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and venture capitalists all showed up at different stages of the debate, and sites created specifically for this campaign served to aggregate and redirect attention at policy makers. Mainstream media played a role, though not a central one. And a varied set of sites collectively formed an attention backbone, linking together different clusters in the network and providing a boost to less visible sites to reach broader audiences. As we describe in this paper, the SOPA debate offers a view of a vibrant and diverse networked public sphere that exhibited broad participation, leveraged topical expertise, and focused public sentiment to shape national public policy.
Lots of fodder for additional thought and analysis, and the potential for this kind of work seems, to me, quite vast.
And I admit to some personal sense of accomplishment, in that the authors point to both the “Law Professors’ Letter in Opposition” to earlier versions of the bill that Mark Lemley, Dave Levine, and I wrote in July, 2011, and the follow-on article we published (“Don’t Break the Internet“), as having played a not-insigificant role in galvanizing discussion and opposition. We law professors don’t always get a great deal of public impact bang (or even attention) for many of our efforts, so it’s nice when one can see more directly that those efforts had some effect on the direction and intensity of the public debates.