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    Success of ‘going negative’ changes campaign strategies
    Blogs as “Scribbling Mercuries”: Marketplace of Ideas or Duel to the Death of Ideas?

    The blog is possible through the convergence of many new technologies: revolutions in human communication that were both tipping points (of ideas) and points of the tip (of new things). In parallel, more than half a millennium ago (1452-1454/55), Johann Gutenberg printed his two-volume, 1,282-page, 42-line Bible in Mainz. He produced 180 copies (150 on paper and, it is believed, 30 on parchment), using about 20 assistants in the process. His innovations included a screw press (a converted wine press) and moveable type with individual elements (periods, letters, upper- and lower-case letters).

    Interestingly, the small number of Bibles hardly represented a “mass” communication, but one of Gutenberg’s follow-up projects did. To raise money to pay for a crusade against Muslim Turks, the Roman Catholic Church contracted with Gutenberg to print thousands of Letters of Indulgence–certificates the Catholic faithful could buy for cash, absolving them of their sins. The practice was among the chief complaints of a young German monk named Martin Luther who, in 1517, nailed 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral, signaling the beginning of the Reformation. It is hard to imagine that such heresy could have spread so widely and so quickly in the pre-print era. In fact, Luther’s theses would have become only sketchily known by world of mouth (and probably easily suppressed before they became too widespread). But in the developed printworks of Germany, the “Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences“ would become a mass document.


    Unlike in China or Korea, which had invented printing earlier but were unified countries with established ruling classes, the print world of Gutenberg was the free-for-all arena of ideologies and political partisanship of 14th century Europe. Printing, therefore, became an instrument of both orthodoxy and revolution. During the religious wars of the 16th century in Central Europe, for instance, each side would prepare innumerable books that propagandized their cause and demonized the enemy. Crucially, however, it was not quite a marketplace of ideas. In areas under stable Church or government control, censorship in what people could print and what they could read was the norm. In Henry XIII’s England, for example, printing a book without the king’s license was punishable by death.

    Many philosophers of the Enlightenment rebelled against such edicts. The principles they crafted in their writings during the period highly influenced the Founders of America and the Framers of the Constitution. “Freedom of the Press,” for instance, assumes that presses will be in competition with each other as bulwarks against government abuse, ensuring freedom from monopoly by any power. One of the originators of such a concept was John Milton, the seventeenth-century English poet, who published a pamphlet in 1644 titled Areopagitia (subtitled “A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing) in which he insisted that open debate freed the mind to find truth:

    “Well knows he who uses to consider, that our faith and knowledge thrives by exercise, as well as our limbs and complexion. Truth is compared in Scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in a perpetual progression, they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition.”

    In American history the principle of the “marketplace of ideas” became set as a value of both journalism and society. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote in a decision in a First Amendment case in 1919:

    “[W]hen men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas–that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution.”

    By Holmes’s time the mechanics of that marketplace had changed to an industrial model of the press, but the principle remains with us to this day, and blogs and those who embrace blogging as a democratic revolution in media often call the phenomenon the best incarnation of the perfect marketplace of ideas.

    Not by coincidence, times of great political upheaval, and even revolution, were when the marketplace seemed at its utmost fury of competition. The great flowering of the print press in England as an expression of countervailing political ideas came during Milton’s time, the troubled period in the mid-seventeenth century that saw struggles between King Charles I and the English parliament followed by several civil wars, the execution of Charles, the election of Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan faction to supremacy in England, and then the death of Cromwell and the restoration of the monarchy under Charles’s son.

    aulicus.jpgNewspapers at that time were known as “news books”; most of them carried the prenomen “mercurius,” a reference to the Roman messenger god Mercury, today commonly drawn with a winged cap or winged feet. It was a good metaphor for these news books, titled such as “Mercurius Aulicus” (a royalist periodical); “Mercurius Britannicus” (a vehicle of the anti-royalist “Roundheads”); “Mercurius Democritus”; “Mercurius Elenticus”; “Mercurius Melancholicus”; Mercurius Politicus”; Mercurius Hibernicus” “Mercurius Pragmaticus”; and “Mercurius Rusticus.” Each represented the opinion of either a particular government or faction in power or oppositional groups, religious, political, class, or otherwise. They comprised a huge literature that, while not read by every farmer and apprentice boy, was talked about or mentioned as part of the political debate of the day.

    These periodicals were, of course, blog-like in that (a) they represented the opinions of diverse political factions, (b) they were the creations of a few individuals, either independently or representing factional interests, (c) while they cost some expense to publish and distribute, they were not beyond the means of individuals, and (d) they were often scathing in their attacks on political figures and others.

    For example, Mercurius Impartialis blamed “the ruines both of King and people” to “the Pulpit and the Presse” and charged further that: “his Majesties Subjects [have] beene Poysoned with Principles of Heresie, Schisme, Faction, Sedition, Blasphemy, Apostacie, Rebellion, Treason, Sacriledge, Murther, Rapine, Robbery, and all” the other “enormous Crimes, and detestable Villanies, with which this Kingdome hath of later times swarmed.” But the partisan Mercurian newspapers could vilify in either direction. Oliver Cromwell, the executioner of the king, complained, “My very face and nose are weekly maligned and scandalized by those scribbling mercuries.”

    Among the most celebrated editors of the many regularly published pamphlets put out, along with periodically published news books, was Milton himself, an adoring supporter of Cromwell and the anti-monarchist government. One of his most famous pamphlets reads like a 17th century blog-post title: “The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates: Proving that is it lawful and Hath been Held so through All Ages, for Any who Have the Power, to Call to Account a Tyrant or Wicked King, and after Due Conviction to Depose and put him to death.” Milton was “posting” in reply to arguments made by the more moderate faction in Parliament (the Presbyterians) who were arguing for a retention of the monarchy and the sparing of the king’s life. Milton was later appointed by the government to be “Secretary to Foreign Tongues” where–again blog-like–he ended up doing most of his work from his own home.

    An important note: When Milton called for free competition of ideas–Unlicenc’d Printing–in 1644, his faction was one of many. In 1655 Lord High Protector Oliver Cromwell banned all newsbooks except one favorable to the government: there is no record that his loyal civil servant John Milton objected to such censorship!

    The challenges of the marketplace model that blogs seem to embody are, thus, as follows:

    a) Will people actually avail themselves of the various goods (facts, ideas, opinions) at the marketplace or just go to vendors that confirm their preexisting prejudices?

    b) Will the competition of the market lead to, not healthy and vigorous debate, but permanent fissures in the body politic that, in previous eras, have resulted in civil wars?

    c) Will the excesses of the marketplace of blogs invite government reaction in the forms of regulation or even censorship?

    Originally posted on Tuesday, December 27, 2005 at PolicybyBlog.

    Reader Comments (15)

    There are problems associated with seeking out information and information sources that confirm and support preexisting beliefs and opinions in all forms of communication and mainstream media.

    a) Will people actually avail themselves of the various goods (facts, ideas, opinions) at the marketplace or just go to vendors that confirm their preexisting prejudices?

    My personal reaction to this challenge to the marketplace model is that this is a problem whether looking at The New York Times and the Washington Post or Fox News and CNN. If we are to trust blogs as the one and only source of information and contributions to the marketplace of ideas, the sheer volume of blogs and the ease with which partisan blogs might be segregated may be a problem. Perhaps marketplace pressures like advertisers might keep fair and balanced from being any sort of goal. But, in and of themselves, I don’t think partisan blogs do more than good ol boy networks or watercooler talk.

    My opinion not enough? A recent Pew project study “debunks a major criticism of bloggers and the Internet in general.” Namely, that people look for their “preferred brand of politics,” choosing to ignore contrary argument. The 2004 study showed that “wired Americans” are privy to more points of view from more places on the political spectrum than they might be otherwise. (http://www.journaltimes.com/articles/2006/01/09/local/iq_3846655.txt)

    January 25, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterow1018
    The trend in media consumption today appears to be one of seeking out media outlets that confirm preexisting beliefs. This is evident by the rising popularity of Fox News by Republicans and political conservatives, and the fact that more than half of Fox News viewers describe themselves as politically conservative. (Read the full report here http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=215).

    In the comment by ow1018, a 2004 Pew report was cited about wired Americans seeking out different points of views. In the same report, it was found that of the people who get news online on an average day, 90% of them also get news from newspapers or TV. The Pew report also found that about a quarter of Americans prefers news that comes from sources with similar political outlooks. http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/141/report_display.asp

    Perhaps, although wired Americans seek out different perspectives on the Web, it may be true that in the vast media marketplace of ideas they are only seeking out those that confirm their preexisting prejudices.

    January 29, 2006 | Unregistered Commentersmarin3
    I believe people will continue receiving information, news, ideas, facts and opinions from “vendors.” I think “vendors” will provide the majority of initial information and topics that might later be argued and discussed in blogs. The mainstream media will still tell the public what to think about. The blog will allow the public to toss the ideas around that the mainstream media presented. New ideas, facts, etc may be generated from these blogs by common people and communicated to other common people, but I think the creation of new ideas will be the minority compared to the mainstream media. In time, this may change, but I don’t see that time being in the immediate future. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, seven percent of American adults that use the internet created a blog-like webpage. Additionally, over a quarter of internet users actually read blogs. Tom Zeller Jr. of the New York Times wrote on January 22, 2006 that “nearly 80 percent of online teenagers and adults 28 and younger report regularly visiting blogs, compared with just 30 percent of adults 29-40.” The popularity of blog use is increasing especially among the millennial generation. With maturity of this younger population, more people may refer directly to blogs as their primary marketplace for ideas, news and opinions, etc.

    I don’t believe the competition of the market will lead to “permanent fissures.” I think the discussion occurring on blogs is mainly healthy debate. With most of the debate over ideas and information taking place online, I don’t think a “civil war” will occur. While people may strongly disagree over an idea, all argument will stay online.

    I think with the increased popularity of blogs as mentioned above, there will be some regulation over blog use. I think this may occur especially in the area of advertising and business. Unlike the actions taken by Oliver Cromwell in 1655, I don’t think there will be any state regulation or control over sharing opinions and thoughts over political matters.

    January 30, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterNOLA7
    All of these answers can go both ways. People gravitate to what is familiar to them. But you have to give people some credit. Even those who always read blogs that confirm their beliefs may occasionally read dissenting ones, if only to have something to agree with. For the most part, I think people will read ones that confirm their beliefs.
    Because anyone can blog, it is unlikely that the commentary could cause large-scale opposition on either side. Being a journalist, I am skeptical of Big Brother and I think the government watches everything. If a blog gets popular enough and they feel it will do harm, I do think some people will disappear (that’s just me :) ).
    You can slightly compare blogs to the European newspapers. Although almost everyone can read now, not everyone takes advantage of internet access. These are usually poorer people; therefore, their voice will not be heard, or they will not be aware of certain issues.
    January 30, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterharrison72
    One major difference between the presses of old and the Blogs of today are the number of competing ideas. In the times of Martin Luther, most information, official decrees regarding politics and religion flowed from the top down. The Church or the government had a virtual monopoly on the flow of official news. Remember, monks were the scribes who produced books during this period. Therefore, when Luther published his 95 Theses with the help of the Gutenberg Press he was the only dissenting voice; one voice against the orthodoxy. The same thing for others who dissented against the establishment: their’s were the few questioning voices against authority. Blogs however are single voices amongst millions of voices.

    Concerning the partisan presses of commonwealth England, the “news books,” as they were know, were the voices of parties to the conflict (either monarchist or anti-monarchist). Therefore, they were limited in number and in points of view and not fully a free and open press. They were still chartered by established ideologies. Blogs however are not (for the most part) official points of view advocated established ideologies.

    Tocqueville in Democracy in America claimed that one of the benefits of having a free press is that no one dissenting voice could garner the attention of a mass if there were many other competing voices. People would get immune to criticisms of authority if the press was free. Tocqueville claimed that a free press could actually be a safeguard for authority, not threat to it.

    January 30, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjohn444
    In this essay, I found most interesting the assertion that “times of great political upheaval, and even revolution, were when the marketplace seemed at its utmost fury of competition.” To me this begs the question of whether there is great political upheaval because the marketplace is in a fury of competition, or if the marketplace is in a fury of competition because there is great political upheaval. In today’s society, one cannot be exclusive of the other. What would Watergate have been without Woodward and Bernstein other than a “second-rate burglary,” and what would Woodward and Bernstein have been without Watergate? Would Bill Clinton’s philandering with Monica Lewinski have ever come to light without the Drudge Report, and would the Drudge Report have ever come to light with Monica Lewinski?

    Whether blogs will ever have such a singular influence on a political era remains to be seen. A select few bloggers would have to emerge as leaders, to become blogs that help determine headlines and thus influence policy. Just as CNN and Fox News have emerged from the plethora of cable channels to become destination channels for timely news, some bloggers must emerge from the dense jungle of the Internet to claim credibility and prestige as the place to go for dependable information and opinion.

    Once those select bloggers come to the forefront, people will go to the sites they view as most dependable or enjoyable, whether it is because they agree with the political viewpoint of the site or because they believe the site is the most fair or because they are most likely to get breaking news. And it naturally follows that as some bloggers emerge with more influence than others, and as people depend more on these sites for information, there will be great debate over censorship vs. First Amendment rights.

    January 30, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterHog79
    This post reminds me of the free market model in economics assuming that everyone will make rational choices based on the ultimate aim of maximizing the profits. The invisible hand will guide the market; the government’s role is just the provider of public services; it should never intervene.

    Marketplace of thoughts is quite different. It is hard to say that people are always rational. They have more complicated motives for their choices. There is no such invisible hand as in Adam Smith’s market. On the contrary, it’s often disturbed by the visible hands of the government. Nowadays, in democratic countries, law is the main influential power that preserves this market. Thus, the government’s role is minimized.

    Blogging, unquestionably, has brought more choices into the market and intensified the competition greatly. It may have broken the existing rules of this market to some extent, for example, the anonymity of cyber spaces increases the number of aggressive or insulting words; it may have caused some negative effects, for instance, exaggerating partisan instead of rational discussions on issues in elections. However, I think the law is more efficient than the governmental regulations or censorship, though blogging, as a new existence, has not been controlled by the existing media laws yet.

    January 30, 2006 | Unregistered Commentereusuee
    As PBB/Editor points out, the origins of mass communication were rooted in partisanship – religious at first, but then largely political. Gerald Baldasty argues in “The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century” that news costs money to mass produce, and when partisanship began to diminish at the turn of the century, someone had to foot the bill. Enter advertisers. Since the beginnings of the penny press, advertisers have not only made it possible to mass produce the news, but, many say, have shaped the news through their influence over publishers.

    Much like early publishers, bloggers are a partisan lot. “Webster’s Dictionary” defines a partisan as:

    1 : a firm adherent to a party , faction, cause, or person; especially : one exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance; and 2 a : a member of a body of detached light troops making forays and harassing an enemy b : a member of a guerrilla band operating within enemy lines.

    That certainly defines most bloggers of today; however, contrary to early publishers, partisanship is not a financial necessity for the survival of blogs. Blogging costs little money and, unlike printing, anyone with access to a computer can do it. However, despite this significant difference, blogs seem to be following a similar path to that of traditional print: they are moving toward advertising. The American Marketing Association in a recent communication with its members wrote:

    “Weblogs, commonly know as blogs, are rapidly gaining momentum and acceptance as credible marketing strategies. Companies are using blogs as customer relationship tools, branding reinforcement, product ideology testing and for creating public relations buzz.”

    However, as blogs enter the mainstream business world, marketers are faced with how to impose a formal structure on blogs including format/strategy, metrics/goals and ROI. If blogging is a legitimate strategy for your company, do you know how to leverage this new media to complement your existing online and offline marketing strategies? What will success mean to your organization?

    Not only are businesses launching blogs of their own, but many advertise on other people’s blogs. It is inevitable that given the right set of circumstances, advertisers will wield as much influence in the blogosphere as they do now in print news. I propose that the issue of marketing infiltration and advertising influence in the blogosphere be included as an addition to the list of challenges presented by the author of this posting.

    January 31, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterweezy138
    Due to the unfettered interactivity of the Internet, and blogs in particular, the answer to your first question is no; people will not “avail themselves of the various goods” right now. It is too difficult to sift through the endless ramblings of millions of people. However, I believe that the trend will soon shift. Already, Google has developed a way to search specific topics across all blog services (http://www.blogsearch.google.com). In fact, Google went ahead and purchased Blogger (a free blogging service, like Hotmail for emails). I imagine that it is just a matter of time before someone comes up with a new interface – the new “look” for blog surfing (think shopping mall) – which will allow for the competitive marketplace of which you speak. Once this exists, blog surfing will likely resemble the reading of newspapers or watching of television news channels that mirror one’s political views.
    January 31, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterdiversgirl
    As has been pointed out on this blog, recent studies show most of the public tune-in to whichever network or blog most interests them and/or is similar to their political interests. I do agree with Hog79, that some bloggers must step forward and become leaders in this new medium. Despite the potential of an unlimited number of blogs, there must be those, who are reliable to us as the public, to assist the process of determining the daily headlines and political policy.

    I believe the competition of the market will lead to healthy debate, but the idea of civil war, though true on occasion in past history, is not as realistic today. As john444 pointed out, a big difference today compared to the presses of early years is the greater number of current competing ideas. I feel that this point fuels the marketplace for blogs to facilitate platforms for the numerous voices of support or opposition regarding political debate.

    The question of governmental regulation depends on how well blogs police themselves. I do not believe the government will implement a lockdown on blogs just because of disagreement on political issues with the official administration. We do not see that today with the Bush administration’s actions toward CNN or The New York Times (though they would probably like to). I do think we might see government interference if blogs become unchecked and allow the creation and continuous promotion of violent acts or vulgar language that could become a possibility. Citizens would more than likely not be exposed to this kind of speech or communication (debate) in their newspaper or news network. Why should they with this media? As this new and powerful medium continues to grow and become more powerful, this may become something we must think through in how to protect the citizens of this country without interfering with The Constitution and peoples’ rights.

    January 31, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBigAL1993
    In response to smarin3 and ow1018, it might be beneficial to move away from thinking about what a couple of studies say people are doing with blogs, and consider what people could be doing with blogs.
    Yes, Pew Internet Research studies have shown that people access blogs that primarily align with and reaffirm their political ideology. Yes this is similar to how people access TV networks and get broadcast news. But primarily, I would venture that most people recognize the error and ignorance in such streamlined thinking and consumption habits.
    Obviously someone watching the news is going to learn more and gain a perspective closer to ‘reality’ if they channel-surf between CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and C-Span. The same applies to accessing a range of blogs, published by people with differing ideologies, and considering their perspectives.
    That’s where the potential lies in blogging. You and I can sit in the comforts of our home and read people’s ‘arguments’ on the social issues of the day. We can read arguments that support our own ideas and with hyperlink technologies do further research to find facts that can strengthen our rhetoric. And, we can read arguments that are completely opposite our own. Without engaging in illogical argument to hold our political ground, we can ‘save face’ and truly consider these opposing points of view. We can even research these ‘opposing points’ and decide for ourselves if maybe we should adopt the same ideas, or figure out why they are illegitimate.
    This free exchange of ideas which fulfills ‘option A’ as laid out in the posting, will only be realized and enacted, though, if people start talking about its potential and hyping it as such. It will only be realized if people look at how to better use this technological communication tool, and then promote the use from there.
    January 31, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterlittle34
    Whether or not the proliferation of different ideas in the blogosphere will induce bloggers (not to mention average Internet surfers) to investigate ideas other than their own is not an easy question to answer. It’s not a question that I can answer for the aggregate population. And others have posted links above to studies supporting both sides of the argument.

    But I think a little history can shed light on PBB/Editor’s other two questions.

    If early “Mercuries” qualify as blog-like communication, then perhaps so does the early press of our own country. Before they were institutionalized as engines of party opinion, early American newspapers were partisan, often rose in reaction to factional debate, and were relatively cheap to produce. Also, the men who printed them usually did so on the side of whatever else they were doing, whether that was selling stationery or sausages (printers like Benjamin Franklin did both).

    The factionalism and heated debate between these papers did not produce permanent fissures or begin civil wars, as did publications in Europe. I think this is because the nature of our political and social system was so different – and still is. Built into our system (not to mention our early American spirit) was the flexibility to react to ideas without having to crush governments or opposing movements. But, I’d like to note, just because blogs may not lead to civil war does not necessarily mean they will lead to healthy debate either. That’s a question we’ve all parsed through in an earlier discussion.

    History also can help is with the question of whether the excesses of blogs will lead to governmental intervention or even censorship. The excesses of early American newspapers led to governmental intervention. Every student of media history knows of the Zenger trial, in which Peter Zenger was tried for libel. During this trial, a jury upheld truth as a defense for libel, even though that idea was not yet a part of common law. They did this contrary to a judge’s orders.

    I think that today, it’s nearly impossible to imagine government censorship on any overt level. Our Consitution simply wouldn’t allow it purely on “speech” grounds. If blog-speech begins to fall into the categories of unprotected speech under the Constitution, they’ll likely be stopped (as they should), but that’s not exactly censorship.

    January 31, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterrepublic3
    This blog brings up many good questions concerning where individuals will turn to for reliable information. It is only natural for individuals to depend on sources that they are accompanied to. For many, it is unusual to seek out information from blogs, since it is such a new source. They depend on their CNNs, NBC and Newsweek. People will begin to use blogs more with the powerful influence of “word-of-mouth”.
    Word-of-mouth has been around for centuries and is seen as the most productive mean of acquiring information. Marketers are even seeing the advantages of this through the use of blogs. Blogs are a more advanced type of word-of-mouth marketing. According to an article written by Advertising Age’s Jonah Bloom on January 30, 2006, “Word-of-mouth forces a marketer to give up some element of control, letting consumers take over a campaign, and that is an invaluable lesson for all marketers operating in a consumer-controlled world”.
    January 31, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterQTPi1021
    In response to the challenges that blogs face in the marketplace of ideas: whether or not people will use the marketplace for enrichment and challenging their own opinions and ideas or validate pre-existing prejudices, I think both are present. People will search out new ideas in the marketplace, but the motive may be to back up their initial opinions. Some may wish to challenge their own beliefs, but may still seek validation. On matters where personal opinion is weak, lack of knowledge about a subject or issue, people might use the marketplace for its tools and benefits; however, on matters where there is a pre-existing opinion they may only seek reinforcement.
    Concerning blogs sparking healthy debate or creating a rift, it would seem that the former might exist more than the latter. Not to say that both will not exist concurrently, but that healthy debate may exceed a schism. It would take an issue that is so very clear-cut that one must fall on one side or the other to facilitate a partisan break, and there seems to always be another option than simply either/or.
    Regulation of blogs would be very difficult because the Internet is boundless and global, and restrictions would almost certainly walk the fine line between constitutional and unconstitutional concerning free speech. Regulations, as they exist for pornography, would likely come in the form of protecting minors from speech deemed inappropriate, but still it seems that because the Internet is available to so many, and is adaptable (moving from email correspondence, to research, to personally published blogs) a regulation that is constitutional now, may not be in years to come.
    January 31, 2006 | Unregistered Commentervanguard15
    It seems likely that the uses of blogs will be as varied as the users. Sadly, it does appear that many people choose to read or listen only to those views likely to match their own. But others purposefully seek out other views (sometimes only to attack those views more efficiently). I want to believe, against my own cynical nature, that the truth will emerge during this struggle and will gather the most support. That truth may lead to fissures that permanently change the structure of society, but while those changes might be painful, they might not be inherently bad. One truth I can always trust is that government will attempt to control the medium, especially to prevent such change. But I also have to believe that it will fail. Eventually.
    February 7, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa7005

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