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Netroots, Continued

by Scott Winship

Today I come to you from the eastbound orange Metro line. I promise to get back tomorrow to my earlier post examining the prevalence of liberals and conservatives, as many of you shouted from the rooftops, “Arcane methodological details, dammit!! We want more arcane methodological details!!” While I hope this blog’s primary contribution ultimately won’t be to unite the bickering community of progressive public-transit-riding data geeks, I’ll happily satisfy the public.

As you hopefully recall, yesterday I found that the Democratic netroots community was indeed large enough to impact the electorate in terms of raw numbers. I estimated it at 1.6 million adults – bigger than the civil liberties and gay activist communities, as big as the feminist and minority activist communities, smaller than the group of environmental activists, and much smaller than the labor movement. I want to qualify these conclusions today and to consider what we know about the make-up of the netroots.

First, a sheepish admission – I should have noted the uncertainty in my estimate. “Sampling error” is Statistics 101. Drawing another random sample would very likely produce some estimate other than 1.6 million adults, just because different people would be randomly picked. I should have qualified my estimate by noting that there is a 16 percent chance that the true number of Democratic netroots activists – by my definition – is less than 950,000 and a 16 percent chance that it is more than 2.2 million adults. There is a 2.5 percent chance that the figure is less than 350,000 and a 2.5 percent chance it is more than 2.8 million. My estimates are just that, but we can be reasonably confident that the conclusions I stated about the netroots’ size relative to interest groups’ are accurate. Mea culpa – but note that I’m pointing out the oversight without anyone mentioning it to me first! I’d make a terrible politician.

Upon further reflection, however, I think my definition of the netroots actually overstates its size. By my definition – a liberal or Democrat who was minimally politically active and regularly gets news from blogs – I myself would be part of the netroots, though I rarely read the more stridently loud-and-proud blogs. And if one compares the 1.6 million figure I came up with yesterday to a more reliable estimate of the DailyKos audience by a leading company that tracks internet traffic – 212,000 unique visitors in April 2005 – the possibility that there are lots of people like me included in my definition becomes very real. The same company, comScore, found that while 34,000 people visited DailyKos.com the day before the November 2004 election, just 86,000 visited it on Election Day.

Being in academia right now, I will use this opportunity to bust out the most clichéd conclusion found in that rarefied world: Further research is needed.

Regardless of the size of the netroots community, if it is no different than the rest of the Party, then it wouldn’t really be influential in the sense of affecting Party positions, whether you think that would be a good thing (netroots community) or a bad thing (Chait et al.). So how does it look?

Well, the short answer is that we don’t know. Seriously. The Pew study I relied on yesterday is too small to be used for making meaningful statements about the netroots, even as I defined it. (That ol’ sampling error problem is a big problem when you start slicing and dicing the community.) There was a poll done last month by Chris Bowers of MyDD under the auspices of BlogPac. Bowers contacted a random sample of MoveOn.org members via email. This would be quite an interesting poll, except that just 7 percent of those contacted agreed to participate. You can almost guarantee those folks are different from MoveOn.org’s membership as a whole. I’ll link here, but really, these results shouldn’t be taken seriously. I didn’t bother reading further after getting to the response rate, which Bowers is to be commended for including.

Bowers also references an earlier (voluntary) Blogads survey, but just like his own, it can’t be trusted to be representative of the netroots as a whole. Again, I couldn’t tell you what it says because it’s not worth the time it would take to read it.

Then there’s a recent analysis of the DailyKos.com readership by comScore. Their methods lead me not to put great stock in their conclusions either. While I have more trust that they can track the overall readership of a site like DailyKos accurately, the challenges to ensuring that one has a representative snapshot of a site’s viewers are quite steep. comScore solicits panelists online and through promotions, which means they get a non-random sample to begin with. So they then must weight panelists’ responses so that in the aggregate they are representative of the population of interest. But comScore is unable to fully determine what makes their sample “non-random” – it may be known to be disproportionately male, but what if it consists of people who are less social than average or who are more likely to allow comScore to install tracking software on their computer? Furthermore, to create the weights, they must have accurate information on the “universe” of internet users. But one needs another survey to get this information, and that survey may itself be flawed (which would even affect their overall estimates of readership).

Here’s some sparse information on the comScore findings. Note that according to their methods, more senior citizens read DailyKos than do people between the ages of 18 and 34. This just seems highly unlikely to me, given that aggregate blog readership and internet use are skewed toward the young. Just 34 percent of adults age 65 or older are online, compared with 89 percent of those 18 to 28 years old. My tabulation of the Pew data from yesterday indicates that just 2 percent of senior citizens regularly relies on blogs for news, compared with 39 percent of those 18 to 29 years old.

In short, don’t believe the hype – we know very little about the netroots per se. Later this week I’ll look at a more reliable study of Dean activists that may be the best source of information we have on the Democratic netroots.

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Of course, due to the miniscule numeric size of the netroots, like environmental activists, and unlike labor, the netroots are only usefully measured in terms of money, not votes.

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