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