Author: Kirsten A. Foot, Steven M. Schneider
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006
Review Published: December 2007
The book under review can in many respects be called "innovative." Firstly, it provides an unparalleled look at the development of web content in the years 2000-2004, covering both American congressional and presidential elections. Secondly, the book is accompanied by a web tool, which is very accessible and which works as a resource tool complementing the text. And thirdly, it claims to be theoretically inspired by adopting the analytical apparatus of Science and Technology Studies (STS).
A recent article by David Beer and Roger Burrows (2007) on the relationship between social sciences and the new developments on the internet (Web 2.0, social networks, etc) claimed that, given the rapidity of developments on the internet and the difficulties in establishing what is really new and what will last, the foremost task of researchers would be to describe and categorize the ongoing developments. Herein lies also the indisputable strength of the book: extensive and systematic observations of hundreds of campaign sites during the 2000, 2002, and 2004 elections in the United States are offered.
Further, the "practice" of web campaigning is classified along the functions of informing, involving, connecting, and mobilizing. There is an inner upward dynamic in the development of these functions. Web campaigning primarily used to and still is fulfilling the function of "informing." With the increasing spread and habitualization of web campaigning practices, it adopts further functions. Information is not so much produced than consumed. Coproduction might become more important with Web 2.0. But there is little of this as of yet. The book delivers a history of web campaigning demonstrating that within a short time period it has become "standard" practice.
The book analyzes in great detail what the different examined web sites offer with respect to informing, involving, connecting and mobilizing, suggesting that each practice or function (to which an individual chapter is devoted) involves a distinct type of relationship between campaign organization and other political actors. The analysis is made even more lucid by introducing information from expert interviews conducted with web designers and results from discussions in focus groups. Throughout the book, the authors combine different methodological approaches, including content analysis of web sites, web user surveys, producer interviews, and focus groups.
Furthermore, the book reaches out to the practitioner. In a recent discussion on a STS mailing list, a web designer was complaining that he could not understand what the social scientists were writing and what they want to say with respect to how web sites should be designed. Given the complexity of the task he was confronting, he noted how he would love to include the insights from social sciences into web design. But one would have to speak to him in understandable terms. Foot and Schneider's book does this. My guess is that designers of campaign web sites will not only understand what the authors say, but will also benefit from the wealth of examples quoted and the discussion of the pro and cons of doing this or that.
However, there is also a small "but" to be mentioned here. Although the book claims to adopt a specific theoretical STS perspective, I can find little of this in the actual analyses. The book is mainly concerned with the technical artifact of web sites used for electoral campaigning. They define web campaigning as "those activities with political objectives that are manifested in, inscribed on, and enabled through the World Wide Web" (4). They go on to ask "How does the use of the web reflect, resolve, or aggregate challenges and tensions in campaign processes?" (4).
In looking at the answers to this question, readers can skip the theory chapter, because they will most likely be able to understand the mostly straightforward arguments of the book without referring to the theory that is potentially behind it. Which translates into the question: do we need the theory at all? The analysis of web campaigning covers many details and is full of interesting insights that might help a campaign manager or give a designer a hint. But theoretical progress cannot be found there.
There could have been some interesting interchanges with the STS literature. The tension between control and mobilization which is discussed as a typical web campaigning problem, is also a topic intensively discussed in the STS literature as a more general feature of the implementation of information and communication technologies. Another useful linkage could have been established with neo-institutionalist thinking in the sociology of organizations (DiMaggio and Powell, 1983) and their discussion of the role of isomorphism for the development and change in organizational routines.
Another "but" refers to the "so what" question. Does web campaigning make a difference in the overall campaign process or is it just a new tool? In the beginning of the review, I mentioned that social scientists are rightly cautious about determining what are the specific effects of new technologies and in determining how far-reaching these potential effects eventually may be. The authors discuss the "business as usual" argument (nothing much changes due to web campaigning) and make few claims about the eventual effects of web campaigning on the process of electoral campaigning as such. The self-posed question "What might web campaigning look like in the future and under different organizational, political and technological circumstances?" (4) remains largely unanswered. In the background most probably looms knowledge about the potential fallacies involved in treating technological artifacts as dependent variables and making assertions based on such a methodology.
A precondition for dealing with effects would be the outlining of an explanatory model. In this respect, the book is also very cautious. The authors rightly note that STS scholar will be surprised by their use of regression analysis to make a point. Rightly so. The explanatory model is mainly oriented towards the inner dynamics of the development of web campaigning. The authors examine four variables for explaining differences in the adoption of web campaigning by candidates: characteristics of web producers, aspects of political campaigns, the dynamics of web environment, and the impact of engaging in one practice (e.g. informing) on the tendency to engage in others. This discussion leads to results like "As the number of hours per week and the number of staff members committed to web production increase, the extent of Web campaigning increases" (167-68). The arguments become more complex over time but fall short of what one would expect from the kind of results the use of a STS framework should deliver.
These critical remarks should not mask the fact that I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in web campaigning. It is very informative, well researched, and well edited.
David Beer and Roger Burrows, "Sociology and, of and in Web 2.0: Some Initial Considerations," Sociological Research Online, Volume 12, Issue 5.
Paul DiMaggio and Walter W. Powell, "The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organiztaional Fields," American Sociological Review, 1983, pp. 147-160.
Gerhard Fuchs is working at the University of Stuttgart, Institute for Social Sciences. His main reserach interests are innovation and internet studies. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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