A fascinating post by Wretchard on the dynamics of public events in the Internet age, and on the ways in which such events are now subject to quantitative analysis of the type that has previously been reserved for quantum systems and securities markets:
Internet storms are emergent events which are difficult to predict. They are like rogue waves on the ocean, arising from the complex interaction between many factors, none in themselves particularly threatening. Yet combined they can suddenly throw up a devastating phenomenon, able to sweep all before it. About all people can do to gain a semblance of influence over emergent events is to shorten their reaction times to events. In the jargon of the trade they must increase the speed of their feedback loops to have any hope of evading the avalanche or deflecting it decisively. Because there is no easy way to predict what direction emergent events will take, the prudent manager must do all he can to detect them while they are building up. A number of methodologies exist to do this. But perhaps the most simple consists of an analyst trained to look at prediction markets, aggregators and sentiment analysis software in ways designed to detect the edge of the storm.
How to integrate this new information in our understanding of public events, especially political campaigns?
I went over the Hillary/Internet storm problem earlier tonight with an analytics specialist and the discussion touched on some of the issues. Some of them were nearly philosophical. What should one look for? What, in fact was an “event”? But in general we concluded that simple analytical tools might make a difference in anticipating a sudden rising of the memes. Politicians might even be interested in using those tools one day. One day. But for Hillary, as for Dan Rather, it may already be too late.
Read the whole thing. There are also some insightful comments, including this one by geoffb:
My take is that there are often two opposing “opinions” that we have in us. The private one that we actually believe to be true and the public one that we think is what everyone else holds or is the PC one that is correct to express. The public one is molded by the media and those who hold power over our lives. It is what is captured by opinion polls.
The internet allows for the expression of the private opinion without the real world consequences. When enough people see that others believe as they privately do then they will lose the inhibition about expressing that private opinion and the private flips to be the public opinion.
See also this comment by Buckhead:
My take is these internet storms can only occur when there is a large difference between the cultivated image and the reality, analogous to a large potential difference in electricity. The situation is precarious, unstable and ripe for a spark or a leader (in lightning terminology) that will propagate a sudden discharge and restoration of equilibrium. In these internet storms that would be a closer relationship between image and reality.
Hillary’s invincibility and inevitability as a candidate has always been pure myth cultivated by the MSM and the Clinton machine. In truth, she has always been a deeply flawed candidate. She is an unappealing, obviously phony, deeply cynical shrewish harridan with the most grating voice in public life besides Gilbert Godfrey. The more she and Bill were in the public eye the more people were reminded why they didn’t like them.
In the case of Hillary, Image and reality have become more aligned over the course of a few days.
It doesn’t look like big-media and political professionals have even come close to appreciating what’s going on, or the full potential of the Internet and prediction markets. Many of the old-line experts still rely on traditional polling, and if they follow prediction markets they don’t admit it publicly. Yet while old experts are blindsided by events, market-savvy amateurs, using the Internet and thinking like traders rather than political wonks, seem to understand this stuff intuitively.
The Internet may have, in just a few days, destroyed the Clintons as a political force. It remains to be seen who among our political classes has learned the new rules. Maybe Obama has, maybe not. 2008 will be interesting.
UPDATE2: Tom Maguire expands on his comments here.