Tech Tuesdays: Blogs and Blogging

Note: these are my presentation notes for a brown bag discussion with library faculty and university IT staff today. This may become a series…[[pageindex]]

More: my presentation slides and the Daily Show video.

Introduction

Public awareness of blogs seems to begin during the years of campaigning leading up to the 2004 election, but many people credit bloggers for swaying news coverage of Senator Trent Lott‘s comments at Senator Strom Thurmond‘s 100th birthday celebration in December 2002. Blog reaction was strong, and critical of both Lott’s comments and the limited coverage they received at first.

Media attention to blogs has grown since, with political blogs like the top rated Instapundit and Daily Kos among the most visible. A November 2004 episode of The West Wing featured blogs in the plot, and blog coverage has now become so common in cable news that The Daily Show did a piece on it.

Most everybody understands that “blog” is a truncated contraction of “web log,” but there’s little consensus on what a blog is. What is or is not a blog can’t be strictly defined by style, form, content, structure, or even the technology employed.

Types of Blogs

Political blogs get a lot of attention, but preliminary results of an MIT Media Lab sturvey of bloggers found that 73.62% (28,141) of respondents said that half or more of their posts were “personal.”

The Washingtonienne may be the most (in)famous of personal blogs, but LiveJournal, the blog hosting provider most identified with personal blogs, claims over 8 million user-bloggers (2.5 million “active in some way”). LiveJournal’s media relations page quotes a story that connects LiveJournaling with emo rock, saying:

The impulse to LiveJournal is the same as to go to the show and sing your heart out in front of strangers.

Though LJ blogs are derided by many as “mundane, banal or even primitive, inhabited mainly by teenagers producing thoughtless and valueless babble,” the service has also attracted serious study, including in peer production of popular culture and a mood study by Gilad Mishne of the University of Amsterdam. Danah Boyd, study of linking patterns noted that personal bloggers are among the least likely link to other sites in their postings and that there is an assumed familiarity between the blogger and reader.

Starfishncoffee is one LiveJournal blogger, but I would also describe the anonymous Feel-good Librarian as a personal blogger.

Other types of blogs:

Promotion — think “online book tour”

Niche News

Blogmedia — for profit blogs with editors and staff writers

Numbers

Technorati, an online service near the center of the “blogosphere,” claims to track 20 million blogs and 1.6 billion links. Though Technorati is not a blog, it offers services like blog searching, link tracking, and “tagindexing. They also, of course, rank blogs based on the number of their incoming links.

Alexa, recognized as the Neilson ratings for websites, allows users to graph site traffic and compare it against other sites. This graph for BoingBoing, the site Technorati lists as their #1 blog, shows they’re ranked #4,195 of all sites in the world. That ranking compares favorably with The Chicago Sun-Times #1,233 position.

According to the Jan 2005 Pew Internet & American Life Project report on blogs and blogging, of the 120 million U.S. adults who use the internet…

  • 27% (32 million) read blogs
  • 12% of have posted comments or other material on blogs
  • 7% (8 million) say they have created a blog or web-based diary

James Torio‘s MA Thesis in Advertising Design discusses the commercial and marketing aspects of blogs:

Blogs are effective for disseminating information because they have similar characteristics to word of mouth. People tend to listen to the recommendations of friends and trusted resources and many Bloggers are viewed this way by readers.

Torio suggests that companies ignore bloggers at their peril, and offers as examples accusations of censorship by Microsoft (handled successfully by acknowledgment, p.74) and the issue of Kryptonite locks that could be hacked with a Bic pen (completely ignored, p.77).

Blogs Are Conversations

Indeed, that personal and conversational nature of blogs seems to be hugely important in their success. Chris Bowers, in an informal study that looked at popularity of political blogs over time and their community-building features, like the ability to comment or contribute, found that such features are vital to growing readership.

Jenny Levine, The Shifted Librarian, points to Ann Arbor District Library as a an example of an organization that makes good use of a blog in their relations with their patrons:

The posts are written in the first person and in a conversational tone, with the author’s first name to help stress the people in the library. The staff isn’t afraid to note problems with the new catalog, the web site, or anything else. Full transparency — nice. You can feel the level of trust building online. They respond to every comment that needs it, whether it’s a criticism, question, or suggestion. And some of the comments are fantastic. Users are even helping debug the new catalog.

Risks

The notion that blogging is a risky career move is remains persistent. A rather negative story in The Journal of Higher Education noted (discussion):

A candidate’s blog is more accessible to the search committee than most forms of scholarly output. It can be hard to lay your hands on an obscure journal or book chapter, but the applicant’s blog comes up on any computer. Several members of our search committee found the sheer volume of blog entries daunting enough to quit after reading a few. Others persisted into what turned out, in some cases, to be the dank, dark depths of the blogger’s tormented soul; in other cases, the far limits of techno-geekdom; and in one case, a cat better off left in the bag.

Wikipedia, in fact, lists a few relatively well-known cases of bloggers fired for their blog postings, including former employees of Delta Airlines (for pictures) and Friendster (for discussing technology decisions).

Though causality can only be inferred, a 2004 MIT Media Lab Blog Survey found:

[T]he frequency with which a blogger writes highly personal things is positively and significantly correlated to how often they get in trouble because of their postings; [...] generally speaking, people have gotten in trouble both with friends and family as well as employers.

Legal

The Electronic Frontier Foundation‘s Legal Guide for Bloggers and guide toblogging anonymously are worth a look. Also of relevance is a recent Delaware Supreme Court ruling that establishes precedent that readers are expected to use context to aid their evaluation of meaning.

Cold Water

The Google Economy

Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen describes blogs as “a Web-native content genre,” continuing:

[W]eblogs are part of an ecosystem (often called the Blogosphere) that serves as a positive feedback loop: Whatever good postings exist are promoted through links from other sites. More reader/writers see this good stuff, and the very best then get linked to even more. As a result, link frequency follows a Zipf distribution, with disproportionally more links to the best postings.

Google was quick to understand the value bloggers offered in identifying new resources to index, and what resources to index more often, a fact that lead to their purchase of Blogger, recognized as the first blog service, in early 2003.

As it turns out, hyperlinks are among a blog’s most valuable products. Because the web makes it easy to do large-scale citation analysis, and because every popular search engine now uses the technique as a significant component of their search ranking, the large number of bloggers hold great power over what we can or can’t find in those search engines.

The Google Economy is a recognition of the role linking and link-ability have on the propagation or success of an idea, product, or service. More discussion of this can be found in Peter Morville’s Ambient Findability, subtitled “what we find changes who we become.”

Blog Technologies

Get Yourself a Blog

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