I heard about Noor Ali-Hasan’s masters’ thesis from a friend in Ann Arbor a while back, and she has recently posted a condensed version of her thesis on the web. Titled “Analyzing the Social Patterns and Behaviors Associated with Blogrolls and Blog Comments,” Ali-Hasan sets out to determine if blogs “facilitate the formation of new friendships or … emphasize existing relationships in the real world,” by examining three geographically-defined blogging communities in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and the Dallas/Ft. Worth region. While I know I (and many of my friends) have developed new relationships through blogging I know we’re somewhat atypical, and was interested to see what results she found. While she doesn’t take her analysis quite as far as I would like, it’s a very intriguing close examination of blog communities.
Ali-Hasan gathered data from Technorati, BlogPulse, manually recorded linkrolls and comments (nearly 4,000!) from 307 DFW blogs, 145 Kuwait blogs, and 65 UAE blogs that met her basic criteria. She they polled the blog’s authors using an online survey and subjected the link data to a variety of careful analysis. From all this data she essentially concludes that in each case these interconnected communities existed mostly independent from the offline world. For each community she reports the majority said few or none of the comments they received were from offline friends, concluding “For all three communities, bloggers are interacting with new people whom they do not know in real life.”
Furthermore, based on the visualizations she produced she postulates that in each community exists conversation starters and conversation supporters: “The blogosphere needs the conversation-starters to spread ideas and share news that is of importance to the community. The conversation-supporters offer the community’s reactions and their level of participation in a blog post indicates its importance to the community.” As the author and founder of several geographically based blogging communities I think this is an important observation.
I think these findings can be applied to the world of journalism in an interesting way. It’s often said that blogs are somehow bad for journalism, or that bloggers think they are journalists when they are not (See
Krugman Friedman’s recent dig at bloggers for an example.) the reality is that all bloggers contain some original content and some reactions or analysis. Given what Ali-Hasan has found about thriving blog communities, we would expect some to contain mostly original content, while a number of others that contain mostly reaction or analysis. The existence of both does not spell the end of journalism, but instead a new and different arrangement of public discourse from the newspaper age. If in the past the very few wrote for a big newspaper and everyone else was stuck printing broadsides in their basement or running small publications, blogs won’t eradicate this distinction, just complicate it. A very few will still dominate the conversation (and probably still work for big media corporations like the New York Times) but the technology will smooth what is now a very sharp curve: more will occupy the middle space opened up by the cheapness and scalability of blogging technology.
This is related to some thoughts I had on the power curve of blog readership – with a few claiming most readers and most having small readerships. I think this “long tail” approach oversimplifies the true structure of the blogosphere and implies that all blogs should be compared on an equal basis. In reality there are many blogs on the curve whose readerships overlap little, if at all. If the relationships between blogs are graphed in a more intelligent way such as Ali-Hasan has grouped her blog communities, I would imagine the entire blogosphere would look more like the distribution of stars in the universe and less like a rigid power curve. There would be clusters of small blogs centered around more popular ones, but the entire system would not have a center, and the largest blogs would not necessarily be closely related to each other.
Interestingly, when Ali-Hasan examines the cultural differences between her blogging communities, she finds evidence I think hint at the point I’m making above. In addition to discovering the nature of the topics of blogging is culturally determined (with the UAE and Kuwait bloggers reporting discussing mostly topics taboo in offline society) she finds that the Dallas bloggers alone link to the most popular blogs on the web (the so-called “A-list”). I think it’s this reality that for Americans reinforces the misconception the entire blogosphere should be thought of along the same sliding scale. As the blogosphere continues to grow abroad it will become increasingly apparent we’re not dealing with one hierarchy, but many. It’s not coincidence Technorati CEO David Sifry chose to examine the topic of the language of blogs in his most recent “State of the Blogosphere,” finding just 25% of blog posts are in english.
One final thought I had about Ali-Hasan’s study is the nature of the communities she selected for study – all three are geographically-defined. Although a good way to ensure a diversity of culture, language, and location of her samples, I wonder if bloggers who seek to identify themselves with a community could be different from the blogosphere at large. There are many online communities whose members either resist or fail to mention geographic identification. If anything, choosing geographic communities perhaps skews her data towards being more likely to have offline relationships because people who know each other offline most likely live close by. Examining other types of communities, particularly for niche or obscure interests, might find that the small percentage of blogging friends who met in real life to decrease even more.