meta: June 2004 Archives

blog research

| | Comments (4)

Liz has a really nice post over at M2M that is partly a call for more academic research into blogs and partly a state-of-the-art kind of review of the kinds of things that are being done currently or should be done soon.

I've got any number of responses, since this will be one of the core foci of the graduate course I'll be teaching next spring, but I'll try and contain myself a little bit. Heh. One of the crucial points that Liz makes is that there is a limit to the usefulness of conducting research on blogs without spending some time actually keeping one. (yes, those graduate students will...) This was one of the points of her MEA presentation/overview--the problems with studying blogger-as-other. She offers a tentative wishlist of five different research approaches or avenues of inquiry:

  1. study of the form itself
  2. "study of interactions between blogs and blog authors, and the clusters (or communities) that are forming in this context."
  3. ethnographic study of those kinds of clusters
  4. study of style/content
  5. "study of the use of weblogs as tools in specific organizational contexts"

This a solid list, but I'd add a couple of things. Liz says that we need definitional and descriptive work, but I guess I'd add inventional to those terms. As important as it is to find some common ground definitionally, I'd argue that it's equally important to leave that ground open for redefinition and redescription. Smarter folk than I have done the post-mortem on hypertext, but it's always struck me that one of the things that plagued it, over and over, was an obsession with defining it in a particular way. Those definitions built in impossible expectations that were simply never met. Liz talks about finding some "meaningful labels" that we might apply, such as voice, audience, and interactivity, and I think it's useful to describe these kinds of labels as practices rather than as forms.

I think, for example, of Lilia's recent discussion of the Herring et al. piece on genre, where she critiques them for reaching conclusions about blogs (they're not as interactive as touted) when those conclusions are based on an incomplete understanding of the various practices that make blogging interactive. And it's not a matter of simply widening the def'n of interactivity to include trackbacks, or feed subscriptions; as Lilia notes, it's a matter of changing definitions of interactivity. And I'd add, not jumping in to define interactivity too soon--giving it space to develop in various ways.

This clicks with something else that Liz mentioned at MEA, the tendency of blogs to change over time, and we might add bloggers here as well. As new tools emerge, we change our practices, develop new habits, and that will have some effect on what we're doing. As Liz rightly points out, our perceptions of audience change the way we approach writing to them. As do our personal circumstances, the way we budget our time, the level of privacy or transparency we choose, and any number of other factors.

I'm not disagreeing here, believe me. If there's an item that I'd add to the list, it's one that weaves throughout several of her points. I think that the kind of writing that many bloggers do differs quite a bit from the writing traditionally expected of academics. Not a huge claim, that. But it carries with it all sorts of implications: voice, audience, form, style, subject, risk, etc. Shouldn't be too surprising that a rhetoric professor would be interested in this element, no?

A final quick point, and that's that I really think it's important that these kinds of conversations take place amongst or across disciplines. For me, that was one of the real bonus elements of the MEA panel, and it's why I find myself coming back over and over to M2M. Okay. Now I'm just kissing ass. Time to go.


| | Comments (0)

Caught this over at Lilia's, but would have eventually arrived at it myself. Mark Bernstein's got a thoughtful post on how the presence of comments and trackbacks exacerbated and/or enflamed both the recent Six Apart price scheme and the implosion. He writes:

In both cases, a ringing chorus of abuse questioned the motives, the abilities, and even the sanity of the very people who had done the most to create weblogs. In both cases, cooler heads eventually prevailed -- but not, I expect, before lasting damage was done to the relationship between the blogosphere and the very people on whom it most depend.

And, in both cases, it seems to me, the real culprit were comments and trackbacks -- technologies which allowed and encouraged flaming.

On the one hand, I think he's right about this. It's one of the reasons I have a 24-hour rule in the courses I teach. When I turn papers back, I ask students to wait 24 hours before they come to speak with me about the grade that disappoints them. I ask them to collect their thoughts, and to try to make a compelling case for why they see a difference between their perception of an essay's value and my own. Doesn't always work, but it's the same principle at work here. Our initial response to something, particularly when that response is negative, is much more likely to be a "violent reaction." Mark speaks in favor of the time delay involved with fully blogged conversations (as opposed to those taking place in comments):

Weblog comments incite duels. Duels are bad for society. We should all forego comments and return to carefully blogging responses -- including responses we disagree with, but excluding responses we cannot tolerate.

I think there's a flip side to this as well, though, one that Mark doesn't fully account for. When I first saw the 6A price scheme, and considered how it would affect my ability to use MT for courses, I was certainly a little steamed. I found this info pretty early in the cycle, but there were already 30-40 trackbacks at Mena's site, almost all of them outraged and nasty. For me, that had the opposite effect, though. My own post, when I reread it, sounds a little disappointed, but I like to think that my tone is more moderate than it would otherwise have been. In fact, my post proved to be the rough draft for the email that I sent to 6A, which led to a month's worth of correspondence, which in turn played some small role in the much-revised, much-more-friendly educational pricing that they now offer.

And so I guess the flip side is this: just as there are those who like duels, who want to be confrontational, there are those of us who don't, who may pull back from our own extreme reactions when faced with other people who are even more extreme. Occasionally I get a kick out of reading the 100-comment threads on MetaFilter, for instance, but most of the time, I read them knowing that that's not the kind of discussion that really gets my critical juices flowing. Seeing others' reactions often prompts me to question my own, to ask myself if I really want to take a particular tone or if I want to give myself a 24-hour pause before responding.

It's easy for me to minimize the "lasting damage" that Mark cites, I know, because it didn't happen to me, but I'd like to hope that the damage isn't as lasting as Mark suggests. I'd like to think that most of us who were disappointed in 6A have taken the time to go back and look at their revised price scales, which seem pretty fair to me, and I'd like to think that part of the reason that there wasn't as much kerfuffle over the thing was that people listened to Dave Winer's audio explanation of it ahead of time. And I suppose I'd like to think that there's some value in the immediacy of comments, even as I recognize that it fans the flames more often than it should...

Update: and as demonstration of the fact that it's not just comments that produces bad behavior, I submit the following, from the belated CBS coverage of the shutdown:

Still, bloggers who relied on were furious, saying they should have been warned about the cutoff. Their anger spread to other bloggers, too, including Elisabeth Riba of Melrose, Mass., who called Winer "an egomaniacal blowhard with his head in the clouds. So much for his vision of blogtopia."

I don't know much about Winer, but I do know he's not universally loved. Even so, all I can say is wow. And that from someone, the story implies, who wasn't herself affected by the shutdown.


| | Comments (0)

I'm going to slide off on a tangent here. For me, the questions raised about blogs & communities and/or email v. RSS have gotten me to thinking about push & pull. And that, in turn, has connected for me with the discussion about citation that Alex, Seb, and David Brake have been holding.

When I think about push & pull, one of the first places that my brain travels to is this little section from Steven Johnson's first book, Interface Culture. Among a number of (I think) unappreciated ideas in that book, there's a spot where Steven tries to redescribe links as stylistic devices, using the example of Suck:

Suck's great rhetorical sleight of hand was this: whereas every other Web site conceived hypertext as a way of augmenting the reader experience, Suck saw it as an opportunity to withhold information, to keep the reader at bay (132).

Johnson labels the normal way of web linking (the click for additional info) as centrifugal, pushing readers to other sites, or other pages within the site. The links on Suck, on the other hand, encouraged readers to go to other pages but to return--other pages were used as a means of adding various dimensions to the page you happened to be reading. Compare this idea (of directional, or centripetal/centrifugal linking) with a lot of the other early hypertext theories and you'll find that for most writers, links are immaterial conduits. (There are some smart exceptions to this, of course.)

Okay. What does this have to do with importing academic citation index models into the blogosphere? Academic citation does a little bit of both push and pull. On the one hand, I select certain scholars and integrate their work into my own as a means of building my credibility, locating my work within a particular tradition, name-dropping, whatever. I pull their work into my own. But I also push my readers to these scholars--if I find them valuable enough to cite, then a reader who finds my work compelling may trace out my bibliographic network and read these other writers. Duh. Obvious enough.

Print bibliographies, however, blur these two different directions and various functions. In fact, they blur a lot of stuff. I've always thought it would be interesting to try and weight bibliographic entries according to how central they are to a given book, maybe just by messing with the alpha channel so that parenthetical mentions or footnotes are light grey while crucial texts get bold faced. But that's neither here nor there. For all of the imperfection of your run-of-the-mill bibliography, these different motives for citation all legitimately feed into the purpose of a citation index (unless they encounter widescale gaming, I suppose).

One of the wrenches that gets thrown into the mix with weblogs, though, is the fact that there is no generic "link." The links that I'm building into this entry are different from the links to the right in my blogroll, and those are different from the links when I visit Bloglines. Right now, I'm pushpulling with citation links, but I think of the blogroll as centrifugal and of Bloglines as centripetal. And that's to say nothing of comments or trackbacks. An "accurate" citation index would be able to weigh each of these appropriately, I suppose, but for me, one of the real advantages of that variety (contrasted with the flatness of the bibliography), is precisely that it doesn't lend itself to one-size-fits-all accounting. One example. More and more, I'm using BL as a filter for my roll, as a way of trying out sites and writers. If I stick with them, I move them to my roll, bc I understand that it's only there that they "show up." But I manage the roll by hand, so those changes tend to be rarer and slower.

And for me, those various weights attached to my links are important. They're not all equal for me. Mycology is more dynamic for the fact that I can decide how much pushing, pulling, and pushpulling to do. There is value in flattening out those categories, and treating them all simply as links--the interesting work that Alex is doing re Scholarati is evidence of that. And when Seb borrows Guédon's core-fringe metaphor to advocate for the margins, I can't argue. But I think David hits on it when he says, "Unfortunately, counting such links does not (usually) tell you anything about why the link was made (was it criticism? how significant is the linkee to the linker or vice versa?)"

The why of linking matters a heck of a lot less in academic citation, Erdos numbers nonwithstanding. But out here, as a variety of link types develop, the idea of an index is of limited usefulness, I suspect, and at worst, it would lead to even more gaming, and impose upon a dynamic, general economy of links the kind of scarcity that Guédon describes in relation to the ISI citation index.


| | Comments (1)

Traffic's been spiking here lately, thanks to two largely unrelated phenomena:

  • Jenny received the first ever Kairos award for best academic weblog (congrats!), and then made me blush for about three days by saying that she thought I deserved the award. (She's just being modest, believe me.)
  • Last week, I blogged a power session at the Media Ecology conference, and the session rundown has been cited in a bunch of places, in part or whole.

The traffic spike that's resulted is probably not interesting to anyone other than me, but the tension between the two events has gotten me to thinking, I must admit. Each represents a very different community, neither of which I would consider myself particularly central to. The first community, though, computers and writing, is one that I've been familiar with for a much longer time--in terms of disciplinary geography, it's the neighborhood I grew up in. The second is still emerging and, thanks to Ton Zijlstra, I've been thinking of it as the city I'm interested in moving to. In fact, part of the motivation for me in going to MEA was to see that panel, but also to meet some of the speakers, to start building some of those connections. One way of thinking about that panel, in fact (since it was on cross-discplinary connections), would be to say that it both performed and discussed the advantages of getting outside of the gated communities we call disciplines.

The semi-official listserv for C&W was pretty active today, and one of the thoughts that was advanced was that blogging has had a detrimental effect on the "neighborhood." Too many people looking elsewhere, or focusing on themselves, I suppose. I understand the motives behind such a claim, and I can even understand how some might think that the case, but my gut reaction was disbelief. Among other things, Ton writes:

I myself look for ideas, co-thinkers, sounding boards and conversational partners in the blogosphere. I talk to Martin Roell for instance on an almost day to day basis, while I don't really know who my nextdoor neighbour is. And the conversations Martin and I have are way more important to me than I can imagine having with the guy next door. So I too, am having part of my communication needs fulfilled on-line in stead of by the city I live in, and where I would traditionally have looked for it.

I think it would be hard for each of us not to recognize ourselves to one degree or another in that--I certainly do. I think one of the differences that blogs introduce is that they really allow us to generate our communities, our trust networks, our sounding boards, in a way that is potentially threatening, not just to old old school disciplinary structures, but even to relatively recent forms of electronic communication. For a while Jenny and I talked about writing an article that asked if listservs hadn't outlived their usefulness for disciplinary communication, and I know Steve is working on a "list v. blog" article. For my own purposes, I've gotten to the point where listservs are almost unbearable--and I'm talking about damn near every listserv I'm subscribed to, not just one or two.

Will's thoughts about academic blogging also prompted me to think about this, mainly bc I'd love to be able to say this about listserv activity:

I consider this an academic activity. I learn from it. I read, think, respond, and in doing so, when the blogging is good, I clarify my thinking, allowing me to reflect upon it in more concrete ways, which in turn produces more learning. Lately, I find myself digging back into these posts more and more (which has led me to consider ways in which I might categorize or organize these thoughts even more effectively.) The amount of writing and thinking I've chronicled here just floors me sometimes. Not that any or most of it is especially ground breaking...just the sheer size of it. In just under two years in this space (not including previous spaces) there have been almost 2000 posts. That's amazing to me.

We can certainly say the same about the vast number of posts, I suppose, but precious little else. Listserv archives are difficult to navigate, contain a minimum of options for organization, and in fact, often seem to encourage an absence of reflection. I still use them for certain things, but only with the understanding that their one-size-fits-all approach to information is severely limited, and often downright annoying.

In fact, I'm starting to wonder if there aren't a bunch of parallels in recent "email v. RSS" discussions that might fruitfully be transposed to "list v. blog." Hmm. Need to think on this further, and pick it up again later.



Powered by Movable Type 4.1

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the meta category from June 2004.

meta: May 2004 is the previous archive.

meta: July 2004 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.