Reflections on Uses of Blogs
Cross-posted at Politics of Many Minds
From the perspective of Politics of Many Minds, and doing research into the ‘natively digital’ more general, the book Uses of Blogs provided me some interesting thoughts on investigating blogging and the blogosphere. This post is therefore not so much a review, but more a personal research reflection on Uses of Blogs.
It is noteworthy that most definitions of blogs focus in a good part on technological features of blogs and constrains imposed by these features. This may be the last available option if a generic description of blogs is required, without falling into poorly defined listings of possible uses of blogs. The wikipedia definition of blogs is a good example:
A blog (a portmanteau of web log) is a website where entries are written in chronological order and commonly displayed in reverse chronological order. ‘Blog’ can also be used as a verb, meaning to maintain or add content to a blog.
Many blogs provide commentary or news on a particular subject such as food, politics, or local news; others function as more personal online diaries. A typical blog combines text, images, and links to other blogs, web pages, and other media related to its topic. The ability for readers to leave comments in an interactive format is an important part of many blogs. Most blogs are primarily textual, although some focus on art (artlog), photographs (photoblog), sketchblog, videos (vlog), music (MP3 blog), audio (podcasting) or sexual topics (Adult blog), and are part of a wider network of social media.
Digital research methods rely on technological features, or ‘natively digital’ objects such as the link, the comment, and the tag. However, it is not a techno-deterministic view on the web, rather by collecting and analyzing these objects the purpose is to distill social and cultural trends from the natively digital. For my research project more specific, I want to know how politics of many minds can be distilled from investigating the natively digital.
The natively digital reflecting the social
In Uses of Blogs, Axel Bruns and Joanne Jacobs compiled a collection of interesting articles born out of a need to better understand and define the social and cultural contexts of blogging. They investigate the various uses of blogs, to map them and chart their implications for those who engage in them as well as society at large. It is the specific implementation of a blog that determines its value, which is reflected in how technological features are used. Uses of Blogs investigate different blogging styles by disciplines and cultural groups to develop lexicon for most effective blogging mechanisms for different contexts. With this effort, they contribute to a more sophisticated discussion of blogging, which goes beyond primarily speaking of blogging in general, but of diary blogging, corporate blogging, research blogging and many other specific sub-genres that are variations within blogging.
A key attraction to blogging is the potential for individual and informal expression and un-gatekept self-publishing. The ability to link and comment on content found on other blogs or elsewhere on the web is another crucial aspect of blogging. This aspect makes blogging not only an individual and informal expression, but also a collective effort. The blogosphere, understood as the totality of blogs and interaction between blogs and bloggers through comments, trackbacks, and linking enable a distributed, interlinked, broad based practice of content production. Bruns and Jacobs argue:
It is the social networking of blogs and the potential for collaboration that provides a decidedly human dimension to the publishing and publisizing of information. By personalizing content, blogs go beyond a personal informative role and provide a platform for debate, deliberation, and the expression of personal identity in relation to the rest of the world.
These social uses of blogs are dependent on technological features as well as the culture from which the blogs emerge, as is exemplified in the many particular blogging cultures that are investigated in Uses of Blogs. Whereas news blogging uses commentary, annotation and the interlinkage and engagement between individual bloggers to function as a guidedog or gatewatcher for news, research bloggers use the same technological features to shape a new ‘third space’ for academic discourse.
Technological features may determine what uses are possible within their confines, but at the same time technologies are shaped by the social needs present in a culture. And most importantly, technological features reflect society and culture. This is because every link, tag, comment is made by a person. Aperson situated within a particular social, political and cultural frame, which is reflected in the natively digital. Collecting and analyzing natively digital objects can therefore tell us something about the emergent behavior from many minds in the blogosphere. And can be extracted and mapped with internet research tools.
Case study: Google bomb in the blogosphere
A current research project I am working on is deconstructing the infrastructure of a Google bomb:
A Google bomb (also referred to as a ‘link bomb’) is Internet slang for a certain kind of attempt to influence the ranking of a given page in results returned by the Google search engine, often with humorous or political intentions. Because of the way that Google’s algorithm works, a page will be ranked higher if the sites that link to that page use consistent anchor text. A Google bomb is created if a large number of sites link to the page in this manner.
The investigation started after a query in Google for “miserable failure”, one of the most famous Google bombs for George Bush’s personal page. The query only returned documents about the Google bomb instead of the targeted page. Also a Google query for link:www.whitehouse.gov/president returned no satisfactory results. Only 8 pages, with the exception of 1, all whitehouse.gov internal links. Google has made an effort to dismantle the Google bomb and apparently it worked. Although the Google bomb still works in Yahoo!
Marking systems such as tagging and linking (with the anchor texts to mark the link) have become increasingly popular for user-generated categorization and recommendation on the web. ‘Many minds,’ as collectives of space or device users are called, use anchor texts to mark resources such as web pages. How is the technical feature of the anchor text used? What do the markers for Bush’s personal page in the blogosphere tell us about the politics many minds in that sphere? What anchor text with the purpose of a Google bomb do many minds in the blogosphere use?
For this project Technorati results for query “www.whitehouse.gov/president” where scraped for all anchor text using the Technorati Scraper. The resulting tag cloud shows both the ‘miserable failure’ Google bomb, as well as a new one: ‘Drunky McStagger.’
Some initial findings concerning politics of many minds in this research are that the two of the most used markers ‘Drunky McStagger’ and ‘miserable failure’ tell us two things. First of all the many minds are expressing their opinion of Bush by collectively qualifying him as a miserable failure and Drunky McStagger. Secondly, and this influences the first, many minds have an agenda of targeting Google and other search engine’s recommendation of websites in search results. Although collectively many minds find it important enough to mark Bush’s personal page with these terms, they might just as well have humorous as political intentions. Looking at the tag cloud in more detail however, a wide range of negative anchor texts is used to qualify Bush’s personal page, also markers that are used by only two or three people. Apart from neutral descriptive markers such as ‘President Bush,’ the number of negative anchor texts dominates over positive ones. The popularity of negative anchor text for Bush tells us something about the tone in the blogosphere surrounding Bush.
Further research in this project is dedicated to mapping the markers used for Bush’s personal page in other ‘spheres’ (e.g. the web sphere, news sphere, tag sphere) The underlying hypothesis is that these marking practices do reflect society, but that they might differ per ‘sphere’ or device (e.g. Del.icio.us, Google, Technorati).
Bruns, Axel and Joanne Jacobs eds. Uses of Blogs. Peter Lang Publishing, Inc: New York, 2006