Studying weblogs at Microsoft: ethnography?
Can my study of weblogs at Microsoft be qualified as an ethnography? I had an interesting conversation with Jonathan about it while I still was there and I was thinking about it since then. Today, watching post-PDC reactions and ripples of comments on Troubling Exits At Microsoft going through Microsoft weblogs I thought I should write about it...
The starting points:
- The main data of the study comes from the interviews - 40+ hours of semi-structured conversations with bloggers and those who have to deal with bloggers in the company.
- We thought of observations and shadowing, but decided against them. Not because we had particularly good reasons for that, but mainly due to the time constraints.
However for me, those interviews represent only tip of the iceberg - there is much more to it...
Weblogs as a window: introduction. The study didn't start from scratch - Microsoft bloggers were part of my interest in corporate blogging for a couple of years. Apart from occasional links here and there and MSFT del.icio.us collection, a few (3 in July 2004 ;) weblogs by Microsoft people were in my regular reading list.
These "background" reading definitely helped - I knew a bit about the blogging culture, issues and people in Microsoft before getting there. This knowledge is different from what an ethnographer may get reading other ethnographic accounts about the culture to be studied - weblogs provide a window into first hands experiences that are up to you to interpret. In a sense I was there before I got there physically...
Meeting Microsoft bloggers. Participating in Social Computing Symposium 2005 unexpectedly came to be part of the study as well. During it I talked to many Microsoft people participating - I didn't know then that those who actually were there were among key people to talk about blogging in the company. I realised it later, when we started to work on the list of people who could give an overview picture of blogging at Microsoft - I had met them before. Earlier contact, even superficial and in totally different role made my first interviews much easier.
Figuring out how to be a Microsoft employee who blogs. Walking on ice not knowing how to start, searching intranet and bloggers mailing lists for answers, inquiring bloggers I knew about their experiences (not that much as a researcher, but as a blogger figuring out what are the risks), discussing rules around blogging with people supervising me, finding my own comfort zone in blogging about work and preparing armors to defend it...
This could be easy to discount as personal experiences, but as with other studies I do, I found out my personal experiences to be a good source of insights about the culture and questions to be asked. Not observing, but active participation that mixes things up and comes with a mix of ethical and methodological choices.
Reading Microsoft blogs. My regular reading list went from 3 to 30+ Microsoft blogs. And almost daily checks of sites aggregating external and internal blogs - to have a "headline" view of what's happening in the Microsoft blogosphere.
That was my observation - not the full-scale, standing behind bloggers' backs, but via a very special window that let's you see only what has been written and published for others to see. Hard to bring into the study in a systematic way, but a way to get to know the people I was going to interview, to learn about relations between them, to find out events and issues to ask about...
Part of it was also something that I enjoyed a lot - being a blog detective. At the certain moment I started to look for bloggers that were out of mainstream Microsoft blogging - those using blogs in interesting ways, blogging in other languages, not being high-profile, having multiple blogs - whatever "outlier" conditions looked reasonable given the data we had then. I did it via reading weblogs - looking for interesting and unexpected, browsing through blogrolls and links.
Meeting bloggers. I'm happy that I had an opportunity to be at several blog-related meetings and socialise with bloggers informally. Those are more than just the insights that I wouldn't be able to get otherwise - they grew into relations that made my time in Seattle more fun and friendship that I hope would last long after this study is finished.
Weblogs as a window: follow up. I'm still a bit there - reading Microsoft weblogs as a researcher and as a friend brings past experiences back and adds extra details to the portraits of the people I interviewed. And the blogs still will be there if I decide to compliment ethnography with archaeology of content and link analysis...
And just because I feel like sharing it - one of the things I discovered today that made me writing this post.
I'm sitting in Raymond Chen's "5 Things Every Win32 Developer Should Know" talk. Ray is one of those "oh my god" Microsoft big brains, however, his blog has definitely made him feel like an old friend. I always appreciate his perspective and expression of what he sees in the world. Whenever I get any type of Windows Error message, I *always* click on yes, I want to send this to Microsoft button because I think that it's going right into his inbox and I know it will get taken care of.