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  Wednesday, April 12, 2006

  Weblog research: artefacts and practices

My last post made me thinking on (actually drawing :) the distinctions between artefacts and practices in a context of weblog research (not theorethical at all):

  • Blogging artefacts are "things" that could be seen: weblog posts, links, comments, blogrolls, RSS subscriptions, etc. Some of them are hidden (e.g. draft posts), but most could be easily observed online. That make studying weblogs fun (if you don't bump into teasing data). 
  • Blogging practices is about what bloggers do with their blogs, as well as why and how of it. Blogging practices are often invisible and (sub)culture-specific. Artefacts represent practices and play all other roles (e.g. they could be products or tools).

 So, what would be a way to study blogging practices? I have a few pictures. The first two represent what I call archeology and ethnography (the person with "flower" is actually a researcher with "looking glass" :).

'Archeology' is about studying artefacts in order to say something about artefacts or practices. In the first case, I don't have any problem: study artefacts -> say something about them.

The second case could be more complicated. Artefacts only represent practices, so if you want to study artefacts and then say something about practices you need to understand how those two connected. One way to do so is by having a good theory (existing knowledge of connections between artefacts and practices): if you have it then claims about practices based on artefacts could be pretty much true.

The point is that in most cases we do not have good existing knowledge about blogging practices, so I tend to be quite critical on blog research that concludes something about blogging practices by studying only artefacts. For example.

Ethnography would be an alternative: studying practices by living the "life of the tribe". In this case you are more likely to provide a better picture of specific practices, but those would be limited to subcultures you studied. However, it's also pretty time-consuming.

I also learnt from Andrea that ethnographers do not necessarily have interest in artefacts or skills to study them the way "archeologists" would do. Which would be a pity in a case of weblogs, since blogging artefacts can say a lot, especially if "triangulated" based on knowledge about practices.

It also doesn't mean that you really have to be "inside" to learn about practices. Another way would be to ask people to tell stories about practices (e.g. in interviews or, in a very shortened form, in surveys).  However, blogs provide an additional way: one can study meta-blogging (blog posts reflecting on all kinds of issues around blogging).

Meta-blogging posts would provide at least some idea on blogging practices without directly asking bloggers. Of course, they are likely to bias the results in the direction of bloggers who tend to reflect more or do not censor these posts based on whatever reason.


Hmm... not that scientific, but at least something. In case you wonder where are my own preferences: they are about triangulating :) 

  Jan Schmidt on blogging practices

If you are in weblog research make sure you email Jan Schmidt for the draft paper on blogging practices (hmm, if everyone would ask Jan he will be left without qualified blind reviewers for the journal publication he is thinking about):

Abstract. The diffusion of weblogs over the last years has led to a differentiation of blogging practices. This paper proposes a general analytical model to analyse and compare different uses of the weblog format. Its main argument is that individual usage episodes are framed by three structural dimensions of rules, relations and code, which in turn are constantly (re)produced in social action. As a result, “communities of blogging practices” emerge, that is groups of people who share certain routines and expectations about the use of Weblogs as a software tool for information-, identity- and relationship management. To illustrate these conceptual ideas, findings from a large-scale survey (N=5.246) of the german-speaking blogosphere are presented, focussing on sociodemographic characteristics and motivations of active bloggers as well as on strategies of presenting oneself, dealing with social relationships and using the blogosphere as a source of information. These are found to be partly dependent on bloggers’ age, partly on the experience with the Weblog format. In general, the majority of bloggers uses them to journal episodes and events of their private life, while keeping contact with other readers and authors through comments and (to a lesser extent) a blogroll.

I really like the paper, but I'd say that it's really two-in-one: the first is probably the best theorising work on weblogs I've seen so far, the second has a very interesting results complementing other blog studies.

The main reason I see it as two papers: I don't see how the survey illustrates the model. I find the strength of Jan't model in articulating dynamic relations between different aspects of blogging practices, as well as connections between micro-level "specific blogging episodes" and forming of macro-level rules and relations - I do not see how those things are illustrated by the survey (Jan, may be I miss what is there - then it should be more articulate).

Interesting finding (see also highlights by Philipp Young): choices of what to blog about differ by age (teenage and older bloggers), while use of comments, blogrolls and RSS differ by the time spent blogging (less than 6 months/more than 6 months). The second one suggests the change of blogging practices over time (corresponds to similar finding in my BlogTalk paper (.pdf), other studies and subjective feelings).

I'm not sure how far one-to-one generalisations of specific blogging practices (e.g. contents or weblog posts) into broader categories (information, identity and relationship management) would hold. For example, if we talk about identity management: (IMHO) in the blogosphere your identity is formed as much by linking to others as by the contents of your weblog. This comes back to the whole discussion on artefacts and practices (e.g. archaeology and ethnography in weblog research, but I should write about it properly).

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