Updated: 12/5/2006; 8:27:05 AM.


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  Saturday, December 02, 2006

  Generalising from own experiences when talking about weblogs

Another piece of thought triggered by reading Uses of blogs (Posting with passion: Blogs and the politics of gender by Melissa Greg and What's next for blogging? by Axel Bruns, expecially in respect to interview with Clancy Ratliff).

In Women and Children Last: The Discursive Construction of Weblogs Susan Herring and others discuss the differences between actual blogging practices (in respect to weblog types and weblog author demographics) and representations of those in public discourses on weblogs:

Quantitative studies report as many (or more, depending on what one counts as a blog) female as male blog authors, and as many (or more) young people as adults (Henning, 2003; Orlowski, 2003), suggesting a diverse population of bloggers as regards gender and age representation. At the same time, as will be shown, contemporary discourses about weblogs, such as those propagated through the mainstream media, in scholarly communication, and in weblogs themselves, tend to disproportionately feature adult, male bloggers.

[...] Specifically, we propose that the apparent gender and age bias in contemporary discourses about weblogs arises in part as a result of focus on a particular blog type, the so-called 'filter' blog, which is produced mostly by adult males. We argue that by privileging filter blogs and thereby implicitly evaluating the activities of adult males as more interesting, important and/or newsworthy than those of other blog authors, public discourses about weblogs marginalize the activities of women and teen bloggers, thereby indirectly reproducing societal sexism and ageism, and misrepresenting the fundamental nature of the weblog phenomenon.

Not being closely involved in the discussions on gender politics online, I would leave the complexities of it to the experts. Instead, I focus on one of the explanations behind the differences on what weblogs actually are and what is presented in the media, namely the tendency of human beings (when not writing scientific texts :) to generalise from their own experiences. For example, I can easily imagine how a business/technology analysts would write about blogging having in mind examples of bloggers he knows in the industry without realising that there is a whole different world just next door. Same is likely to be true for bloggers themselves :

Bloggers [...] are presumably not intending to exclude women and youth from the definition of blogging. Rather, they are defining the weblog based on their own activities and those of the people they know, and extrapolating back in time to the antecedents of those activities.

I have admit, I went through that myself, although to a lesser degree. Before another paper by Susan Herring and others came to my attention I didn't fully realise that the blogs that I wanted to study (those of knowledge workers and connected with work to a degree) were a tiny minority in the blogosphere. At that time I became much more careful about positioning and generalising the results of my own research.

I also experienced the issue from another side, realising that others might have their own vision on what weblogs are that exclude blogging as I know it. A reviewer of the paper on blogging conversations commented on our findings suggesting that they were "so unlike the blogging that everyone else has written about that I'm not sure where the authors are coming from". Since then it became even more important for me to put blogging as I know it on the map, even if it looks pretty different from what research of other types of weblogs says.

Finally, another example, to move the discussion a bit out of the research domain. While doing interviews in Microsoft I realised that the same "generalising from own experiences" trend came out there. Public image of blogging in the company is pretty much about external customer-oriented weblogs and the value of those (reflected to a degree in Naked conversations by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel). During the interviews with people responsible for supporting or promoting weblogs in the company the discussion was often focused mainly on those types of weblogs, once taken to the extreme with a statement that "there is not clear business purpose for [internal weblogs]".

However, our interviews with more bloggers in the company suggest that while external weblogs are definitely in the majority and while customer-related benefits are probably most relevant business-wise, other types of weblogs do exist and weblogs could be useful in a variety of ways next to those well advocated publicly. Some of it is in the paper with the study results, but I guess I could do more work to articulate those "non-mainstream" uses more explicitly.

So, given all these, my own approach would be more like this:

  • don't believe anyone as they may generalise from their own experiences;
  • be especially careful with those in power (given by media, published research* or business authority) since their generalisations could be amplified enough to hide the diversity of what is actually happening.

*Ideally, this shouldn't be the case in research, but, although theoretically researchers should make grounded claims, there are all sorts of biases coming from theories, methodologies and methods used, as well as a space for an error and personal beliefs.

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© Copyright 2002-2006 Lilia Efimova.

This weblog is my learning diary. Sometimes I write about things related to my work, but the views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.

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