Methodology chapter: blogging practices
[From draft version of methodology chapter for my dissertation, slightly adapted for the web]
Since weblog research presents a variety of (disciplinary) approaches, there is no single way to define blogging practices. A good place to start is the blogging practices framework by Jan Schmidt (2007), which is based on ideas of structuration theory (Giddens, 1984) and integrates well findings from a variety of blog research studies:
Based on ideas from sociological structuration theory, as well as on existing blog research, it argues 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 blogs as a tool for information, identity, and relationship management.
[It makes sense to go to Jan's paper and to look at the framework at this moment :)]
Although I don’t apply the framework directly in my work (partly due to the fact that it has been developed towards the end of my research), it serves well as an introduction to the complexities of blogging practices.
Blogging tools and their uses
The relations between blogging tools and their uses are dynamic. From one side, software features enable or restrict certain actions. Rebecca Blood illustrates it well in her essay "How blogging software reshapes the online community", describing how introduction of permalinks and comments changed conversations between bloggers (Blood, 2004). The differences between functionalities of different blogging tools sometimes results in development of blogging practices difficult to compare. For example, in his analysis of linking between bloggers Marlow (2006) separates LiveJournal weblogs in a separate cluster, since “because the security and structure of a Live Journal blogs is considerably different than others”. This concern is well supported by qualitative researchers, who also report that people using this platform often do not perceive their journals as weblogs (Kendall, 2007), confirming the risks of taking technology-based definitions of blogging without questioning them (boyd, 2006).
The influences also work in the opposite direction – developers of blog software constantly adapt to emergent uses with supportive functionalities. For example, when tagging support was introduced by Technorati beginning of 2005, many blogging tools had followed by providing functionalities to support categorising weblog posts with tags. Resulting adoption of tagging changed ways bloggers categorised their own content and provided additional ways to find bloggers with similar interests.
Although blogging technologies are not in the focus of my research, I take into account the ways they restrict or enforce particular blogging practices. For example, the choice of dataset for analysing weblog conversations was influenced by the introduction of tagging described in the previous paragraph.
Social context of blogging practices
There is an on-going debate in the weblog research community on how social weblogs are. From one side, a randomly selected weblog shows limited interactivity and seldom links to other weblogs (Herring et al., 2004). From another, there is growing evidence of social structures evolving around weblogs. This evidence ranges from voices of bloggers themselves speaking about social effects of blogging (e.g. Mehta, 2004), to studies on specific weblog communities with distinct cultures (e.g. knitting community in Wei (2004), or goth community in Hodkinson (2006)), to mathematical analysis of links between weblogs indicating that community formation in the blogosphere is not a random process, but an indication of shared interests binding bloggers together (Kumar et al., 2003).
The framework by Schmidt (2007) reflects the views of weblog researchers who believe that "the boundaries of blogs are socially constructed, not technologically defined" (boyd, 2006: 36). It suggests that blogging practices are shaped by the networks of a blogger as a well as shared norms that emerge over time in those networks (e.g. being a member of Knitting Bloggers NetRing requires certain frequency of posting and focus on knitting according to Wei, 2004).
Blogging networks are not evenly distributed and often not easily found. For example, as randomly selected weblog is not likely to be well connected with other weblogs (Herring et al., 2004), the chance of discovering a network of bloggers by extracting linking patterns heavily depends on a subset of weblogs and time frame selected for an analysis. Blogger networks may have visible boundaries (e.g. NetRing for knitting community described by Wei, 2004), but more often indicators of social connections are subtle and difficult for a non-member to distinguish. In contrast to other online communication tools (like chat room or forums), there is no single space to observe social ties between bloggers. Rather, relations are formed in a space between weblogs, similar to social activities that emerge in public spaces between buildings in a city (Efimova et al., 2005). This creates difficulties in defining the boundaries of a weblog community one wants to study.
Also, since there are difficult to find, blogging networks with rich distinct cultures may escape the view on blogging practices represented in the media. A good example is provided by an anonymous reviewer of my study of weblog conversations (Efimova & de Moor, 2005), who stated that the study findings are "so unlike the blogging that everyone else has written about that I'm not sure where the authors are coming from". This comment helped me to understand the importance of studying "niche" blogging practices and the risks of broad generalisations .
Blogging episodes over time
Although factors that shape a particular blogging episode might be relatively easy to distinguish, it gets more complicated once blogging practices are considered at the level that goes beyond single episodes. As boyd (2006) argues, weblogs are both medium for an expression and by-product of such expression. Words of a weblog posts written with particular intentions in a context of a specific blogging episodes "build on the top of each other under the same digital roof" (boyd, 2006: 29). As fictional characters with distinct personalities limit writers in their choices to make them believable, over time a weblog raises certain expectations (e.g. in respect to content, style or frequency of posting), forcing its author to take them into account.
The similar logic holds for weblog uses: while single weblog posts might serve specific situated goals, the uses of weblog as a whole are framed not only by the sum of those "local" goals, but also by the accumulated effects different blogging episodes had over time.
Although, the distinctions between micro-level of blogging episodes and their aggregation into blogging practices over time are useful conceptually, it does not help much with data collection. For example, knowing that asking "why have you started a weblog?", "why did you write this post?" and "why do you blog?" may yield different results, researchers would have to make the distinctions clear for a respondent. As in my research I'm not studying the micro-level dynamics of blogging, I usually combine in a single category stories about specific blogging episodes, their effects and more general statements about weblog uses.
More than writing
Blogging practices are not only about writing one’s own weblog. For example, Schmidt (2007) distinguishes between selection, publication and networking rules that correspond to different role of a blogger (reader, author and networker, respectively). Another example is the figure outlinining blogging process as envisioned by Dave Pollard [go to his post to look at it]. He also writes, introducing it:
For some bloggers, just writing is enough. For most of us, though, we're looking to the blogosphere to provide us with useful and interesting information, education, entertainment and/or inspiration for our writing, and feedback, a critical audience, and help with the creative and publishing process.
For my own research, I prefer to keep an open definition of blogging practices that includes activities and issues present because one is blogging. This might involve not only reading or writing weblogs, but, for example, explaining one’s manager why blogging wouldn’t harm the company, going an extra mile to finally meet another blogger face-to-face or figuring out where blogging fits in personal GTD approach.