Blog networking study: dealing with a network expansion and filtering information it bring

by Lilia Efimova on 26 November 2008

This post is part of the series describing the results of the study of blogger networking practices. Please take into account a couple of things:

  • This is a draft. Healthy scepticism and comments are very welcome.
  • Statements are linked to the names of people who talked about particular issue, those might be true or not true for others.

***

By providing an easy way to find and connect to interesting others, weblogs accelerate expansion of one’s network and increase the volume of potentially interesting information flowing through it. Nancy discusses how expansion of networks as a result of blogging creates a need to make choices: “if you choose to follow what blogging network exposes to you may accelerate expansion of the network and then you have to make choice how much to keep up with that”. Not only it is difficult to have a big number of meaningful connections that extension of one’s network brings, but it is also that “relations that these tools enable do not scale” (Euan). Contrary to offline relations that often fade as shared context disappears, weblog-mediated relations “do not go away” as the context and the interactions are “there” (Ton).

One way to deal it the challenges of a growing network is to limit its expansion. When discussing that she does not make as many connections now as when she started blogging Monica suggests that she is “not looking” for more people to connect:

…may be I have enough friends now. Like after getting married, you are not looking anymore. (Monica)

While not necessarily setting limits on a number of new connections, bloggers use the opportunity weblogs provide to get to know others from a distance to informed choices about those they want to engage further. Caution about the degree of engagement with new people is especially visible with Nancy, Euan and Dave, who had extended professional networks prior to starting blogging:

There are in a modest way more people who want to talk to me than I want and can talk to. So I have to manage that. (Euan)

I can’t afford the time to meet everybody I track or listen to. (Dave)

There is no way I can have a relation with everyone who has something important to say about the things I’m trying to learn. (Nancy)

Another way to manage network expansion is choosing not to connect personally with other bloggers. Nancy talks about “information relationships”: not engaging with people at a personal level while still having a meaningful interaction, as well as “trust in what they are producing, which may have nothing to do with trust in them as a human being”. When I try to discuss it in terms of weak and strong ties, she addresses this distinction as insufficient to describe the relations around artefacts that do not necessarily engage the person.

While others do not use the same term they often distinguish between weblogs of people they know and others that they read to monitor particular topics. For example, Dave says that some of weblogs he reads “just to keep an eye on things”, without engaging at more personal level. Shawn mentions not having any connection with some of the authors of the weblogs he subscribes to: “the majority are weak ties or not ties, 5% strong ties”.

Even when not engaging personally with all authors of interesting weblogs, the amount of potentially available information might be overwhelming. Bloggers deal with it by reading weblogs they follow selectively. Some participants describe elaborate strategies for using their networks to scan and filter information for them. For example, Dave has “about fifty science bloggers” in his reader – “they scan journals for me, so I don’t have myself”, “I’ve learnt to trust them over the years”, “it’s much better than summarisation surface”.

Ton is watching “two-three hundreds people” via their online traces and such monitoring what they are doing and writing gives him a “sense of what’s going on in the world” (he stopped reading newspaper and watching TV). He adds that those interactions are different from those with strangers on the street, as he knows the context behind what people write. He is primarily interested not in specific information, but the patterns in it, so he deals with an extendedness of his network by “taking a helicopter view” and then “diving deeper” when he has specific questions.

While not all participants describe such strategies, most of them talk about scanning through their subscriptions, not reading everything (“I read what I can, but I don’t feel bad if I don’t read everything”, Brett) or even not reading at all (“mostly I open new items just to see the bold disappear”, Monica). Some explicitly talk about not being afraid to miss important information and relying on their network to bring it to their attention:

If it’s important it will come back (Gabriela).

People will keep talking about it and it will come to me via different paths (Ton).

Relying on the network to make sense of what is happening in the world bloggers explicitly search for a diversity of topics and points of view in what they read. For example, when I ask about the risks of being in an ‘echochamber’ of likeminded others found through blogging, Euan tells that he likes to “be provoked to think differently” and selects weblogs accordingly. Although he admits that it might be a personal trait, he suggests “you can still choose to be in an echochamber, but it’s easier to choose not to be” as there are so many choices.

Bloggers deal with the expansion of their networks and the information it brings in multiple ways. They choose to limit the expansion by not connecting with new people or engaging in depth. Some of their connections could be described as “information relations”, where weblogs as sources of interesting information rather than as a way to connect personally with their authors. Bloggers manage the information that weblogs bring by reading them selectively (scanning, looking for patterns or not reading at all) at the same time maximising their exposure to a variety of perspectives and trusting that the network brings back what they might miss.

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