Skip to content

Social networks and commenting

A recent post by danah boyd (and Bernie Hogan) called Would the real social network please stand up? makes some interesting points about the dangers of assuming all social networks are comparable and concludes
"The truth of the matter is that there is no "real" social network. It all depends on what you're trying to measure, what you're trying to do with those measurements."

She outlines three types of networks:
• "Sociological 'personal' networks": measured in different ways, these would be 'ego networks' with the person in the centre choosing to associate themselves with all the others - e.g. by saying they are people who they would trust with a secret.
• "Behavioral social networks": these would be networks based on common practices. They may be observed but not experienced as important by the people involved, e.g. people taking the same train to work, or they may be more important to the persons - e.g. Grateful Dead fans.
• "Publicly articulated social networks": 'articulated' means that you consciously list them somehow (e.g. your list for Christmas cards), and the public part comes about when you tell others - the obvious example being Facebook 'friends', or blogrolls. These networks may be made of all kinds of people, some of whom may not reciprocate the social tie (e.g. think of an inveterate name-dropper); and these networks may serve different purposes. The symbolism of the ties are important here - i.e. I may friend you as a follow-up to an offline meeting, but there may be no real intention of deepening the relationship.

What are blog networks?
I was thinking - how would you classify blog networks? The common identification of the 'blogosphere' seems to be a behavioural network - from outside bloggers are often bunched together as one group, but from within most bloggers do not identify with the group as a whole. One publicly articulated social network is the blogroll - but there are different views on how useful they are in explaining meaningful ties for bloggers (e.g. Schmidt 2007). Leaving a comment, and responding to them, is a practice central to establishing and maintaining a 'publicly articulated social network' in blogging, but of course not every comment has the same meaning (e.g. see my 10 types of commenters).

I'd agree with Bernie Hogan (aka blurky) that it's important not to 'reify' networks, even though they can be visualised in compelling ways. Blogrolls have limited usefulness, but I would argue that mapping the comments reveals more meaningful relations. Here is an interesting example: at bit less than two years ago, bloggers who had clustered around the launch of All-Blogs, met up in 'Blog House' (Bloggers Allied). This is a mapping of the comments made on blog posts that discussed the blogmeet (the blue squares are blogs that received comments, and the red circles are people that made comments).
malaysia all-blogs blog house sna social network analysis

OK - it's all a bit confusing, but we can focus in on the two blogs with the most comments - who, not coincidentally, were the two major figures there.
malaysia all-blogs blog house sna social network analysis

With hindsight, it's interesting to notice how the two major figures there had little common online commenters - suggesting that their networks have different bases. These two leading bloggers were ostensibly working together towards a common purpose, but after the March 8, 2008 elections there was what was touted as a 'split in the blogosphere' - where they both had a public spat. When I asked some of those involved about the 'split', a common answer I got was: 'there never was a blogosphere - there are all kinds of bloggers, and they can do whatever they want'.

When analysing the social dynamics in the blogging field, it would be useful to think of different types of networks that are enrolled in different contexts: in practice, the networks only exist ephemerally, at the moment of their articulation - the danger of 'reifying' them comes from the ability to trace them on the web, which gives them a misleading permanency. A blogroll link may have been added two years ago, a comment may have been made pretty much at random in any blog.

I think that comments are a fundamental practice of bloggers, and investigating those is more important than - for example - looking at blogrolls or other links; though of course they are relevant too. Too many studies of blogs overlook comments, possibly because: 1) they are more difficult to crawl/mine with automated bots; 2) there is a decreasing rate of significance of comments as they increase in numbers (apart from being an index of the importance of the blog and/or the post) - studies that concentrate on the biggest blogs may therefore overlook them. The way I see it, a blog without the option of commenting is just a website, and analysing blogs without taking account of the comments is like trying to understand the social dynamics of a pub without paying attention to the pub goers.