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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.

The 10 types of commenters

By now, anyone who reads this blog should know that I find the comments of blogs to be one of the most interesting things about blogs. So, I thought of doing a rough categorisation of different types of commenters (by the way, I know it’s meant to be ‘commentators’, but I just don’t like the sound of it…).

They are categorised in relation to position they take to the post and/or the blogger, and also their ‘Identifiability’ - i.e. how much information they leave about themselves.

The Firster
(aka Kiasu Commenter) Loves to be the first to comment. This phenomenon is restricted to a few high readership blogs. (Interestingly, according to one of my respondents this practice originated from; does anyone have any thoughts on that?)
‘Yay, first!! Na na nananana :p’
‘NoOOooo – I tot I was 1st but den by the time I post some1 beat me oledi :(‘

Identifiability: High – probably not anonymous and probably leaves a link.

The Follower
May overlap with the Firster; will leave comments that say little more than ‘I was here and I think you’re cool/cleve/correct’.
‘Haha lol this one so funny lah’
‘ROFLMAO you brighten up my day haha’
‘Once again you have nailed the issue. My hat off to you!’
'Interesting - never thought of this

Identifiability: Has name and probably links to blog.

The Hater
A version of the classic Troll, but distinguishes him/herself by never missing the chance to insult the blogger, whatever the post is about. It’s impossible to know if it’s the same person coming back, or not, because s/he always posts anonymously, or uses a pseudonym such as ‘Blogger_is_a_fugly_bitch’.
‘You’re a fat idiot’
‘F**k you pathetic fool’
‘I hope you choke on your cigarettes, you poor excuse for a human’
‘Your thighs are fat and you have to photoshop out your ugly zits, I know because a friend saw you at the mall’
‘You’re a disgrace to Malaysians/Chinese/Malays/Indians/men/women/penguins…’

Identifiability: Lowest – typically anonymous and has no link. Continue reading "The 10 types of commenters"

Advertorials and the blogger

OK, must blog every day right? A quick one before supper, dog walk, and bed. Hmm... will pour myself a little nip of whiskey first though :-) Reward at the end of the day :-)

I finally selected the ten blogs I want to focus on. It was difficult as there are so many interesting blogs out there, and all with useful aspects: in the end, my decision is based pretty much on popularity (i.e. the blogs with the highest visitors) and relevance to Nuffnang. It feels bad to let go of some others though.

I mean, one question is - is it a good idea just to look at the most popular ones? Aren't the less popular just as important, or maybe even more so, in revealing everyday practices of bloggers? Just like if I want to know more about Malaysians, I wouldn't just look at the lives of the rich and famous right? Argh, now I'm wondering all over again... My real problem is time - i.e. I can't track everyone, and I need to focus on those who do advertising, advertorials, etc.

I will also track (but less diligently) other blogs, and of course the comments in those I do track (the 'A-listers') will give insight into how bloggers/readers react.

On that note, here's something I was wondering about today:

When there is an advertorial, normally the blogger indicates that it is one - for example by putting a tag, or prefixing the post title. However, advertorials are usually written in the blogger's usual style, and typically they start like an ordinary post, but by the time you get to the end, it's quite clear it's an advertorial. On one post I read today, the blogger had forgotten to put the tag in and two commenters asked 'hey is this an advertorial or not?' - the blogger responded in the comments and put in the tag which s/he had forgotten. So, there was an example of readers wanting to know if the post was an advertorial or not.

This got me thinking a bit: do different readers of blogs respond differently to advertorials? I have seen readers criticising the blogger, praising the advertorial, asking about the product/service being profiled, and just ignoring the fact it's an advertorial.

It's my guess that - depending on the blog - the readers will respond differently. In Blog X - readers who are used to seeing the blogger try out different ways of doing an advertorial may comment on the quality of the advertorial; in Blog Y - which has lots and lots of comments, there are always some who disparage the blogger and use the advertorial to make accusations of selling out, etc; in Blog Z - the blogger makes more of an effort to discuss the product with the commenters.

I suppose, in a way a blog is a mini-microcosm of social interaction, coloured by and dominated by the blogger. Therefore the regular commenters will reflect that persona to a certain extent. So a blog will shape its readers in some manner, while they also shape the blog/blogger... The advertorial comes in as a specific genre that will get more or less reactions, depending on how the blogger presents it, and how much that diverges from the usual style/content of the blog. Which would also explain why an advertorial in a SoPo blog would be quite out of place; but one in - for example - an automotive blog - would hardly be noticed.

The Commentosphere

A key feature of blogs are the comments, and rare are the bloggers such as kinkybluefairy who have disabled the comments. Interestingly, the reason she gave for disabling the comments - "Because i’m always thinking about what people perceive when they read thingsz" - relates to the reason why I see comments as an integral part of a blog: for me, a blog’s authors are both the blogger and the commenters. First because people read blogs for different reasons, but reading the comments is one of them; also because the blogger is influenced by the comments, and to a greater of lesser degree the feedback from the comments will influence the content of the blog.

People also no doubt leave comments for different reasons - and most bloggers know that one way to publicise one’s blog, and to make others aware that there’s a 'new blog on the block' is to leave comments in other blogs, with a link. On the extreme of that practice, are 'free-loaders': bloggers who leave a comment such as:
'Hi great blog, check out mine'
(this is why so much comment spam now looks like this – spammers are very good at tapping into people’s interests and motivations to make people click on links)
or, in a manner more relevant to the post:
'Hi, I blogged about this too here:'

Anyway, most bloggers like to leave comments in other blogs from time to time, for various reasons, and it’s most definitely a way to expand one’s personal blogosphere.

Baumer, Sueyoshi & Tomlinson is the only paper that I know of that looks specifically at blog readers. This is a good idea. However, in their study "only three of the fifteen participants do not have their own blog." (1117); so basically, they are mostly bloggers talking about their reading practices. Hopefully, someone else will look more at the blog readers – in my upcoming survey, I will allow for them to answer questions even if they don’t have a blog.

There are three levels to blogs in terms of the blogosphere: the bloggers, the commenters, and the readers.

Also to be noted that, in terms of influence, the bloggers are the opinion leaders, trendsetters, and so on. So power radiates out from those who engage the most in the formative practices of the blogosphere.

There are some differences in terms of types of blogs though. In the 'normal' blogs (i.e. personal/lifestyle which are the majority), most of the commenters tend to also have a blog; but in the SoPo blogs this is less likely. This may also be because people in Malaysia are more careful about giving political opinions in public.

I have also started to notice what I’m starting to call 'professional commenters'. The name isn’t quite right, as they are not making money or anything, but what I mean is that these commenters regularly comment in blogs, becoming a fixture of particular blogs comment space, but don’t have their own blogs. It seems that these are more common in the SoPo blogs, such as rocky’s bru, or Che Det.

Those two blogs are high traffic blogs, and Baumer, Sueyoshi & Tomlinson also note that there is a “tendency for the non-bloggers to read only popular, highly trafficked blogs” (ibid.:1117). However on, with a readership of apprx. 15-20K readers a day, and whose posts usually get 1-300 comments, there are a greater proportion of commenters who have blogs too (or, at least, who leave their blog url).

So, a conclusion is that SoPo blogs are less of a meeting space for bloggers, and more of a place for people to engage in political discussion. Duh. It also means that if one is looking for examples of ‘pure’ blogging, it’s not in the SoPo blogs that you’ll find it.

By 'pure' (an essentialist and flawed notion I know), I mean people who blog more for the sake of blogging, rather than to achieve non-blogging oriented goals such as political influence. Blogging is basically a socialising activity, a way for people to share interests and concerns, meet others and display one’s social eligibility.

Oops. I titled this post 'The Commentosphere' and now I’ve gone off track a bit. I guess my main point is that it would also be fruitful to study blogs just by looking at the comments. There are many kinds of interactions and practices there that say a lot about blogging, on the one hand, and also could perhaps be considered separately from blogs.

What do you think?

Life without comments

I had shut down the comments about ten days ago when I was moving server (a big thanks to my brother for making it painless and possible!) - I didn't want people to leave comments and then they would get lost because the database was already elsewhere.

Anyway, I forgot to turn the comments back on! So, for the last three posts, I've been wondering why there are no comments at all - I realised why today, and so if you want to leave a comment to this post you may :-)

The thing is, it was bothering me... I'm used to normally getting one or two comments, and when they were not appearing, I started to worry a bit - were my posts completely uninteresting? Were the advertisements (especially the one in the centre of the screen - removed now) putting people off? An indication of how it was troubling me was that this morning, while peeling and slicing fruit for breakfast and to store in the fridge, it was trickling through my mind again and finally it clicked that I had turned the comments off.

It reminded me of one of the central arguments I have in relation to the blog as medium - that perhaps the most important difference that it has in relation to other media is the comments feature, and I would go so far to say that a blog without comments enabled is 'not really' a blog.

For my research, I need to identify the key blogging practices, and see how they come together to form the blog-as-phenomenon. So, taking comments as an example, what other practices derive from or cluster with them?

• Authorship: with comments, the author-blogger is not the sole voice in the blog; this means that s/he has to negotiate with the commenters regarding the meaning and import of the content. This 'negotiation' can be one-sided - as the blogger can just delete comments, but this can reduce the interest of the blog to readers.
• Dialogics: a newspaper may benefit from Letters to the Editor, but they are not published alongside and at the same time as the post. The post and the comments make up the blog post - this is the dialogical aspect of blogging - i.e. it is the result of a 'conversation' (as Jeff Ooi often says). One result of this can be that the blogger seeks to draw in comments by - for example - asking questions to the reader (as this post will end :-))
• Time sensitivity: there are only so many comments a person can make, for regular readers who like to make comments the blogger needs to provide regular fodder. This is not to say that the importance of regular posting only relates to giving opportunities for comments, but it is one factor that feeds into it.
• Personalising the audience: the blogger gets to know some or most of the regular commenters, who frequently have their own blogs - this is the genesis of a 'community of interest' or perhaps a 'community of practice'.
• Meeting space: in some blogs (such as Kenny Sia's), where there are a large number of comments, there seems to be people who regularly comment there and get to know each other. So, in effect, they use the space as their own meeting space online; the actual content of the blog may become less relevant to them as opposed to the opportunity to socialise with the other 'regulars'.
• Motivation: the blogger - many of whom have a creative or socially-concerned impulse - is not talking into a void. Comments mean that someone has been moved in some way or other to respond, meaning the work has not been in vain.

OK. That's all I can think of now. What do you think? How important are comments for a blog? How do they affect the way a person blogs?