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- The Blogosphere
- Three Strands of Network-Based Research
- Challenging the Elite Model of Media
A blog (Weblog) is a collection of messages typically organized in a reverse chronological order, published on one or more Web pages. As an online genre, blogs have grown in importance since their early adoption by the technology community around 1999. In addition to their continued use by individuals as an online diary format, virtually every sort of entity represented online now uses blogs as a key mode of public communication. Firms, groups, organizations, government officials, schools, political parties, clubs, event organizers, and many others use Weblogs to pursue a wide array of public relations functions. Many individuals, particularly experts and practitioners within knowledge-intensive fields, use blogs to present their professional face to the world, rather than as a diary. As newer forms of networked online media, such as social network services (MySpace, Facebook, etc.) have taken over the kinds of private-sphere information exchange pioneered in blogs, blogs have continued to solidify their importance as a key genre for public-facing online discourse. Because they are a hyperlinked medium, the network characteristics of the global collection of interconnected blogs (termed the blogosphere) and its subnetworks are an active topic of study.
Blogs contain a number of different kinds of hyperlinks. There are links for navigation, archives, to servers for embedded advertising, in comments, and to tracking services, among others. Most directly, blogs form networks by linking to one another. Most of these links fall mainly into two categories: static and dynamic. Static links are those that do not change very often and are typically found in the blogroll, a set of links a blogger chooses to place in a sidebar. Blogroll links are created for different motivations, but the network formed by them is relatively stable and often represents a collective picture of bloggers’ perceptions of the blogosphere and their own positions within it. Dynamic links change frequently and are typically those embedded in individual blog posts. These represent a measure of a blogger’s attention at a particular point in time. Not every blog is linked to every other blog. Some blogs have few links to other blogs, and some receive few links from other blogs. In contrast, a small number of blogs link to many blogs or are themselves linked to by many blogs. The distribution of links in the blogosphere conforms to a power-law, meaning that a very few blogs are linked to with great frequency, while the vast majority are only slightly connected.
The maximal network of Weblogs, or blogosphere, is often described as a kind of haystack, hierarchically organized with a famous A-list on top, with B through Z lists extending downward to a floor of complete obscurity. In fact, the blogosphere has a complex but ordered network structure, formed by billions of individual choices by millions of bloggers about whom and what to link to. Large-scale regularities in these choices result in pockets of network density around socially salient issues, such as politics, parenting, and economics, among many others. These blog network neighborhoods are composed of densely interconnected informational communities within which ideas and information spread quickly. The preferences that lead clusters of bloggers to link to one another with disproportionate frequency also lead these clusters to link preferentially to Web resources other than blogs, such as particular media sources, government information sources, or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Each cluster is thus like a lens, focusing attention on particular sets of online resources.
In blog networks, macro structure arises from the tendency of individuals to link more frequently to things they are interested in. This phenomenon is an extension of social behaviors that are well understood in other social scientific contexts into blogging practices. Sociology has an extensive literature on homophily, the tendency of social actors to form ties with similar others. Communications research has identified complex processes of selective exposure, by which people choose what media to experience, interpret what is experienced, and remember or forget the experience according to their prior interests and beliefs. Online behavior is conditioned by the user’s preferences in conscious and unconscious ways. In the blogosphere, these preferences express themselves as choices about what to read, write about, link to, and comment upon. The result of this online activity is a machine-readable discourse network, which makes questions about populations that cluster around topics of interest tractable to empirical research. A massive corpus of text and hyperlinks created by millions of people and stored across thousands of the world’s Internet servers is now available for collection and analysis.
Three Strands of Network-Based Research
Empirical studies of Weblogs employ a range of methods, including qualitative human analysis of text, quantitative text mining, and network analytic approaches. Several interrelated strands of network-based research have emerged: macrostructural, dynamic behavior, and topic or domain focused. These threads are often woven together in particular analyses, but they represent three foci of concern:
Macrostructural analyses focus on the large-scale topological characteristics of blog networks. This includes analyzing degree distributions, density, connectivity, clustering coefficients, reciprocity, and other global network measures. These studies often use these formal network measures to compare blog networks with theoretical models (e.g., scale-free networks and small-world properties); and with other large-scale networks, such as citation networks, biological networks, and other sorts of Internet-based networks (IMDB, Amazon, and so on). Other work looks at the community structure of blog networks, often applying community- detection approaches used to divide other sorts of social networks into meaningful groups or partitions.
Dynamic analyses focus on information propagation within blog networks and, to a lesser extent, the evolution of these networks. The study of propagation often focuses on information cascades and the more or less “bursty” nature of them, along with analysis of differences in the temporal patterns of different kinds of content (e.g., politics versus music). Recent “meme-tracking” research compares the propagation of stories in the blog network with propagation in mainstream media. Focus on network evolution looks at both macro-level growth of the larger network, as well as the formation of microstructures over time.
Topic- and domain-focused research applies insights and approaches developed above to specific topical areas or bounded online communities, focusing on particular substantive questions rather than abstract network characteristics. Topics include political “echo chambers” in American politics and bipartite analysis of American bloggers and nonblog citation targets, including mainstream media, social media, and NGOs. Analysis of domains often focuses on blogs of particular countries, such as Singapore and Italy. The Berkman Center at Harvard has conducted a series of multimethod, international blog network studies, combining network analysis, text mining, and human coding to look at blogospheres in Iran, Russia, China, and the Arab world.
Challenging the Elite Model of Media
From its roots in computer science and network science, blog network research is increasingly being used to address substantive concerns in sociology, communications, political science, and other social scientific fields. It is a key component underlying an emerging theory of public communications. In Yochai Benkler’s Networked Public Sphere, the older “hub and spoke” industrial model represented by the mass media is argued to be supplanted by a new, network-based model that alters the dynamics of key social communications processes. The mass media model, in which the ability to communicate publicly requires access to vast capital or state authority, has resulted in elite control over the power to frame issues and set the public agenda. In Benkler’s view, a new, vastly distributed network of public discourse will supplement or supplant this elite-driven process. The networked public sphere will allow any point of view to be expressed (universal intake), and to the extent that it is interesting to others, it will be carried upward (or engaged more widely) through a process of collective filtration. The extended network will contain specialty subnets and general interest brokers, among others. Benkler argues that this neural, network-like system might potentially provide a much more stable and effective foundation for democratic social action than the established commercial media systems it challenges, and cites network research to support his views.
Many technical and methodological decisions are required in order to perform blog network analysis. Blog crawlers or data collectors are specialized versions of Web crawlers that are able to parse the more elaborate structure of blogs in contrast to other forms of html pages. Methodological decisions include defining the unit of analysis, which could be individual blog posts or an aggregate of each blog or a collection of blogs. The links or relationships that connect blogs can also vary; a tie could be created whenever a blog links to another blog or Website, or a distinction could be made for those blogs listed on a blog roll featuring other blogs that are more explicitly endorsed by the blog author. Once constructed, an analyzed blog network can reveal key blogs, posts, or clusters within the network. The number of different clusters and their relation to one another can be identified.
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