The Science of Blogs

April 18, 2008 by Thad McIlroy

On April 15th the Wall Street Journal, in its own Buzzwatch blog, offered a report and a background interview on what’s really going on when people read blogs, and what keeps them doing so. (The Wall Street Journal online is offered by subscription only, but the blogs don’t require a subscription, so the URL attached above should work — I’m having some trouble with it, but it will at least take you nearby.)

This blog was inspired by a learned journal article called “Exploring the Role of the Reader in the Activity of Blogging,” authored by three learned men at the University of California in Irvine, and presented the previous week “at a conference on human factors in computing.”

The intro to the WSJ blog states the author’s proposition on the importance of this research: “The question of what drives people to read blogs is a big one for traditional media losing time with their audiences to the Internet and companies looking to tap the Web for marketing,” author Tom Weber writes. Fair enough, although perhaps not very deep. The three authors of the article offer no more profound an explanation of the significance of their study. “Despite the medium’s interactive nature, most research on blogs focuses on either the blog itself or the blogger, rarely if at all focusing on the reader’s impact. In order to gain a better understanding of the social practice of blogging, we must take into account the role, contributions, and significance of the reader,” they write.

A quick proviso is in order: the study involved only fifteen participants, all under the age of 40, by all accounts a statistically-insignificant sample. At the same time Bill Tomlinson, one of the report’s authors, does not shy away from this question, and defends the decision. “In the early stages of research into a topic,” he states, “it’s often helpful to begin with small qualitative studies such as this one in order to figure out the key issues. Quantitative studies with larger sample sizes are then useful for refining the understanding of these issues and developing statistical analyses of specific phenomena,” he tells Tom Weber. I don’t disagree with the essential argument, but, come on, surely fifteen respondents falls far short of science. Oh well, let it be. What was discovered?

When I read a scientific paper as part of my research for this site, I often just skip to the conclusion, looking for the meat. I leave it to the reader of this blog to see if she or he can find any meat there. The Wall Street Journal interview is more pithy and direct.

The main points:

1. Blog reading is (or can be) habitual, somewhat akin to watching a TV series. However bloggers don’t seem to care if they miss an episode, and just move on to the next entry.

2. Nonetheless, the personal nature of blogs encourages a higher degree of interaction by the reader than does television.

3. The audience for a blog is highly varied (unlike television?), and this has some implications the bloggers should keep in mind.

4. The first comment to the Wall Street Journal blog is from someone named “Nicolas” who runs a site called “Managing IO: Ideas and Trends to Tackle Information Overload.” His site appears to offer both more ideas and better links than the whole WSJ blog and the referenced study.

Let scientists continue to study this thorny subject, perhaps applying a little more rigor than has been found here.

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