Hitcount Sociology--The Definitive Amateur Essay on Blogging

I've been thinking about some of the social behaviors associated with blogging lately. I'm not a sociologist, so in some cases I don't have great terminology to describe the phenomena I'm thinking of -– blogroll reciprocity, inflection points, affiliation groups, internet sociality, and changing behaviors. (If anyone can suggest improvements in the vocabulary I'm using below, I would be grateful.)

I also engage a recent paper on blogging by Drezner and Farrell, which was linked to both on Drezner's blog and on Crooked Timber.

Meditating on some of these phenomena has also given me a couple of kooky ideas about how the blog world might continue to evolve. One is an idea I call the “Auto-Affiliation Group,” which is kind of like a group blog defined by a service (rather than the writers themselves). The other, based on popular aggregator services like Bloglines and Kinja, I call the “Re-Aggregator.” Both of these ideas depend on the continued growth of XML/RSS feeds.

Hitcount Sociology
Or: How to Get a Million Hits
Or: BlogStar: The Life and Times of a Cyber-Pundit

Ok, just kidding. In fact, the idea of becoming a famous pundit overnight via blogging is, as most readers must know, really just a myth. Most bloggers –- even the ones who are quick, clever, and dedicated -– end up with a relatively small number of readers and limited growth.

I'm more interested in the space between the lonely solipsist and the massive readership of Kos, Atrios, et al. There are some interesting issues circulating here, in the to-and-fro of linking and counter-linking, and in how people approach the blogs they read. If in publishing there is a category called "mid-list," in blogging there should be a category called mid-count. Most of what I talk about below is the mid-count blog-world.

The attraction of group blogs and comment boards: Are group blogs really blogs? On to the amateur sociology. I should begin with the charms of the group blog, where there is nearly always something new for readers to chew on. Amongst eight bloggers, someone is likely to have come across something interesting this morning (even if I haven't). Also, group blogs usually get many more readers than blogs run purely by individuals. The participants themselves visit multiple times a day, as do a group of regular readers. This "live" quality means that group blogs are likely to have very busy comment boards.

In short, group blogs provide instant access to an internet affiliation group. The ones I know best are Cliopatria (Historians), Crooked Timber (historians, philosophers, and a published poet), Sepia Mutiny (2nd generation Indian-Americans), and The Weblog (a group of semi-academic folks in the mid-west somewhere, most of whom seem to be postmodern Christians).

However, as much as I enjoy visiting them, in my view group blogs operate by different rules than other blogs. I see them as the latest chapter in a long, evolving tradition of internet sociality, which began -- back in the day -- with BBSes, then evolved more recently into web chat rooms, ICQ, Instant Messaging, etc. Group blogs live and die by rules that relate more with those other social systems than regular blogs do. A group blog might have a crisis if a member writes something that causes others to quit. Or it might simply run out of ideas and steam as its members move onto new interests. But the group blogs I've been reading use the diversity of their member's experiences and knowledge-base to create surprising longevity and large-scale popularity.

Blogroll reciprocity. As Henry Farrell and Daniel Drezner pointed out in their paper on blogging, there is an economics of scale in the blog-world, where large blogs can have hundreds or even thousands of in-bound links (or "in-links"). Big blogs are exempt from the rule of blogroll reciprocity; they have in-links which they do not need to return. Moreover, they are able to spread much faster than smaller blogs. In terms of growth, they are up from the inflection point in blogging popularity. Small blogs either hit the inflection point on an upward facing curve, and become 'big', or they hit it flat, and stay where they are or even shrink.

Bartering for links. The existence of this inflection point is interesting from a statistical point of view, but in its emphasis on the probability of making it big, it overlooks what is in my view the most interesting sociological feature of blogging at the present moment, and that is blogroll reciprocity. It's quite simple: if someone links to you, you link back to them, unless you find what they say odious or potentially offensive to the kinds of readers you wish to attract. Links represent recognition and approval. To a small or mid-size blogger, new links (generally discovered through sites like Technorati, or through scrutinizing the "Referrals" in SiteMeter) are encouraging. Upon discovering some new in-links, one feels warm and fuzzy; all is right with the world. The pleasure is surprisingly... ontological.

Affiliation Groups. Some blogrolls represent the blogger's personal affiliation group or groups. Here the criterion for inclusion is not so much reciprocity as belonging: I read these people, and they read me.

These groups are sometimes a bit closed —- especially if the bloggers in question are friends in real life, and the topics discussed are geographically local. But more likely, the group seems closed simply because the conversations are highly involved. To find a point of entry, a visitor needs to spend a fair amount of time navigating the labyrinth of links, reading dozens (hundreds) of posts, scrutinizing blogrolls, and then deciding on key nodes.

The enclosed status of affiliation groups (if it happens) can mean death for the interest-level of the participants. Even if it feels reassuring to see everyone agreeing with everyone else, eventually participants might start to notice that they are living in an echo-chamber. In my view, overly closed blog affiliation groups –- where participants only seriously read and comment on a small number of other participants' work -- miss one of the great merits of the Internet (namely, surprise).

I suspect some of the new affiliation groups I have been seeing amongst humanities academic bloggers this fall might consolidate as they become more established. When they are organized topically (as in the example of feminist humanities academics in the U.S.), I expect to see the formation of some new group blogs, which might immediately raise the visibility of a group. If there is diversity amongst the members of the group, topical group blogs can immediately become major forums for the discussion of major issues.

Idea #1: Auto Affiliation Services. Or there might be services that emerge (a successor to the obsolete blog ring idea) that create group affiliations for casual readers. I already see Bloglines suggesting blogs to add to my blogroll (though their criteria seem to be a little crude at present).

Perhaps it could be done using clever Amazon-like 'taste prediction' technology (perhaps using the TCCI?). Short of that, the job could of course be done by human editors, who might create affiliation groups and suggest "members" to users. It could even be done through a decentralized editorial network: the numbers of votes for certain groups could be used to create aggregates around particular subjects.

Incidentally, this would work better if more blog engines started using Typepad-style "subject" sub-headings, thereby giving more information to the feed aggregators to select by.

Numerical limits of the blogroll/reciprocity system; changing behaviors. Though there is clear benefit in creating links to other blogs on your blog's blogroll (for reasons stated above), that benefit declines as your blogroll continues to grow in size. Once your blogroll tops 50, it's unlikely that the numbers of clicks your link generates will be statistically significant for the other blogger, and it raises questions about whether you really read the blog linked.

And indeed, right now I find it very difficult to read more than about 20-25 blogs regularly. But even this might change. One interesting phenomenon I've noticed in my own reading pattern is that, after nearly 8 months of regular blogging and blog-reading, I now find that the number of blogs I can read/skim/absorb has grown a bit. Perhaps this might happen across the board, as blogging continues to grow, and as the habit of blog-reading becomes naturalized –- a norm, rather than a novelty?

Changing behaviors. However, blog-reading behavior will keep changing as new technologies emerge. Though I have found that I can only follow 10-15 academic blogs regularly if I read them straight off my own blogroll, that number dramatically increases when I use an RSS feeder or an aggregator site like Bloglines or Kinja. It's simply less of a psychic jump to go from one blog to the other if they are all formatted the same. The feeds also load blog pages faster (not an issue on blogspot blogs; sometimes an issue for blogs on private servers).

Aggregator services might decrease casual, intentional visits (i.e., "I wonder what Ph.Diva is up to today"), but they are good in the long run in the sense that they guarantee much more regular readership overall.

Idea #2: Re-aggregators. Another way to make blog-reading more efficient (i.e., when you don't have much time), and also potentially expand the range of blogs you know about, would be for aggregators to determine the most important posts in a define range of blogs, and select a kind of 'best of'. It could be done using somewhat arbitrary criteria (such as the number of other blogs that link to that particular entry).

The advantage here might be the potential to save time involved in running through a long list of feeds. Or perhaps there could be a "surprise me" setting, where the "re-aggregator" might select entries that it thinks you might like based on your current subscription, a set of keywords, and the fact that others have linked to the entry.

Any interest in idea #1 or #2? Any egregious errors? Do I have way too much time on my hands?