Lilia Efimova and Stephanie Hendrick recently published another version of In search for a virtual settlement: An exploration of weblog community boundaries and encourage people to comment. The main notion represented in the paper is that weblog communities are best conceived as the spaces between the blogs. The individual blog is an isolated building ("the online identities of their authors"), and the community develops as the residents leave the building to visit and exchange ideas with one another.
Unlike more the more common idea of "online community" represented in bulletin boards or mailing lists, weblog communities are much more difficult to pin down. The only real evidence is the traces left on individual weblogs, much like archaeologists look for artifacts from other cultures as evidence of trade. In the paper, the authors examined the community as defined by cross-linking behavior. They produce some interesting "snowball" visualizations of their reference community, which are familiar from social network analysis.
A different twist on this research would be to look at how people participate in this type of virtual settlement. There are everything from the passive readers who do not leave significant traces in the sand; to those who read and comment but do not have their own blog; to those who actively maintain their own weblogs. Even within these participation levels, there are possibly nuances associated with how much one feeds back into the community through comments or their own writing. And how does a weblog community interact with more formalized communities, virtual or real? I would expect to see interchanges across these communities representing an even larger sense of community.
I know they are continuing this work. Here are some things that strike me as potential focus areas.
- Discussion of on how bloggers develop community.
- How does the group of blog readers define and influence the community? Is it even possible to do this research, since readers leave very few traces.
- Can the snowball be sliced and enhanced with additional data? Examples: the strength of connection (number or frequency of cross-references); type of connections (cross-reference; comment; blogroll; webring). As with the example in the paper, adding comments to the snowball changes its shape.
- Can the snowball be expanded to include links to "buildings" other than weblogs, such as formalized online communities (bulletin boards; mailing lists; forums)? Maybe represent these with different shapes in the snowball?
- Could the snowball be shown to grow/melt over time, as the central blog participates more or less in a given community?
- How do the snowballs differ when the focus is on a central member of a community, vs. a peripheral member? Is it possible to determine central members from this analysis?
- What does the snowball look like if the focus is purely on the reading behavior instead of the writing behavior? In this case, the study would be more of how is a person influenced by what she reads, rather than direct evidence of what they write. I'm thinking of the idea that scientists are influenced by being in the company of other scientists, listening and sharing ideas with one another.
- Are there other mechanisms for understanding community norms than by reading and participating in the community? If the norms are never explicitly stated, then the only way to discern them is to participate.
- Could this type of analysis leak out to Technorati or other "blog index" services to show yet another way blogs are connected?
The paper dovetailed with a number of other recent discussions about community, networking and the technologies we use. In particular, the recent AOK discussions with Jenny Ambrozek and Joe Cothrel covered their survey of online communities in business, which covers the community angle much more widely.
Watch for more discussion in the cafes between our homes.