Post details: Sample the Blog

Sample the Blog

Posted by Andrew on July 27th, 2006
Rotary phone(with apologies to Timbuk 3)

The blogosphere has been abuzz with last week's results from the Pew Internet & American Life Project's survey on Americans who write and read blogs. It turns out we like to read studies about ourselves.

The survey's key findings, reported in "Bloggers: A Portrait of the Internet's New Storytellers":

  • 54% of bloggers say that they have never published their writing or media creations anywhere else; 44% say they have published elsewhere.
  • 54% of bloggers are under the age of 30.
  • Women and men have statistical parity in the blogosphere, with women representing 46% of bloggers and men 54%.
  • 76% of bloggers say a reason they blog is to document their personal experiences and share them with others.
  • 64% of bloggers say a reason they blog is to share practical knowledge or skills with others.
  • When asked to choose one main subject, 37% of bloggers say that the primary topic of their blog is "my life and experiences."
  • Other topics ran distantly behind: 11% of bloggers focus on politics and government; 7% focus on entertainment; 6% focus on sports; 5% focus on general news and current events; 5% focus on business; 4% on technology; 2% on religion, spirituality or faith; and additional smaller groups who focus on a specific hobby, a health problem or illness, or other topics.

For my money, though, the most interesting aspect of the Pew survey is what it reveals about voicelessness in the blogosphere and on the Web -- not through the survey results, but through the elaborate yet archaic methodologies that the Pew researchers used to gather data on American blogging habits. As the accompanying press release explains:


The Pew Internet & American Life Project deployed two strategies to interview bloggers. First, bloggers were identified in random-digit dial surveys about internet use. These respondents were called back for an in-depth survey between July 2005 and February 2006, for a final yield of 233 bloggers. Second, additional random-digit surveys were fielded between November 2005 and April 2006 to capture an up-to-date estimate of the percentage of internet users who are currently blogging. These large-scale telephone surveys yielded a sample of 7,012 adults, which included 4,753 internet users, 8% [308] of whom are bloggers.

"Much of the public and press attention to bloggers has focused on the small number of high-traffic, A-list bloggers," said [project associate director] Susannah Fox. "By asking a wide range of bloggers what they do and why they do it, we have found a different kind of story about the power of the internet to encourage creativity and community among all kinds of internet users."

So, to administer brief surveys to a total of 541 bloggers, the investigators ended up making more than 7,000 phone calls (and many more, if you count non-respondents).  This seems like an unduly expensive and labor-intensive way to survey a few hundred bloggers.  Unlike the Internet-deprived subjects of Pew's "digital divide" studies, all bloggers have Web access.  Why not conduct the survey online with automated, scalable software, yielding a much larger sample size at much less expense?  Because, as Fox explains, the whole point of the project was to study the attitudes and habits of typical bloggers, rather than the "high-traffic, A-list bloggers" who dominate public awareness of the blogosphere.

The Pew Project's decision that the time and expense of a telephone survey were necessary to construct even a modest-sized sample of typical bloggers is a powerful (and teachable) confirmation of the proposition that almost all bloggers are voiceless.  The investigators had available to them all kinds of convenient online resources for finding and contacting hundreds of thousands of bloggers: generalized, specialized, and meta- search engines, social networking and blog portals, directories and aggregators, even individual blogrolls.  But they rejected all of them, because they understood that every significant avenue available to an ordinary blogger for being found is already largely foreclosed, either directly or indirectly, by the skewing effects of the Web's long-tail distributions of traffic and incoming links.  (As we know from The Truth Laid Bear, even among those blogs whose authors apparently care a great deal about being found, most have a negligible number of incoming links:  they are, within a first-order approximation, in the "deep web.") Using any online resource to find bloggers would inevitably introduce these harsh skewing effects, corrupting the sample. So Fox et al. sighed deeply and picked up the phone.

The Web might be the richest collection of information resources and meta-resources the world has ever known, but it remains deeply, perhaps irretrievably, poor in venues capable of providing citizens in a democracy anything close to an equal opportunity to be heard.  (Some ten-year-old pipe dreams about remedying this situation can still be found here.)

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