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Winners Come Last

There is only one set of sessions at AoIR 2005 this Sunday morning, almost as something of an afterthought (and a few people have already left for the airport, also having to negotiate the traffic disruptions caused by the Chicago Marathon this morning). Which is a bit of a shame, seeing that the session I'm attending now contains this year's winners of the Carl J. Couch Center Internet Research Award, that is, the three best student papers submitted for the conference.

Ericka Menchen Trevino: What Motivates Bloggers?

Ericka Menchen Trevino from the University of Illinois at Chicago, this year's first-placed entrant, is the first speaker. Her study investigates the motivations of bloggers, and she begins by noting that some of the things being said about blogging now were said less than a decade ago about plain old homepages as well. However, blogs of course are updated relatively regularly, which means that there is a certain level of commitment to them even if hosted blogs have made it very easy to create a blog.

Ericka now also notes some of the recent statistics from the Pew Center and others; these have found that a large number of bloggers are people under 30, and many of them students. What motivates them to create a certain amount of obligation for themselves by starting a blog?

Some studies have found that blogging occurs in bursts, driven in part by the emergence and subsequent dispersal of memes across subsections of the blogosphere - so blogging is not necessarily regular. Also, it is important not to see news- or politics-related blogging as representative of the entire blogosphere; there are significant socioeconomic and gender issues between these bloggers and the large variety of other bloggers.

To cut through this confusion, Ericka makes a general distinction between personal and non-personal blogging now. She conducted a number of interviews with 14 Chicago-based student bloggers; of these, only three focussed on non-personal topics. Four were new to blogging (under six months), while the remaining 10 had blogged for more than two years. Seven did not identify themselves or used pseudonyms (but sometimes had pictures of themselves - this is a limited form of anonymity which builds on the non-searchability of visual information); the other half used their own name.

Consideration of the bloggers' audiences was persistent in Ericka's findings. Parents and potential future employers were generally not considered, but there was a sense of audience, even though the bloggers did not necessarily use access logging tools to gain clear data; much of the sense of audience was generated through other interpersonal contacts beyond the blog. As a result, there were also issues around how other people were referred to: they were often semi-anonymised as well, making such references only parseable to readers in an existing in-group.

Many of these bloggers started out because their friends were already blogging (but there was some difference between personal and non-personal bloggers, some of whom were motivated by more external factors). A clear motivation was to write and document their lives, and this was even seen as a kind of personal obligation (and such requests were also made of other bloggers - there is a sense of peer group pressure here). Blogging provides a way of letting others know something without directly telling them - to provide information without necessarily receiving (or inviting) a response (and bloggers can also impose limits on feedback by controlling the site - some bloggers switched off comments entirely). At the same time, it is also an opportunity to receive feedback from unknown others, and this can become a motivation to continue blogging as well.

So, blogging can be seen as a social form to support others' emotions (perhaps there is a difference between personal and non-personal blogs here, though). Blogging can be seen as self-therapy in this sense; it can strengthen weak ties between friends and acquaintances. At the same time, however, it can also undermine existing relationships if blogs are used to post information which has not been given to close friends yet.

What makes blogging different is simply that blogs are read by others. Communities form through reading and writing blogs (and this is a difference in degree, of course). The scale is growing very quickly here, given the quick uptake of blogging at the moment. Initial motivations to blog are often provided by friends and unknown bloggers; continuing motivation is then the ability to document one's life, as well as and peer pressure. Other positively motivating aspects include the nature of the Web as a pull medium, the power bloggers have over the presentation of their identity, incoming positive feedback, and the use of blogs in strengthening weak ties. This is still somewhat similar to the homepage age; in blogging, most crucially, personal motivation persists through powerful and positive feedback.

Daniel Menchik: Factors in Successful Email Communication

The second-placed paper is by Daniel Menchik and Xiaoli Tian from the University of Chicago. Daniel presents the paper, which is on the semiotics of email communication. He notes that a tradition of sociology is the study of failure to identify the factors which led to it, and this study similarly focusses on a failure of mailing-list communication in an organisational context. This was even though email was readily accessible and used by participants, and there were few language barriers which would have undermined effective communication. (The list was used for a limited period of time, over the course of a year.)

Daniel now presents a number of potential theoretical approaches to a study of this phenomenon, some of which may not be useful because of the specific communicative features of email communication which offers reduced extratextual cues, of course. Many approaches would consider email as a lesser form of interaction, in fact, but this is not a useful approach here. Email does remove non-linguistic elements from the conversation, but in doing so highlights linguistic components (tone, style) which become all the more important.

This study, therefore uses linguistic semiotics (the study of signs in language) for its analysis of mailing-list interaction. Daniel now presents an example of how tone and style have been used to address and resolve conflict in an email exchange. What is important in parsing such exchanges is an understanding of the relationship between the sign-interpreter and the sign. The words of others carry with them their own interpretation and are interpreted differently by other participants in the exchange - which is why emoticons and other in-text cues are used to specify the meaning of a sign to its user; without them, there is an ambiguity in the signs used.

The study investigated what forms of communication were seen by users as useful for various forms of communication - email was seen here as useful mainly for scheduling and keeping in touch with people; not for discussing ideas or communication of emotions (all of these were seen as strengths of face-to-face communication, by contrast). The study also looked at the use of standardised vs. non-standardised messages: these were defined as messages using well-defined terms that do not need much interpretation (thus seen as playing to the strengths of email communication) vs. messages which use contested terms that could be misunderstood by readers (a weakness of email). There was a higher level of standardised communication, which also occurred in peaks at the start and end of the communication period (mainly ritualised communication: hellos and goodbyes of people joining and leaving the mailing-list).

Further, there was an investigation of what would influence participants to reply in the mailing-list. discipline of sender or profession of sender did not come into this; the time available seemed to be the main determining factor (and responding to non-standardised messages, which would take more time as meaning first needs to be negotiated, therefore did happen less). This means that other mailing-lists will be more successful if there is a great sense of linguistic standardisation (a common understanding of terms and their meanings), perhaps through adoption of a standard, common topic for the mailing-list or in the presence of a reasonably homogeneous community of participants. Heterogeneous communities where participants have differing understandings on the terms they use are less likely to see effective communication in their mailing-lists.