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Is There an Australian Blogosphere?

A few days ago Geert Lovink contacted me with some interview questions regarding our research into the Australian political blogosphere - this is for a new book, Blog Theory, that he's working on with Jodi Dean for release on Polity Press. Here's what I had to say:

GL: You have just done research into the Australian blogosphere. Do you think there is something like an Australian blogosphere and how would you characterize it?

Well, let me start by saying that 'the blog' is simply a media technology (similar to 'the book' or 'the television'), which can be used in any number of different ways. And similar to those other media technologies (where we also don't speak of a 'booksphere' or 'televisionsphere', I've long argued that we're well past the point where to speak of 'blogging' as a unified form makes sense any more.

So, on the one hand, there is an Australian blogosphere if we mean by this that there is a sizeable number of blogs that are based in Australia or written by Australians, but that's no more important than the observation that there are many Australians who write books or create content for any other media form.

What's more interesting in relation to blogs (and again, this is similar to most other media forms) is whether, how, and in what numbers people engage in specific forms of blogging - for example in personal blogging, political blogging, academic blogging, fictional blogging, etc. While using similar underlying technologies, the actual practices of blogging may differ substantially across such different fields, while within these fields, the greater affinity of interests generates a greater level of connection and interaction, too.

So, it's very clear that there is an Australian academic blogosphere, for example, or an Australian political blogosphere - and we're in the process of doing some in-depth research here at QUT especially into the shape of the political blogosphere in Australia. What I mean by political blogosphere in this context are blogs which are solely or substantially concerned with discussing and analysing political news and related developments in Australia and/or from an Australian perspective.

This is necessarily a porous definition, of course - there are a handful of very active, key blogs which are very much at the centre of this community, while a few others post on political matters less regularly or consistently. I suspect this is a typical pattern for the structure of topical blogospheres - they tend to be centred around a few leading exponents, with less central blogs existing further towards the fringes of the community. Additionally, of course, some blogs may also be part of multiple topical blogospheres - some of our major political bloggers, for example, are also regular commentators on issues such as climate change or human rights, and so also belong to those national or international blogospheres.

The Australian political blogosphere received something of a boost during the 2007 federal election campaign in Australia, which marked probably the first time that blogs and other forms of online political information and participation became important elements in the overall political race. All major political parties developed online presences of various forms (some more successful than others), and there was substantial political discussion and commentary in online fora. Some of this seemingly managed to rattle the mainstream journalism industry - a dust-up between Australian psephologist (opinion poll analysis) bloggers and the political commentators in Rupert Murdoch's national daily newspaper The Australian over the correct interpretation of the weekly voter opinion polls has entered into blogging folklore in Australia.

That said, it remains unclear whether political blogging in Australia is still only the domain of a relatively elite group of political junkies, or whether it has a more substantial basis across a wider cross-section of the population. Evidence from, a citizen journalism project we ran during the election, suggests that there is considerable interest in participating in online political discussions especially in regional and rural Australia and amongst older age groups, so that's encouraging.

GL: How did you select the blogs? By hand or with the help of a machine?

A bit of both. We started from the major Australian political blogs which we were already very well aware of, and extended this list by adding blogs identified through link crawls from this initial list (finding blogs which this core group would link to in their blogrolls or posts, for example) and through searches in relevant blog trackers (such as Technorati). Additionally, our methodology is designed to allow for a gradual expansion of our list of blogs - any blogs identified through our early work are added to the list for further examination in later iterations of the research.

Overall, our approach has been to be inclusive rather than exclusive; right now, we track around 250 blogs or so. Primarily, our research operates by identifying and mapping link networks between blogs, and then analysing the specific features of leading blogs and clusters of blogs within the network; the benefit of working on this basis is that any marginal blogs which happen to be included in the overall corpus of blogs will be clearly and quickly identified as marginal, and can be excluded or sidelined in further analysis.

GL: In my experience so far with blogs I can clearly see a trend that blogs refer to a national or regional/local sphere of reference, rather than some abstract global media realm.

I think that's a necessary outcome of how blogging tends to work, yes. Blogging is - for the most part - a voluntary activity, so bloggers tend to blog about topics that they're interested in. Therefore it's not surprising if they cover topics that are of relevance to their geographic location (city, state, nation, region) and/or to their personal and professional expertise. I'd probably say that in most cases the topical focus will still tend to outweigh the geographical focus (an Australian political blogger is perhaps more likely also to be interested in political issues outside of Australia than to be interested in Australian issues outside of a broadly defined political realm), but probably not by much.

Either way, the most likely organising logic for specific blogospheres (within the 'overall' blogosphere encompassing all the blogs in the world, regardless of topic of geography) is to be centred around a combination of local identity and topical focus - so we get Australian political bloggers, Californian tech bloggers, etc. That's not to say that we can't also get more specific sub-blogospheres and clusters within these wider groupings, of course (Californian tech bloggers specialising in iPhones, say, or Australian political bloggers focussing on political developments in Queensland only) - but at present the Australian political blogosphere, at least, doesn't seem to me to be large enough yet to sustain such narrow specialisation in a major way.

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I wrote about the Australian blogosphere recently after participating in the Technorati state of the blogosphere 2008 survey - see State of the blogosphere in Australia.