All 10 entries tagged Blog Research
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March 20, 2009
Here at Warwick University we have 6 years of experience with blogging. Here's some stats on our Warwick Blogs system:
- 5914 blogs
- 120209 entries
- 22396 tags
- 199204 comments
- 122105 images
We built our own system for three reasons:
- At the time, there were no other systems suitable for very large scale deployment.
- We could evolve it's features in parallel to our users' growing understanding of what they could use it for, and to meet our own specific requirements.
- People blog most effectively within a clearly identified community. They might broadcast to the world, but they need to know that they are writing for a specific audience. We could design our own communities so as to help our bloggers to get a sense of audience. We provide aggregation pages at a whole institution level, as well as for smaller sub-groups. Bloggers can also set permissions, so that entries are only viewable or 'commentable' by specified groups.
That last point has been the most important lesson for us. A strong and certain sense of audience (narrowcast, broadcast, scattercast) is the key to getting people to write online. If you're choosing a blogging system for education, then make sure you can help people to get the right sense of audience.
July 04, 2006
A more final, but still draft agenda can be seen in the e-learning web site.
If you are already an invited participant, then please feel free to comment on whether this fits your interests, and if there is anything missing.
If you want to come to all or part of the session, then please contact me, we might have some spaces left.
April 06, 2006
Why this matters
I think I have some answers to these questions. Or at the very least, I have a good way of thinking about the problem that may render it answerable. But first I assume you are not necessarily convinced that it matters. In response I offer two arguments:
- Answering the question of why academics don’t blog may give us a deeper insight into academic attitudes and behaviours. This knowledge is transferable to other learning technology development problems;
- I believe that weblog technology (along with other new web tools) has the potential to dramatically enhance the “academic environment”, if applied intelligently.
So there you have my agenda and motivation. I hope you agree on its significance.
Understanding the desire to blog
We should ask more widely of all bloggers: "why do you blog?”. The first and key step in answering this question is: "who do you blog for?" – "what is your intended (or implicitly assumed) audience?" The intention of a blog may be to inform, enrage, impress and so on, but those effects are always relative to and motivated by the imagined effect on a given audience. The blogger blogs so as to have these effects on an audience. Sometimes, as in a solely reflective blog, there is an audience of one, the author themselves. Even so, the motivation is to have an effect on that audience.
At this point, as I suggested in an earlier entry, we can use one of the core concepts of communications and design studies: narrowcasting versus broadcasting. The question then is put more specifically:
- Do you write for a specific actual audience (known nameable people)? – In which case you are engaging in formal narrowcasting (the most formal narrowcasting will apply privacy controls to keep unknown people out);
- Do you write for a specific virtual audience (unknown but clearly classifiable people, such as "all philosophy students")? – In which case you are engaging in informal narrowcasting.
- Do you write for no specific audience, considering your audience to be anyone who finds your blog? – You are engaging in broadcasting;
- Do you write content that appeals to a broad and loosely specified audience, but seek positive feedback from an identifiable and narrow audience? – You are broadcasting, but through the filter of what is in effect an informal or formal editorial presence.
Blogs may in reality be a mix of these attitudes, although not necessarily within the same entries. For example, my blog contains informally narrowcasted entries about the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, as well as broadcasted entries about my baby. Some blogs are particularly effective at leading a general audience into an interest in very specialized topics, or vice versa. But quite often a blogger will make an assumption, usually a received and unconsidered assumption, about their audience, the audience appropriate for a blog, and stick to it. And from where is this assumption receieved? I suggest two key sources, each transmitting a different and contradictory assumption, and resulting in very different kinds of blog:
- The traditional broadcast medium (newspapers, radio, television) who present blogs in terms understandable and significant to themselves. Looking at the coverage of blogs in these media, one would assume that blogging is a broadcast medium, aiming to reach an unspecialized and general audience (in fact the blogs that they like are the ones that are capable of being translated into the traditional broadcast media);
- The network effect of friends who blog enticing their friends to also blog. In this case the tendency would be to blog for your friends, in response to your friends, and therefore to narrowcast.
Which of these two influences is the most prevalent? Examing the list of recent entries in Warwick Blogs usually indicates that the former may be more potent. Indeed it would appear that most bloggers are trying to be one-person-broadcast-media, with the majority of entries about topics of very general interest and requiring no specialist knowledge. There could be narrowcasted topics that we can’t see dues to privacy controls, but in fact I know that this is quite rare. We could also assume that the authors of these broadcasted entries are expecting a set of known readers to appreciate them, whilst still writing in an essentially broadcast style. I suspect that this says something about the kinds of social relations that exist between these bloggers. They are after all mostly students and hence only together for a very short and uncertain period of time, perhaps not long enough to develop deeper and more specialised shared interests.
We may also ask the question of the blog system itself: is it biased towards narrowcasting or broadcasting? Have a look at the Warwick Blogs homepage and see what you think. More importantly, what does a set of blogs (and their aggregation) implicitly say about the purpose of blogging? My guess is that a brief look at Warwick Blogs would give you the impression that bloggers write more for an unspecialized and general audience. The highly discursive nature of blogging (especially at Warwick) encourages this. The listing of topics that have received many comments reinforces this. The assumption is then that blog entries are written to prompt discussion amongst a general audience.
Understanding the academic desire to blog (or not)
Now consider the nature of "being an academic". What is the most significant feature? I would say specialization. In fact I would argue that universities exist as places in which quite extreme specialization can take place. This is so extreme that even two people in the same department may not have much of an understanding of each other's work (modal logic is a mystery to me). To an outsider that may seem bad. But it is in fact the very reason for giving people the time and space required to explore and innovate. Furthermore, I conjecture that most academics would respond to finding any spare time in their busy diaries by doing activities to work further on their specialization. If you're not an academic, and you don't believe me, think back to what it was like being an undergraduate. Did you get the sense that each individual academic was trying to pull you into their own particular specialized field? This is even more so for graduate students, as lecturers seek to recruit doctoral students (or at least sell their own books).
Asking again the question: "why should an academic blog?" – So far we have no answer.
Of course academics cannot stay in their silos of specialization permanently. They occassionaly have to crawl out of the cave and communicate their work to a slightly more broad audience. Ideas do need to be tested. They also need to be funded. Could they do this in a blog? Yes. Would they? Probably not. Consider just how carefully managed this process of academic exposure usually is, and how much work is required to get it right. The peer reviewed journal is one of two mechanisms for communicating academic work in a managed way; a tighly controlled way. Conferences are a little more wild and risky, but even so are regulated with high expectations. I know of academics that could talk brilliantly about anything at any time, and yet they still cancel conference appearances because their papers are not perfect.
From this perspective, the project of academic blogging looks doomed. Perhaps that is why very few academics turn up to my workshops on blogging? (In comparison to sessions on tools that help with their own private research).
Academic blogging 2
I seem to have done a fairly good job of demolishing the idea that blogs can be useful to academics. And yet I still stand by my statement that:
weblog technology (along with other new web tools) has the potential to dramatically enhance the “academic environment”, if applied intelligently.
The weblog is, after all, a powerful tool for recording and archiving the development of ideas, for exploiting that archive, for selectively exposing it to others, and for developing an identity and a presence. All of these activities are vital to the academic process. The key to using the technology is in understanding how it can be used to address a controlled audience (from an audience of one, the author, to the whole world). This is a matter of using the features built into the software, as well as exploiting writing techniques that more clearly define the audience and hence manage engagement with it. For example, one keep a blog containing entries about a specialised topic, sometimes stating that an entry is “just a conjecture” and other times stating that it is “more conclusive”. You can alert colleagues to entries that they will be interested in, asking for a response, even a formal peer review. But you can also expose these entries to the world, allowing for chance encounters with other academics, in the same or a related field. You may also find that over time words that you use, ideas that you develop, in your blog become more widely accepted. It could even attract funding.
However, for this to become common practice, changes must occur:
- We need to change people’s perception of the purpose of blogging, from a broadcast medium to a medium that is sophisticated enough to combine broad and narrowcasting as required;
- There needs to be more widespread adoption of the techniques for managing audiences and writing;
- The advantages of blogging for academics in specific situations need to be explicated and communicated, with real examples.
I shall explore this in another forthcoming entry.
Your comments on any aspect of this entry are most welcome.
November 01, 2005
A few of the advantages of tags are:
- you can easily invent new tags for each new entry;
- you can re-use tags previously used in your own blog, or even in other people's blogs;
- for each tag, you have an auto-generated page showing all of the entries containing the tag, for example, see the list for the tag deleuze
- the most frequently used tags in a blog are listed in the left hand column, linking to pages that show entries for each of the tags;
- a page can be accessed for any combination of tags, for example, deleuze and art
- you can get a list of entries that contain one or more tags within a department or the whole of Warwick Blogs, for example, this page shows entries on art
- a single entry can have more than one tag, thus allowing it to be categorised in more than one way
This is potentially powerful, especially as people are starting to consistently share tags in an organised way. Expect to see this approach used in teaching in the future, especially as Sitebuilder supports a similar keyword tagging system, and we are writing "thematic navigation" tools that exploit it.
As for my own blog, it may well be the most thoroughly tagged blog yet. For each of the 95 philosophy entries, I added tags that represent the concepts covered, as well as the philosophers and books referenced. So now it is possible for me to see a page that lists all of my entries that relate to the concept extended_cognition
or, you can see a page listing entries about the book germinal_life
My ultimate plan is to take the complete list of concepts used in my philosophy entries, add them to a concept map, organise them with connections, and link them back to the pages that list them in my blog.
If you are interested in this idea, then contact me
October 22, 2005
As I descibe in a previous entry , Clark uses the lifecyle of a mangrove island as a metaphor for how we sometimes use public language to speculatively play with ideas and see how they grow. I summarise metaphor as follows:
a mangrove seeds itself in shallow water, grows roots, traps other roots and particles, forms a network of roots with other mangroves that seed nearby (helped by the first mangrove), and eventually forms a more solid island within the sea.
Clark's argument is that by stating words publicly using an external cognitive apparatus (a web log would be a good example), even when they do not represent well formed ideas, thoughts and sense can be encouraged to form. We can easily play with the publicy stated words, manipulating them and seeing what emerges as they connect with other words. As a social process, involving other minds, this technique can lead in unexpected and successful directions.
It seems to me that "mangrove" style social thinking could be a core activity of the localized cliques that are probably the context for most blog entries. The clique tends to select phrases to be repeated locally, and provides opportunities for social thinking in a controlled space. But the small world network of Warwick Blogs offers two other possibilities:
- ideas that become well-formed can be transmitted to other localized networks through 'hubs' (people or pages that are authoritative in presenting selections of worthwhile content);
- ideas can also just free-float from one clique to another, for example via the "show all" page, where they may take root, or at least make the transmission through a hub more likely (hearing a message through several channels makes it more likely to be trusted and valued).
October 21, 2005
During my recent presentation at Oxford Brookes about Warwick Blogs (during which there was an excellent debate), someone made the observation that from the perspective of some outside person browsing through the latest entries in the "showall" aggregation page, it would be hard to understand why anyone would read our blogs, and consequently (given that most people write with the expectation that someone else will read their entries), why would anyone therefore ever write anything?
This wasn't a crude condemnation of the standard of writing within Warwick Blogs. Rather, the observation was that it was hard for an outsider to understand what is interesting in most of the entries (although some are genuinely interesting to the outside world).
Having just read Mark Buchanan's book on small world networks, I could see the error in this observation.
The assumption behind this attitude is that the entries within Warwick Blogs are on the whole written so that any random person may come along and find them interesting and worthwhile. The question assumed that writing a blog is a form of "broadcasting". Indeed this is understandable, as it tends to be such "broadcast" style blogs, aimed at a general and unknown audience, that have caught the interest of the media. The reason for this bias may well be that the traditional media somehow sense that they are being challenged in their dominance of broadcasting.
I suspect that, on the contrary, many blog entries are written with relatively narrow audiences in mind (narrowcasting), but with the open possibility that a wider range of people may end up reading them. This is entirely consistent with the "small world network" model. Meaningful activity occurs on a local and limited scale, determined by the individuals in close proximity. In the case of blogs, that is likely to be other friends who blog, and probably in many cases the friends who introduced the author to blogging. That makes for lots of very small and localized activity, meaningful within isolated cliques.
But there's more to a small world network than that. Operating within a clique presents the risk of being disconnected from the outside world. One may lose track of how to connect to new and unknown people. For a student, that is potentially disasterous, as at some point reality will bite and the clique will dissolve (reaching the end of the course for example). So it makes sense for members of the clique to make some consideration of the outside, to open themselves up to possible extra-clique connections. The clique makes sense of the activity, but the outside is needed to give a small reality check, to add a little affirmation that the activity has value beyond the clique, and to safeguard that value should the clique suddenly dissolve. To cope with this, small world networks emerge, with "hub nodes" that provide a connection between the clique and the outside (or other cliques). These hubs take many forms. In some cases a single key individual may play the role. In other cases, a broadcasting channel may do the trick.
What is really interesting, and perhaps not yet thoroughly researched, is how different the arrangements of different types of clique and hub may be of great significance. For example, in designing a new interpersonal communication system that relies both on cliques and on hubs, if we get the type of hub wrong, then the development of the system may be restricted.
My question then is this: what is the arrangement of cliques and hubs in Warwick Blogs? What kind of small world network is it? Could it work better with a different arrangement of cliques and hubs? Fortunately, I think that it should be easy for us to get empirical data on this, so long as we ask the right questions. Our questions will be based on a model of the relevant types of clique and hub. To start creating this, I have listed some of the forms of "casting" (broad and narrow):
- broadcasting – every entry appears on a "showall" aggregation page that lists the latest publications from the whole system;
- segmented broadcasting, with entries appearing only to readers with certain membership status (eg student only, university member only);
- directory focussed broadcasting – an entry appears in "showall", but the author is writing with consideration of one of the groups represented by an aggregation page in the blog directory;
- tags based broadcasting – author targets their entry to people who are likely to be viewing all entries with a known shared tag;
- Google targeted broadcasting;
- narrowcasting to a limited known predefined group, controlled by privacy controls.
- narrowcasting to a limited group, controlled by privacy controls and "favourites" subscription.
- narrowcasting in which the privacy permissions are set to allow anyone, but the author tells specific people (often family and friends) to look at the entry (often by email) – added following Graham's suggestion.
And then we will need some questions that we can use to work out which of these are being used, and to what effect. For example:
- did the author consider the mode of casting – the audience?
- who did they consider the audience to be?
- did this affect what they wrote?
- were there instances in which they changed what they planned to write because of the mode of casting?
- were there instances in which they changed the mode of casting because of what they wrote.
If you are interested in joining in with this research, please contact me
October 20, 2005
After spending a few weeks away from my research project, I usually restart my thinking by quickly reading a popular-science/history/art-theory book of some kind. My means of choosing such a book is usually quite aleatoric: the criteria being "something that sounds good, is easy and fast to read, and which may provide some unforeseen empirical data for my conceptual activities".
Mark Buchanan's book, selected from the popular-science section of Waterstone's in an instant, without much consideration, met these criteria well. The aim of the book is to convey and contextualize what is a fairly simple idea. But what makes that simplicity into something more significant is that it is an idea that seems to have been overlooked, and which once brought into consideration, gives explanatory sense to lots of seemingly unrelated phenomena. For me as a philosopher, that is interesting: what thoughts were impossible before the arrival of this concept? what errors were made?
The concept is, superficially, that of the "small world network": that is to say, how networks seem to naturally form from highly chaotic and random situations, into simplified but still random organisations, connected together by specially priveliged nodes that do much of the work of maintaining order and flow in the system. As a result of this priveliged position, and the dynamics of its connectivity, all kinds of sophisticated behaviours (economic, social, cognitive, ecological) can be seen to emerge: results of what has been called the network effect (although there is much more to this than the business model). It plausibly demonstrates how it is quite feasible for one random person to be only six degrees of separation from another random person. And then it extends this model to many further domains (physical, ecological, computational etc).
I'm thinking: Kant, sensus communis – what if he new about small world networks? Or conversely: Nietzsche – what did he know? And of course it is there in Deleuze and Guattari (concepts such as transversality), but rarely with the very definite examples that we now know of. A fascinating question to consider would be: when exactly did the concept of "network" arise? – and at what point did people start realising that the conditions for the establishment and operation of a network may cause certain behaviours, patterns and organisations to emerge (the network effect)?
Connect it to Andy Clark's extended cognition theses (with its tightly coupled systems). And throw in our experiences with the small world system known as Warwick Blogs. Interesting. Very.
Even more so because it turned out that, as I discovered on page 16 as the author described the kind of surprising coincidence that a small-world network can cause, I am in fact only two degrees of separation from Mark Buchanan! He is a friend of a friend As I read…
I moved a few years ago from the United States to London to take up an editorial position with Nature
…I dropped the book when I realised that he may well share an office with my friend Karl, who is also an editor with Nature, also working in the physical sciences. Karl is a Moosehead, with whom I occassionaly drink, eat chillis, and bellow loudly. On Friday night (whilst in the Bilash in Botley) I explained this to Travis (also a Moosehead, if not the head Moosehead). Travis was actually planning, that night, to write an email to Mark Buchanan. It may even be that I have met the author at some Moosing event at some time (although I may have been drunk and therefore incapable of remembering the names of any new acquintance). Spooky. Or just the result of a small world network.
Buchanan's book does well to rapidly explain the work of Watts and Strogatz, Granovetter, and other pioneers. It is entertaining and full of fascinating examples throughout – especially when dealing with the ingenious experiments of the sociologist Stanley Milgram. The connecting-up of cases from such a wide range of domains begs many questions (important philosophical questions that I think Deleuze and Guattari address effectively in What is Philosophy?). But it is very much worthwhile because of that.
I'll give the book 4 stars (not 5, as it could do with a bit more detail on the mathematics and mechanics of the networks).
If you have feedback on this entry, please contact me
October 14, 2005
I just did a presentation for really nice clever people at Oxford Brookes.
What a great day.
(This entry is part of my demo).
July 20, 2005
A new name to mark the adoption of a new blogging style: transversality. Why? To what effect? What difference does it make?
For the past 18 months I have been writing in a blog called Soft[ware] Subversions. That title was taken from Felix Guattari's small but effective collection of essays, Soft Subversions. In that time I have learnt a lot about blogging, especially its use to support research activities. I have even developed my own blogging style. There has also been a word/concept that I find myself using more often across everything that I do, in e-learning, philosophy, travel writing and blogging. The word is transversality, and I take it as the new title for my blog.
I really like this word. It does different but connected work in each of my categories.
In philosophy, it marks perhaps the central concept in my research, as introduced by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to describe the joint passage through chaos of relatively distinct systems. As such its concept is a powerful and important innovation, giving a new and more pragmatic understanding of reasoning and creativity, and thus offering better models for all kinds of activity (social, economic, ecological etc).
In e-learning, I have used the word trasversality in describing a tension that may increasingly exist between the student perception of the degree process and the academic conception of it. For some students, there should be an ideal path between entrance (paying their fees) and exit (getting a 2.1). This path is fast, direct, and determinate, with little connection to anything beyond a clearly specified curriculum. It is a straight line that remains isolated from their other trajectories (personal development, social, ethical, political etc). My conjecture is that this is quite different to the conception of a degree that I and others have, which sees important transversal connections between academic work and all of those other trajectories. And furthermore, these important transversal connections add a degree of individuality and complexity to the academic trajectory, such that it becomes much less determinate and much more the responsibility of individuals.
And finally, in motorcycling, there is also something transversal…
…the BMW Boxer air-cooled flat twin transverse engine that powers my R100 GS-PD, and almost all other BMW bikes built since 1923. Rev it hard in neutral, and you can understand a little about the eccentric people who ride these bikes. The opposing cylinders cause it to rock from side to side. Bikes are supposed to be like blades, cutting through the air smoothly and quickly. Getting from point to point in the shortest possible time. But BMWs traditionally have done that a little differently. When riding one you feel this strange contradictory balance of forces that probably shouldn't work but does. That combined with the way in which it hunches-up under accelaration, with the shaft drive trying to climb over the bevel box on the rear wheel. It's strange, but all the more amazing because of it. Like all things transversal, its richer by not taking the most direct route from A to B.
As Ted Simon would say: "the interruptions are the journey".
Or as a German friend of mine has said: "you will sleep when you are dead".
If you wish to give me feedback on this, please contact me
July 17, 2005
I was recently asked to write a short description of why and how I use Warwick Blogs for my academic work (a PhD in Philosophy as well as related research in e-learning). This led me to consider the various types of interaction that my academic blogging seeks to provoke, and the blogging style that I have evolved to encourage these interactions. In over two years of academic blogging, I have learnt that style is very important.
To start of with, lets ignore the technology and consider the interactions that I am after as a researcher, along with some of those that I wish to avoid. Given that the time that I can spend on research is limited, ensuring that these interactions are productive and of the right kind is paramount. I do not want to risk getting involved with interactions that detract from my precious research time. I'm sure that most lecturers would say the same. Even as I write this entry, I am all the time worried that the use of the term 'originality' below may open up an engagement, a debate, that I really don't want to get into right now.
However, I also do not want to have to spend much time managing these interactions. There is therefore a tricky balance to be found between, on the one hand gaining valuable insight through engaging with others, and on the other hand spending time developing my own ideas and arguments. The low risk option is simply to go into hiding and bury myself in a copy of Difference and Repetition.
The problem, to reiterate, is this:
- to avoid isolation, with my research becoming irrelevant and obscure;
- to avoid getting involved in debates and misunderstandings that detract from my own research development.
In a subject like philosophy, the tendency towards isolation is a common side effect of the high degree of specialization and creativity required to develop the necessary level of 'originality' and 'individuality' for a PhD or publication. Again it is a difficult balancing act. What I have learnt is this. I need to have interactions with other philosophers in which we can share concepts, terminology, interests, entities, but without always directly engaging in a debate. We need to know each others territories and directions of movement, and know how to connect with them when required. We need to be able to pass around, try out and develop new concepts, without always having a direct debate about them. In short, we need to constitute a collective 'milieu' in which our own individual developments may occur.
Much of my blogging activity is concerned with the consitution of a milieu, and its use as a means to position myself and my concepts. It certainly works, as I have a constant stream of contacts from that milieu. And there are other blogs that I can read to get an idea of where others are at, although very few of them are by people at Warwick. It may even be that the actual number of people reading my blog is irrelevant. The way in which it forces me to position and explain my concepts is in itself a positive effect. However, it is always good to get a response from someone else who is working in a related area, saying that they find my blog to be interesting, and offering some insight into how there work relates to it.
In the past I have always set the comment permissions on my entries so that anyone on the web can comment. This has sometimes resulted in valuable responses ( example ). And on occassion, really good debates have opened up. However, often I find that I recieve irrelevant, uninformed and just plain stupid comments from people who have only a vague notion of what I am writing about. One would imagine that anyone who hasn't spent a lot of time reading Deleuze and Guattari would realise that they have nothing to contribute, but unfortunately the attitude seems to be that in the world of blogs everyone is invited to comment on everything that is written. For most researchers this would be unacceptable. They do not want to feel committed to managing debates that they have no interest in. And they certainly do not ever want their writings to be associated with stupid comments. It seems that the overhead of this extra commitment outweighs the milieu building power of blogs.
So should i retreat back into isolation? That is the response of some of the researchers who I know have tried blogs. However, I have instead started to evolve my own style of blogging that should allow me to continue to use Warwick Blogs effectively. Firstly, I make a distinction between:
- entries that I have written simply to position myself within the milieu;
- and those in which I am looking for a more direct response.
Entry type 1 ( example ) is given commenting permissions that prevent other people from commenting. However, I will also end the entry with an invitation to anyone with something interesting to say to contact me (via the a link to the 'contact me' form that sends a message to me via email). I have actually found that most of my academic contacts have come through people using this form rather than them writing comments.
Entry type 2 is given open comment permissions, but ends with definite guidance as to what kind of response is required (see the advice at the end of this entry).
To give more of a firm guidance of what each entry is about, and by implication what kind of response i want, I now always start an entry with a short overview paragraph in bold. I am also considering whether I should include set phrases in the title that state what kind of entry each is (as i have recently done with the Warwick E-learning blog). This also allows me to do clever filtering with the RSS to HTML servlet that I have written.
Invitation to comment:
I would be happy to recieve comments on this entry from others who are using blogs for academic research. I would be keen to hear of suggestions for blogging styles and for developments in the technology.