Converging forms of communication? Interpersonal and mass mediated expressions in digital environments



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Ella’s weblog, Underskog, MetaFilter and db.no


The following analysis characterises examples of threads in Ella’s personal weblog, Underskog, MetaFilter and Dagbladet (db.no). The analysis aims at describing the conversations regarding aspects of interaction and participation as well as the social context and the ritual significance these different conversations have. In so doing the differences and similarities between the threads are illuminated. Interaction is analysed in a relatively symmetrical way, indicating that participants in threads actually read and respond to other user-comments. Interaction as such always concern participation, but participation does not necessarily imply interaction in the form of users responding to each other. Participation is used rather descriptively as number of participants taking part in discussions. Whereas interaction and participation only concern users who leave explicit symbolic traces in threads, integration theoretically includes the majority of users who may read parts of threads yet who do not leave comments. Users may sympathize or strongly disagree with remarks independent of whether they take a visual part in on-going discussions. Importantly integration does not depend on interaction or participation. As has been argued mass communication has a clear integrating role despite lack of symmetrical interaction, as integration also concerns developing and maintaining (imagined) senses of community and belonging. That being said, the integrating role of personal and collaborative media expressions is likely connected to patterns of interaction as computer-mediated communication helps maintain and construct social ties.

Ella’s weblog


It must first be noted that commenting and interaction between author and readers is not necessarily a significant part of web-logging. In a study aiming to characterise weblogs as a genre, Susan C. Herring et al. found the mean number of comments received per entry for blogs that allow comments to be less than 1 (Herring et al., 2005b) (see also Herring et al., 2005a). Instead blogs in the studied sample were generally individualistic forms of self-expression. Still, this specific analysis focuses on examples where the interaction between weblog author and readers are important. I have carried out qualitative interviews with 15 informants aged between 15 and 19 years old about their weblogs/online diaries and the social and personal significance of weblogging activities2. For these informants, commenting emerged as a relatively significant aspect of weblogging practices:

Daniel (17, Oslo): I read all comments. I think the comments are important. Some people say they have a blog for their own sake. But I think that’s bullshit because then they wouldn’t keep it public.


Marika: How often do you write comments yourself then?
Daniel: I don’t know. I try to comment on most of the things I read. (…) I feel that they sometimes need to know that I have read it.

Receiving comments is not equally important to all informants, and they differ significantly when it comes to how many comments they write in their friend’s weblogs (from hardly any to 20-30 comments a day). Webloggers with several reciprocal friends or contacts, and who are eager commenters themselves tend to get more comments and to appreciate this aspect of weblogging. The point here is not to discuss how common or significant comments are to the weblog genre, but to analyse actual characteristics of comments in individual weblogs. I emphasise that the weblogs in question are individual and private projects used in personal and interpersonal communication processes. Neither do I aim to find a ‘representative’ weblog regarding content, social and personal function or amount and character of comments received. There is no such thing. However, the example studied here is typical for a large group of young weblog-users: they write about personal everyday issues, and the weblogs represents an important part in the user’s social lives.

Ella is a Norwegian 18-year old Live Journal (LJ) user3. Her diary begins in March 2002, and she currently has 124 mutual friends on LJ. Only some of her entries are public and hence accessible for readers who are not part of her LJ-network. In a public entry, Ella tells her readers about how her mother surprised her with a question concerning a party Ella was planning but had not yet asked for permission to keep: “the hairdresser at the salon had told her about it! HOLY CRAP, my mom summed it up this way: “I guess you’ve learnt what a small town this is.” The entry ends with a self-portrait of Ella, from waist to chin, in a new t-shirt. There are 19 comments to this post. Nine comments are written by users on her friends-lists, one comment is from a user not on her friends-list, and eight comments are written by Ella herself as responses to comments received.

From: Rabbit
Date
: January 26th, 2006 02:01 am (UTC)

i can’t really see the print on the t-shirt, but i guess you’re hot in it any way.

i miss your parties.
(Reply to this) (Thread)

From: Ella
Date: January 26th, 2006 03:01 am (UTC)

there’ll be many more when you guys get back :)


(Reply to this) (Parent)

Rabbit comes from the same town as Ella, but is currently studying in Australia. Online diaries are commonly used in combination with private forms of communication such as instant messenger (IM) to keep in touch with friends who have moved away for shorter or longer periods (Lüders, 2006a). The other comments to Ella’s post are very similar: commenters credit how she looks in her new t-shirt and request to be invited to the party whether or not they live geographically close to her.



From: saveme
Date:
January 26th, 2006 09.15 am (UTC)

You’re having a party and I’m not invited.
(Reply to this) (Thread)

From: Ella
Date:
January 26th, 2006 04:55 pm (UTC)

dude, we’ve been through this before. if it’s not likely that people are able to be there, i won’t invite them.

if you moved here, however :P
(Reply to this) (Parent)

This requests is first of all a symbolic expression, indicating a recognition of the social relationship between saveme and Ella. There is no doubt that social interaction between Ella and her friends is a significant part of her LJ-practice. This thread is generally accessible for an audience unrestricted by time and space, yet the characteristics of the content of the thread is a typical for interpersonal communication between friends. Over time, these relationships tend to evolve and deepen, existing friendships are maintained, and new social ties are constructed (Lüders, 2006a). The ritual aspects of these kinds of interaction are evident as users acknowledge the importance of others in their lives.


Underskog


Underskog was launched in November 2005 by Alex Staubo, Simen Svale Skogsrud and Even Westvang, primarily as a geographically specific social networking service based on offline connections, featuring a social calendar, a weblog, user profiles and an embedded instant messenger application. Member size has been constrained by allotting a restricted number of invitations, yet the size of the network soon exceeded server and administration capacities. As of June 2006, there were 5800 members and invitations were withheld to avoid a collapse of services. Considering the development and growth, Underskog is a valuable case for analysing collaborative communicative forms and challenges of scope, as well as examining emerging practices for posting and commenting. At the beginning of January 2006 Underskog was turned into a closed arena: only members have full access to the web-site. At the same time the developers introduced ‘conversations’ (samtaler) as a new function to prevent littering of the front-page weblog. Conversations are open for all members, but are only directly visible as links on the front-page if some of your contacts participate in it. Conversations are thus not overwhelming the amount of content for all users in the same way as the weblog. Hence, whereas norms for posting entries to the weblog are constantly being negotiated and criticised, conversations emerged as a preferred arena for many users.

Some basic statistical figures are required in order to understand the different structure of Underskog weblog-entries and conversations. Between the 2nd and the 8th of May 2006, 49 entries were posted in the weblog. Total number of comments for these entries were 1345, i.e. an average of 27 comments per entry. Maximum number of comments for one single entry was 157. Whereas comments are hardly ever added to old weblog entries (i.e. entries no longer visible on the front-page) (see also Herring et al., 2005b), conversations have a much longer active life, resulting in some very long exchanges. As of 6th of June, the record is held by the conversation “Convent without nuns” (the title is continuously changed). This thread was initiated at the 8th of April as a call for an available apartment, and continued as a never-ending string of associations, at present counting 27 users and 2018 comments.

I will compare the weblog-entry “The new Woman”4 posted 23rd of May 2006 counting 46 comments, and the conversation “The industry sucks”5 initiated 16th of May currently counting 102 comments. The analysis employs the previously introduced notions of interaction, participation and integration.

In the weblog-thread “The new Woman” participants discuss whether or not the winner of the Norwegian-Swedish Big Brother 2006 Jessica Lindgren represents a progressive and liberating or a regressive female role. Jessica’s stereotypical blond and narcissistic appearance is combined with a highly un-pliable, sexually active and forceful nature. The weblog post was published on the 23rd of May at 11 am and refers to the radio-program Kulturbeitet (broadcasted on the 23rd of May 2006) in which the media-scholar Alex Iversen hailed the winner as a liberated and liberating woman and a more questioning and ambiguous comment by journalist Anne Lindmo in the Norwegian paper Dagsavisen (Lindmo, 2006). The thread contains an additional 46 comments written by 30 users (last comment was posted the 24th of May at 02 am). The comments indicate a general negative attitude to Jessica as a potential feminist role-model, but otherwise acknowledgments as well as harsh critiques of Jessica as a person. Regarding attributes of interaction, participation and integration, users in this particular thread are relatively responsive to previous comments and points of view: 24 comments include direct responses to other user-comments. As such the conversation is characterised by users having an opinion to share as well as reactions to claims and arguments previously made, i.e. it is typically characterised by participation and interaction. The thread moreover shares a typical characteristics with several other Underskog-threads: users are divided when it comes to popular-cultural products such as Big Brother. A good share of users have a very elitist approach to culture.

The deterioration is that NRK P26 in a serious program about culture wastes time and resources on the most unintereresting trash on Norwegian television. Even VG7 appears as a virtuous ideal in this context.

If people believe these types of women are a new ideal, the sex-industry has been cultivating it for at least a couple of decades (Written by Kjetilhav Tuesday 23. May at 14).

These are opposed by users who are more open-minded towards pop- and trash-culture:

The deterioration would’ve been even worse if a serious program about culture on NRK P2 had ignored unintereresting trash TV, which for better or worse contributes to define our time.

Besides, kjetilhav: the women’s ideal that the sex-industry has cultivated for decades is a lot more passive (Written by birgitte_m Tuesday 23. May at 14).

Hence, commenters have a pro- or con preference for these kinds of programs and women’s roles, and feelings of identification with similar others may develop. However, the participants in weblog-threads are not typically characterised by sharing social ties. Underskog weblog-entries are not network-specific, and the resulting threads are consequently relatively independent of existing social relationships.

Conversations however, follow a different path. Users who initiate conversations invite friends and acquaintances to join. Conversations consequently develop from within existing social networks. The thread “The industry sucks” (“bransja suger”) is a telling example. The conversation was started by Trustme as a response to an article in the Norwegian tabloid Dagbladet about the difficulties experienced by minor record labels in Norway. The following 101 comments are written by 18 users, of which ten are part of Trustme’s friends-list. The thread is thus strongly characterised by the same participants re-visiting and posting new comments. Six users are part of Trustme’s indirect network as they are friends of one of her participating friends, and only one user is not connected to any other participants in this specific thread. These figures already illustrate how structurally different threads can be depending on whether they are posted as weblog-entries or as conversations.

In brief, this conversation developed as a discussion of the future of the record-industry generally (e.g. the CD vs. Internet-distribution), the power of major Norwegian record-shops and a discussion of the relations between artists and record-companies. The participants have relevant experiences regarding these specific themes: they are owners of small record companies, music artists, and enthusiastic music consumers or otherwise involved in music culture. Importantly the conversation shows that the participants have knowledge about different aspects of the music industry, a fact that is reflected in the responsiveness between comments. 86 comments include elements of direct reactions, answers or further remarks to previous comments.

Didn’t know about Platekompaniet’s [major Norwegian record-store] revenues from advertising, fucking sick. Let’s crush them marit! You know, we’re strong if we stand together (Written by andreasg Tuesday 16. May at 23).

The characteristics of different Underskog-conversations differ significantly, and it is not my intention to present a general pattern similar to all threads. It is still quite clear that conversations are closely tied, though not exclusively, to existing social networks.


MetaFilter


MetaFilter is one of the internationally best known collaborative weblogs. It was launched by Matthew Haughey in July 1999 aiming to “break down the barriers between people, to extend a weblog beyond just one person, and to foster discussion among its members” (Haughey, 2006a). According to Haughey, 10-12 people register as new MetaFilter-users every day (Haughey, 2006b). Only registered members are allowed to contribute to the weblog and to add comments, but in contrast to Underskog, the content of MetaFilter is open for non-members to read. Total number of visitors is hence many times the number of users. MetaFilter is a much less filtered arena than similar collaborative weblogs (such as slashdot.org or kuro5hin.org). Users must be members for at least a week and have posted a few comments before being able to post links to the main page, but otherwise the structure is not hierarchical and new entries and comments appear in the order they are posted.

Beginning with a humble 32 threads and 143 comments in July 1999, number of threads and comments were 673 and 28604 for December 2005. Based on the monthly statistics for 2005, average number of comments per entry varied between 32.2 in February 2005 to 42.8 in September 2005. Number of threads per month has been varying between approximately 500 and 800 per month since 2001, though number of comments appear to have increased (Baio, 2005).

There exists a specific normative practice for all MetaFilter weblog entries. MetaFilter weblog threads contain perceivably interesting and valuable links, generally accompanied by brief remarks. Links and original remarks are then followed by comments from other users and conversations develop. The entry “If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it8” posted by insomnia_lj on the 24th of May 2006, acquired 40 comments by 30 different users. The entry refers to a joint press release of the American Geophysical Union, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology Dorset and Wageningen University concerning a study of greenhouse gas-temperature feedback mechanisms indicating a previous underestimation of global warming. The entry additionally links to information about corresponding studies supporting similar arguments. In the MetaFilter-discussion users were divided according to their beliefs of whether or not global warning represents a real global threat and whether or not they had any faith in these studies. All comments responded to the original entry, and 22 of the 40 comments included direct responses to previous comments.

Hey muckster – great review. I just saw the film tonight, and i highly recommend it to everyone. Gore is incredibly impressive in the film. He does a superb job defining the problem, evidence and science, but leaves you with quite a lot of hope that with some political will we can solve the issue.

The most depressing part of the film was the reminder that this thoughtful, articulate man was ‘defeated’ by GWB.
posted by jba at 11:17 PM PST on May 24

This quote is a response to muckster’s links to David Guggeneim’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth featuring Al Gore’s fight to increase the public awareness of the global warming threat as well as his own review of it. It illustrates how the thread is characterised by users interacting and replying to each other, and sharing relevant information.

People may hence be interacting, but what can be said about the relations between them? All MetaFilter-users have profile-pages. Some information is automatically updated statistics on users-activity such as links to entries and comments written, and links to MetaFilter-contacts if any. Users may add other users as their contacts if they share social ties or because they wish to keep track of their future posts. The participants in this thread may well be interacting, but there is not an overwhelming interconnection in the form of reciprocal contact-links between the participants. One user has added four of the other users as contacts, but these ties are unidirectional. Additionally two users have unidirectional contacts to two participants, and two users share reciprocal contact links.

Users may additionally write more detailed profiles with name and links to home-pages or weblogs, and hence decide whether or not they want to be pseudonymous or recognisable users. In this thread 14 users only have their MetaFilter-nicknames, links to previous entries and comments, and links to MetaFilter contacts to convey an image of who they are. The remaining 16 users additionally include a name or link to external sites that provide more information about them. However, even pseudonymous users cannot prevent to reflect who they are through their practice. The point here is not how common it is to browse through other users’ profiles and previous activities or to link to external weblogs. The point is that users necessarily develop a social profile in MetaFilter. Looking at the profile-page of Smedleyman, one of the participants in the above referred to thread, reveals certain characteristics about him. Links to 49 entries and 3798 comments since 18th of November 2004 indicates some of his interests and values. Readers do not even have to follow the links to the actual posts and comments as the profile-page conveys information about the most popular tags for Smedleyman’s posts: NSFW (“not safe for work”), art, politics, torture, war, Bush, constitution, foreignpolicy, history, holocaust. This is important because pseudonymous users build a reputation connected to their nicknames (Donath, 1999; Henderson and Gilding, 2004). As the next example from the Norwegian tabloid Dagbladet shows, full anonymity appears to lower the threshold for commenting, which in certain cases lead to very unbalanced and condescending threads.


dagbladet.no


I have already mentioned the long tradition of audience participation in mass media forms (McNair et al., 2002; Wincour, 2003; Ytreberg, 2004), and suggested that digital technology as well as a dominating discourse of participation increase implementation of user-created content. As a final example, I look at the audience-debate succeeding the previously mentioned article in Dagbladet about the difficult situation of independent record labels in Norway (Thorkildsen, 2006). This article is hence the departure point for a conversation in Underskog as well as an audience-discussion in the online version of Dagbladet (db.no).

A selection of articles in db.no is open for reader-comments. However to be able to control and administer the threads, the possibility to add new comments is closed after three days. The order of comments is not chronological, but sorted according to points given by other readers as either a plus or minus. Users can also respond directly to other user-comments. Comments of comments are evidently sorted in subsequent order. Although new comments can only be added for a restricted time-period, some threads are very large: 691 comments were added to a discussion following an article about Lordi as the winner of Eurovision Song Contest 20069. The record-industry thread10 is in comparison minor with 49 comments. It is nevertheless sufficient to indicate structural differences and similarities to previously analysed examples. In this specific thread the 49 comments are written by 40 different users. More importantly users are receptive towards other comments, and 30 comments are responses to other comments made. A comparison with other reader-discussions on db.no-articles shows that that a high degree of responsiveness is common for db.no reader-debates: a discussion about the failure of Norwegian policy on drugs yielded 65 comments, of which 31 were comments on previous comments.11 A debate following an article about North-Korean missiles consists of 140 comments of which 85 are responses to previous comments12. In a discussion following an article about animal testing for medical purposes 135 out of 203 comments were responses to previous comments13. My prior expectation that user-discussions within mass mediated arenas would be characterised by participation rather than interaction was not supported. Messages are not cast out, but regularly aimed at specific others.

However, a closer look at the messages shows that the db-discussion is very different from the Underskog-conversation above. A comparison of this kind is evidently unfair, as the conversation from Underskog takes place between people who share social ties and who generally have some kind of competence about the record-industry. Although commenters on db.no may include a link to their home-pages, very few do that. Commenters are thus anonymous or pseudonymous in the form of a chosen nick-name. Users may however develop a personality profile through frequent postings using the same nick-name. As previously noted, pseudonymous commenters may earn a recognisable positive or negative reputation among other users (Donath, 1999; Henderson and Gilding, 2004). This can be seen in an anonymous reply to one of Conquistador’s comments about the commercial market system and the deception of the masses:

Re: Stupidity
Written by: Anonym, 16.05.2006 at 16.13
Hehe, I’ve understood for some time that you have certain psychological issues to deal with. Strange how that emerges ever time you make a statement. Always charges about a major “plan” behind. Long live conspiration theories!!! You probably just blame the Zionists?

Get a life Conquistador! The sun shines, buy yourself an ice-cream!

This comment obviously generated a new reply from Conquistador, but the point should by now be clear: participants may become recognisable despite a lack of contextual information about them. Yet, as there are hardly any online or offline social ties between the participants, and as participants are free to comment anonymously, threads are regularly characterised by contemptuous comments:

Not quite sure
Written by:.....(player58), 16.05.2006 at 14.15
I’m not sure what to say, I mean that if Falck [the owner of the now closed independent record-company C+C] had had more luck then it could have worked. It almost goes without saying that if you go for artists like OnklP and Jaa9, not that I mind hip hop, I am a big fan of timbuktu, paperboys etc etc. But if Falck had signed better artists, then his business would’ve been more successful and.. just a thought……

Re: Not quite sure
Written by: Maddog, 16.05.2006 at 14.28
Ok, “Player”58
I see you don’t get the point here.
Timbuktu and paperboys are among the most successful on the hip hop market in Norway.

Falch [sic] goes for music not hits.


So your little thought, is a thought by a person with a rather narrow view on music.
Go home popboy.

Re: Re: Not quite sure
Written by: B, 16.05.2006 at 14.57
He, he,
though Norwegian hip-hop generally sells really badly. Nobody wants to buy pale Norwegian copycats. (…)

Re: Re: Re: Not quite sure
Written by: Conquistador, 16.05.2006 at 15:43
Hahahaha! Ridiculous!!
A Swedish guy once told me:
”Norwegian hip hop sounds like CHILDREN’S MUSIC!”

Damn, I couldn’t agree more!!


Not exactly hardcore!
Fuckings shit Voice-TV and Eminem clones!
(Yes Eminem sounds like fuckings CHILDREN’S MUSIC too and he sucks Dr. Dre dick!)

In this thread users are not very concerned with the appropriateness of their messages, and mocking other commenters appears as a common practice. The disdainful tone of several threads is troublesome, especially as db.no follows editorial norms for publishing content. A headline article in db.no (i.e. it was published on the front-page that day) on the 15th of June 2006 raised the problem of racist comments overflowing any db.no-debate concerning immigrants, terrorism and Islam,14 making it difficult to continue un-restricted debates on db.no. This article yielded a massive 1290 comments, and again racist claims about immigration, refugees and especially Islam dominated the debate. As previously noted audience participation in mass media are formatted to meet the requirements of mass media publishing (Ytreberg, 2004: 689). With online reader-debates, db.no follows a very different path. The participatory potential of digital technology is warmly embraced as a tool to allegedly improve conditions of free speech, but problems of new mass media practices are still being negotiated.



A very fundamental question remains to be raised. Discussions within db.no convey alternative and often dissident voices from below, and the discussions are characterised by interaction between the participants (horizontally). Yet are the asymmetrical relations between the mass media institution represented by journalists and editors on the one hand and readers on the other hand challenged (vertically)? As argued by Michael Karlsson, journalists hardly ever respond to reader-comments (Karlsson, 2006: 129-130; Øvrebø, 2006). Although expecting a significant degree of reciprocal interaction between journalists and readers is vain as the scope of these discussions regularly becomes overwhelming, important exceptions can be found: in the thread following the db.no-article about the unbalanced character of debates concerning immigration and terrorism, the journalist Mina Hauge Nærland responds to several reader-comments. She expresses gratitude for constructive suggestions to improve the debates, and emphasises that db.no sincerely hopes to support democratic and open conversations. How accurate is Horton and Wohl’s previously cited portrayal of mass mediated interaction? “The interaction, characteristically, is one-sided, nondialictical, controlled by the performer, and not susceptible of mutual development” (Horton and Wohl, [1956] 1979: 33). The exception of the participating journalist above cannot be used to claim that mass communication is no longer asymmetrical, but it underlines that mediated communication is no longer easily divided into interpersonal and mass mediated forms.
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