Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Risk-Taking or Risque: Behavioral Norms and Codes in the Blogosphere

Keep in mind that I wrote this as I was eating dinner, because I have other stuff to do--like nervously going over my presenation, reading extra articles to make sure I capture Org Theory correctly and apply it to sexual harassment law intelligently an in an interesting and useful way, and spazzing. I also have class tomorrow. Ugh. Special thanks to Ultimate Org Theory Guy for helping me fine tune this idea, clumsy though it may be. Hey, this is a two-page assignment, not a dissertation.

Risk-Taking or Risque: Behavioral Norms and Codes in the Blogosphere

The distinction between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 is that the former brings online preexisting forms—for example, an online edition of a newspaper (; the personals section of the classified (; an online shop of a bricks-and-mortar store (take your pick). In contrast, Web 2.0 comprises forms that have no preexisting corollary—for example, online social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace, and most prominently, blogs.

“Web logs,” or “blogs,” first appeared as an unstructured way of aggregating news, information, and personal reflections. The early blogging platforms encouraged the personal chronicle model, for example LiveJournal and Diary-X. But with the emergence of newer, better blogging platforms and their elevation from the personal and mundane to the political and powerful, the blogosphere has become a new organizational field of its own. The blogosophere has transformed the terrain of information consumption and discussion—everyone has a blog, from the college student to journalist to the law professor to the grandmother who knits to the presidential candidate. It is hard to imagine a world without blogs, much less a political campaign without one—although at one time, Howard Dean’s Blog for America appeared to be revolutionary. Blogging is just one way people try to make sense of the current situation, whether it is a Supreme Court ruling (SCOTUSBlog) or the Virginia Tech shootings (student blogs were a major source of information in the tumultuous hours immediately following the tragedy).

Google’s acquisition of the Blogger platform is one such example of the industry’s recognition of blogs as a vital form of information dissemination and discussion. The blogosphere has thus become more institutionalized as it acquires the characteristics of other organizational forms—the imprimatur of corporate authority conferred by the Google acquisition conveys a sense that this form is not only here to stay, but will be constantly improved by a tech industry innovator. What was once a popular, if feature-deficient blogging platform has become “branded” with the Google seal of approval, and brand-name loyalists will flock to the Blogger platform. The blogosphere is further institutionalized by other organizing tools and principles: the advent of paid blogger platforms such as TypePad; the means of syndication through RSS or Atom feeds; the ability to track incoming links through Technorati; the ranking “ecosystem” of the Truth Laid Bear that measures all inbound links to measure blog popularity. Indeed, blogs are much like any other media business—often funded by advertisements, and more recently consisting of more than one individual—group blogs such as The Volokh Conspiracy, and a paid support staff for Talking Points Memo.

This is the macro view of blogs. On the micro-organizational level, we can take our analysis of blogging to the level of the individual, even as we recognize that blogs have an organizational ecology of their own. While blogs may be able to function like institutions—for example, the particular field of the legal “blawgosphere,” with its strange jargon and relative insularity—they are run by human actors. Blogs themselves may appear to operate under a sort of mimetic isomorphism—legal blogs are similar in style and structure, as are knitting blogs, science blogs, etc.—with norms and codes that are generated endogenously by that subset of the blogosophere or across many disciplines. Linking and commenting policies are one such example of institutional norms that permeate across different blog types through mimetic isomorphism, and “memes” are the precise, but short-lived, points of replication. However, such norms, codes, and memes are generated by individual bloggers. And that is where the micro-organizational level of analysis must begin.

Decisions about which blogs to add to a blog roll are made by individual bloggers—even if theyare a part of a group blog. The social network aspect of blogrolls is entirely dependent on the rapport between bloggers; and is thus dependent on the formation of ties, whether weak (Granovetter) or strong. Strength of tie does matter for linking and blogrolling, but the long-tail effects would be associated with frequency or recurrence of linking. Single-instance or occasional linking would likely indicate weak ties. Bloggers are more likely to link to other bloggers that they “know,” either virtually or in real life, an exchange of offline identity that serves to establish trust, homophily, credential, and rapport. This is not the core of my hypothesis though, but perhaps explains the conditions for it.

I hypothesize that pseudonymity negatively impacts the social networking aspects of blogging. Concomitantly, this downward trend is compensated by a positive effect in the ability to engage in risk-taking by the pseudonymous blogger. The “chilling effects” on speech that may inhere to public blogging—that is, the endogenous norms and codes, the posting, linking, and commenting policies—affect the pseudonymous blogger less. By insulating him or herself from the institutional norms through the veil of pseudonymity, the pseudonymous blogger is likely to believe him/herself able to engage in freer discourse without fear of online or offline reprisal—at least not one with tangible effect on reputation, employment, etc. Because of this, the pseudonymous blogger may feel less constrained by the organizational environment of the blogosphere, and thus engage in “riskier” blogging—that is, more honest, more personal, and in some cases, more risqué. Sometimes, the blogger may disregard blogging norms completely and engage in negative, ad hominem, vitriolic, and snarky blogging.

Organizational theory has been used to analyze businesses, schools, political parties and other institutions of indefinite life and great complexity. It is debatable whether a blog is an organization with a common goal and indefinite life, as so many blogs seem to flame out or else have a short shelf life, or else attached to actual organizations and institutions. Yet some blogs are in their Nth year of blogging, and appear to last even as the writers change in and out. While there is currently a study of the sociology of the blogosphere, namely the private/public dichotomy (e.g. Sarah Ford, U Amherst), I do not know of micro organizational theory being applied to the behavior of bloggers. Surveys could be done to operationalize variables for “risk-taking”, although absent a laborious content analysis (and one likely to be hard to assess), such surveys will likely result in subjective measures of a blogger’s own valuation of his or her risk-taking. Still, I believe that the particular environment of the blogosphere is one that would offer an interesting site of analysis for micro organizational behavior.