Blog Campaigning: 2.2 The data gathering process

2.2 The data gathering process During an eight month research period, stretching from August 2006 to April 2007, the author actively searched blogs and online publications in an effort to locate theoretical views and statements spoken by authoritative bloggers and experts on online communication reflecting on how blogs impact on political campaigns. The research period was especially interesting because of two major political campaigns commencing at the time: The 2006 U.S. midterm election was held in November 2006, and in December 2006, the research saw the 2008 U.S. presidential election campaign kick off as one of the earliest presidential campaigns ever to be launched.

To help locate data the study employed a simple word search on Google Alerts ; a search engine searching specific words or word combinations in online newspapers and blogs. The word combinations searched for were ‘political blogging’ and ‘blogging as a campaign tool’.

The author did not rely on conventional ethnographic research techniques such as informal interviews. Instead, to engage in conversations with bloggers, the author explicitly created a blog, BlogCampaigning (thank you for reading), that reflected on the subject of the research and encouraged bloggers to discuss its content. The aim was to involve the subjects of the study in a constant dialogue. All the data collected during the research process was therefore channelled through the blog in an attempt to produce response and to test the significance of the material. This form of retrieving data is often referred to as action research:

“[…] a process of research in which the application of findings and an evaluation of their impact on practice become part of a cycle of research. This process, further, has become associated with a trend towards involving those affected by the research in the design and implementation of the research - to encourage them to participate as collaborators in the research rather then being subjects of it (Denscombe 2003, p. 57).

Action research is seen as “a strategy for social research rather than a specific method” and “does not specify any constraints when it comes to the means for data collection that might be adopted by the researcher” (Denscombe 2003, p. 58). The advantage of using action research is that it allows for the researcher to involve himself in the study and learn more about different aspects of the phenomenon and the objects being studied. As a consequence, structured self-reflection becomes a key part of the research process (Denscombe 2003, p. 58).

The author marketed the blog by submitting comments on other blogs sharing topics similar to the research and by linking to these blogs and their posts in daily entries. Additionally, specific individuals holding an authoritative status within political blog communities were notified of the blog’s existence. This active marketing process gradually increased the blog’s readership and incoming links. From August 2006 when the blog was launched, to the end of April 2007 when the research was ended, the blog had received 5,704 hits (not unique), 112 comments and ranked 193,562 on Technorati’s blog ranking list with 27 incoming links from 23 different blogs.

A result of the author’s effort to enhance the blog’s visibility by engaging with political blog communities was that it made the research and writing process more reflexive. The active engagement with other bloggers allowed for the author to gain a better understanding of political blogs and their context within the democratic election process. A similar research technique has also been employed in a previous study of blogs. In 2004 Schiano et al. (2004, p. 1144) conducted an ethnographic study aiming to understand blogs as a forum of personal expression from a blogger’s point of view. The team used conversational interviews to understand bloggers’ thoughts and habits, and in an attempt to better familiarise themselves with blogging, the team created a class blog within which they discussed their own research (Schiano et al. 2004, p. 1144). The difference and strength of the research-blog employed by the current study was that it encouraged feedback from other bloggers and therefore allowed for the researcher to engage with the subjects of the study in their natural settings. This technique represents a unique and innovative attempt to gain insight into the world of politics experienced by bloggers.

Blog Campaigning: 3.2 The blogosphere

3.2 The blogosphere Simmons (2005, p. 4) argues that the dynamics of the blogosphere can best be understood through “an estimation of the number of blogs as well as an analysis of the factors that influence a blog’s popularity and interactions between blogs”. This chapter will therefore present a brief history of the creation and expansion of blogs, and review the internal structures that define power relations within the blogosphere. Drezner and Farrell (2004, p. 5) are far from exaggerating when they claim that “the blogosphere has grown at an astronomical rate”. When Jorn Barger in 1997 coined the term ‘blog’ on his Robot Wisdom website only a handful of the kind were known to exist (Blood 2000). One and a half years later, in the beginning of 1999, only 23 blogs were known to be in existence (Blood 2000). A few months later the numbers started increasing rapidly.

“This rapid growth continued steadily until July 1999 when Pitas, the first free build-your-own-weblog tool launched, and suddenly there were hundreds. In August, Pyra released Blogger, and Groksoup launched, and with the ease that these web-based tools provided, the bandwagon-jumping turned into an explosion” (Blood 2000).

A heavy growth has continued ever since.

The medium’s popularity today can be reflected in Technorati’s latest state of blogging report. Technorati is according to Simmons (2005, p. 4) “the self-proclaimed ‘authority on what’s going on in the world of weblogs’”. The report, released in October 2006, states that the number of blogs had increased from less than 200,000 in March 2003 to over 57 million by October 2006 (Sifry 2006). Technorati’s founder and CEO David Sifry (in Johnson 2006) reported the same month that 175,000 blogs were created every single day - “about two every second of every day”. Three months later, by January 2, 2007, Technorati pegged the number of active blogs at around 63.2 million (Dalton 2007). The numbers had again grown to approximately 70 million by April 2007 (Sifry 2007) when the current study was about to be completed.

“Technorati is now tracking over 70 million weblogs, and we're seeing about 120,000 new weblogs being created worldwide each day. That's about 1.4 blogs created every second of every day” (Sifry 2007).

So what do these numbers tell us about the impact blogs have on politics and the possibility politicians have to influence bloggers?

Lawson-Border and Kirk (2005, p. 549) argue that the sheer number of blog sites is a measurement of the blogosphere’s importance. The current study on the other hand argues that this is not necessarily so. With the size of the blogosphere it is obvious that all blogs are not equally active nor are they equally valued as authorities. Weighing up the blogosphere’s importance in light of its scale might therefore portray a misleading image of its effective size. A survey conducted by the Perseus Development Company in 2003 found that 2.72 million blogs, 66.0 percent of all 4.12 million surveyed blogs, had not been updated in two months and were therefore considered “abandoned” (Henning 2003). Of these 2.72 million abandoned blogs, 1.09 million had been posted on only once and had not been touched since (Henning 2003). Similar, a study by Gartner Inc “calculated the total number of abandoned blogs at more than 200 million” (Dalton 2007) by the end of 2006. It might therefore be plausible to assume that the number of dying blogs will continue to grow in the future. Gartner Inc forecasted in their study that “the total number of active blogs would peak at 100 million in 2007 before dropping back and levelling off at around 30 million” (Dalton 2007). How then do we know which of the active blogs are perceived to have an influence on other blogs and the political environment outside the blogosphere?

An obvious approach to the question would be to examine how different directories and search engines rank blog authority – by authority meaning influence and popularity. Some sites measure authority by traffic, like, “which monitors the hit rate of all blogs that subscribe to it” (Stanyer 2006, p. 409). Other sites count the number of blogs that link back to a specific blog. There are two ways of doing this; one, used by sites like Technorati, is to count the number of any incoming links that a blog receives from other blogs (Gill 2004, Drezner & Farrell 2004, p. 8); another is to count only links from blogs that are constant - links that do not appear in an entry, but are constantly viewable on a blogroll. Some would argue that constant links are more important than links found within daily entries “as they may lead to a quite significant increase in readership” (Drezner & Farrell 2004, p. 8). However, there are several complications with all the measurement methods. Erin Simmons (2005, p. 5) points out some of these complications in her Senior Honour thesis:

“Measuring the daily traffic of a blog offers one measure of its popularity but alone may be too crude to understand the dynamics of the system. Additionally, measures of traffic do not distinguish users so one user may visit the same site ten times or ten users might visit the site once and the effect would appear the same. If we measure the number of unique inbound links to a particular blog, we may be able to ascertain the popularity of the blog relative to other blogs. More inbound links implies greater popularity in the blogosphere. But this measure is also imperfect as it implies that all links are equal when they are clearly not. For example, if I have a weblog and and my next-door neighbor both link to my weblog, it would be wrong to assume that both links are equally important. Links from more popular sites will bring more traffic to my blog” (Simmons 2005, p. 5).

Simmons (2005, p. 5) therefore argues that a blog’s authority can best be measured through a combination of the different methods.

However, despite the complications surrounding the different measuring methods, studies have found that in general the blogosphere can be seen as “an iceberg”, where a small group of blogs receive the vast amount of readership and incoming links (Drezner & Farrell 2004, Gill 2004, Herring et al. 2004). “The skewed distribution of weblog influence makes it easy for observers to extract information or analysis from blogs”, claim Drezner and Farrell (2004, p. 4), but it also makes it hard for newly established blogs to achieve authority on a topic or within a community where other blogs already have established a hierarchy: “Political parties, therefore, are competing to dominate in their narrow sphere of blog interest” argues Jackson (2006, p. 295). This might limit their political influence and potential outreach.

In summation, the paper has so far explored the key characteristics that make a blog an interesting tool for political parties and candidates to utilize for electioneering purposes, reviewed the structures of the medium that make up the universe of blogs that political parties and candidates now strived to reach, and identified power relations within the blogosphere. Before moving on to discuss how politicians actually use blogs and the effects they have on campaigns and elections, the paper will take a brief halt to look at how blogs attracted the attention of political campaign strategists, how bloggers have changed campaign communication, and what types of blogs we find in a political campaign today.

Blog Campaigning: 5.3 How can we measure the impact of blogs?

5.3 How can we measure the impact of blogs?During the period that the research took place, few bloggers, online communication experts or political commentators explicitly discussed technical aspects regarding how we actually can measure the impact of campaign blogs on political elections. The only reflection that explicitly dealt with this subject was produced by Todd Zeigler, Senior Vice President of the Bivings Group, on the company’s blog, The Bivings Report. Discussing the performances of the 2006 contestants’ official campaign blogs, Zeigler (2006b) raised the following question: “How influential/successful are the campaign blogs?”.

In an extension to his own question, Zeigler writes:

“How many people are reading them? How many people are linking to them? How well networked are they? Are they working? These questions are pretty much impossible to answer in an academically defensible way: we’d need access to the logs of all the campaign blogs to answer adequately. We’re left picking through anecdotes” (Zeigler 2006b).

Zeigler validly raises a relevant point about the complexity surrounding some of the metrical factors that can explain the reach of the content produced on blogs. But it is what he further says that interestingly shows that there are other simpler, non quantitative factors, which also can tell us something about efforts politicians’ dedicate to making their blog successful. In an attempt to somehow answer his first question – “how influential/successful are the campaign blogs” – Zeigler (2006b) decides to use the search engine Technorati to look at aspects that can tell us something about how effective the medium is when used as a campaign tool.

The first aspect Zeigler looks at is how the candidates’ campaign blogs ranked in the search engine. The paper has earlier mentioned that Technorati ranks the blogs in its database by the number of incoming links. Zeigler (2006b) assumes that links are the most effective way we have to measure the influence of a blog. The two next aspects Zeigler examines are how the main campaign sites rank in the search engine and how many links they attract. While these aspects can give us an indication of how much attention the candidates receive from the blogosphere in general, they will unfortunately not teach us much about the influence of the candidates’ blog itself, Zeigler (2006b) argues. The last two aspects examined by Zeigler (2006b) are whether the candidates are doing a good job of actually getting their blog content in the search engine, and whether the candidates have bothered to actually claim their blog in the search engine. Zeigler (2006b) argues that these measurements might give us an indication of how serious candidates are about their blog.

Based on his methodology Zeigler found that:

• “Only 44% of the blogs we looked at had been indexed by Technorati in the last 15 days. And many of these blogs that had been indexed weren't being done so regularly. Seems a lot of campaigns are unfamilar with pinging. • Only 18% of the campaigns have claimed their blog on Technorati. • Generally speaking, these campaign blogs are not linked to that much by other blogs. It was surprising” (Zeigler 2006b).

He concludes that:

(1) “Campaigns haven’t mastered some of the technical aspects of blog promotion This is evidenced by the fact that most of these blogs aren't getting indexed regularly by blog search engines and most campaigns haven't claimed their blog on Technorati. If people can't find your posts, they aren't going to link to them.

(2) Campaigns aren’t networking effectively with other bloggers I know lots of candidates have conference calls with bloggers. And I also know you can't judge the effectiveness of blog outreach efforts based solely on the results above. However, a lot of blogging is building online relationships one blogger at a time. You exchange emails with other bloggers. You link to them. You comment on their blogs. You add them to your blogroll. Given the results shown above, I can't imagine that most of the campaign blogs are doing a good job at building these sorts of relationship. I suspect a lot of them are operating in a bit of a vacuum.

(3) Campaigns aren’t producing compelling content Any successful blogger you talk to will say you earn links by creating good content. Write something great and people will find it and link to it. Click through on the blogs above yourself and see what you think about the content” (Zeigler 2006b).

None of the academic studies reviewed earlier in this paper have considered any of these aspects in the same way as Zeigler does. It should also be noted that many blogs and newspapers are in fact using measurements such as incoming blog links, daily hit rates provided by search engines like Alexa and the number of friends on social media platforms like MySpace and Facebook, as indicators for which of the contestants in the 2008 presidential race that are doing best on blogger outreach (see Easter 2007). There is no reason why future studies should not use measurements like these to test the correlation between online campaigning and electoral success. However, by measuring a blog’s reach and incoming links we still do not examine the correlation between voters that read a candidate’s blog and people that vote for the candidate operating the blog. We also have to take into account that the aspects Zeigler examines can be proxies for a campaign’s overall level of preparedness and organisation. In his analyses of the effects websites had on people’s voting decision during the 1996 U.S. congressional election, D’Alessio (1997) (discussed in chapter 4) found that “the more sophisticated and better resourced candidates were more likely to operate websites” (Gibson & McAllister 2005, p. 6). It might also be plausible to assume that campaigns operating a blog in a modern election campaign are more professional and overall better prepared than the average campaign.