The Sociology of Biblioblogging

The following is an excerpt from my paper “Biblioblogging: Confessions of a Newcomer,” presented at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Chicago, IL.

OBSERVATIONS ON BLOGGING AND ITS STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES

Traffic Distribution Among Biblioblogs

The first observation I’d like to make about the biblioblogosphere is that in it, like in the larger blogosphere, popularity follows a power law distribution — that is, the top handful of blogs receive the majority of hits. Clay Shirky, an Internet theorist, describes this phenomenon nicely:

The basic shape is simple – in any system sorted by rank, the value for the Nth position will be 1/N. For whatever is being ranked — income, links, traffic — the value of second place will be half that of first place, and tenth place will be one-tenth of first place. (Shirky 2003: n.p.)

For example, looking at the Biblioblog Top 50 from September 2011 [1] (which is, from what I can tell, the last accurate and uncontested list of hits for a set of biblioblogs): the top-ranked blog in the data set (Jesus Creed) got 109,647 hits, or 21.3% — over a fifth — of the total hits for the blogs listed. The top four blogs (Jesus Creed, Debunking Christianity, Exploring Our Matrix, and Unsettled Christianity) received 51% of the total hits, and the top 11 blogs (the above mentioned, plus Zwinglius Redivivus, Near Emmaus, Ancient Hebrew Poetry, Scotteriology, Better Bibles Blog, Gentle Wisdom, and NT Blog) received 75.6% of all the hits in the top biblioblogs. At the end of the rankings, the last two blogs (The Biblioblog Reference Librarian’s Desk and The Poetry of Christ) each received only a few hundredths of a percent of the total traffic. Thus, it is clear that traffic to biblioblogs follows a power law distribution.

The real question to be answered, though, is not what the traffic patterns are like, but why they follow the pattern they do. Several factors are at play. It is typically the case, for example, that older blogs receive more traffic than younger ones. Blogs that attracted traffic early in the history of biblioblogging will continue to attract traffic, following the iterative pattern of “more traffic, much celebrity; much celebrity, more traffic” (Guo et al. 2009: 113). This rule is not absolute, though, as some younger blogs (like Unsettled Christianity or XKV8R) garner a high level of traffic. A better predictor of a blog’s traffic levels is frequency and regularity of posting. Bloggers who post at least once a day typically have more traffic than bloggers who post irregularly, and for good reason — more material published on a blog means more chances for someone to click through to that blog, or to discover it through a Google search. Finally, content plays a strong role in driving traffic to a blog. Timely posts about newsworthy events receive more traffic than posts that don’t deal with such events (Guo et al. 2009: 116-117). Likewise, posts about controversial subjects, which are more likely to be shared and discussed throughout the biblioblogosphere, attract a good deal of traffic, while non-controversial posts are likely to be passed over without even a single comment.

Structure of Conversations About Newsworthy Events

Another similarity between biblioblogs and the larger blogosphere is the way conversations take place about newsworthy events. In general, blogs follow a specific pattern when discussing a given story. As Elwin Jenkins, an Internet researcher, describes it,

Blogosphere stories most often start with an opinion type blog, usually reacting to something in mainstream media. Then, almost within hours several voters point to those original opinions giving either a negative or positive vote. Other opinion writers then add more to the story with reaction posts giving more than just a vote. Reaction posts react to an opinion post, or to the voters. After some time, a blogger will summarize what the story is about and draw together some of the opinions, reactions, and note the voters. Voters then react to the summary and create another round of voting, reaction, and opinion. A story usually ends with an online personality providing a summary of the story, reasonably even-handedly. However, some stories die without a final summation occurring (Jenkins 2003, cited in de Moor, Efimova 2004: 199-200).

I find Jenkins’ schema to be a very good description of how bibliobloggers do scholarship relating to newsworthy events (e.g. the Jonah Ossuary or the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife). The scholarship process begins with a blog (or blogs, but no more than a few) breaking the story to the biblioblogosphere — Jenkins’ instigators. Then, very quickly, several voices chime in, sharing the story and adding their own commentary, with a few of those voices making substantial observations about the subject at hand — Jenkins’ voters and reactions. As the conversation speeds up and more voices join in, a blogger or two will provide an overview of the discussion so far as it has unfolded across the biblioblogosphere as a whole — Jenkins’ summaries. Bloggers then read the summaries, vote on and react to the posts contained therein, and the process repeats itself until the question has been solved, until the controversial stimulus is removed, until everyone loses interest, or a combination of any of the three.

What is interesting is that, despite the flurry of activity surrounding these sorts of noteworthy happenings, comparatively few bloggers make discoveries that significantly advance the conversation; they are usually the bloggers who have spent the most time on the subject, whether before or during the conversation, showing some evidence that blogged scholarship may not be as democratic as it is sometimes made out to be. However, once a blogger makes a significant discovery, their insights are quickly assimilated by the other bloggers engaging with the problem, who then set to work analyzing the problem in light of the new insights, until the next major discovery is made and assimilated, or until the problem is solved.

Speed of Blogging

Another noteworthy facet of blogging is the speed at which blog conversation occurs, especially in regards to controversial and newsworthy events in the field. Biblioblog conversations happen at a fast pace. This pace has the benefit of moving quickly enough to keep up with the news media, giving them timely counter-commentary to whatever claim is being made. However, the speed of blog conversation also runs the risk of concluding a conversation before the question at hand has been solved absolutely, thereby deciding matters too hastily.

The blogosphere reacts to a newsworthy story with a flurry of activity centered around that story, followed soon thereafter by a drop in attention: what information scientist Xitong Guo and his team call “storming.” As an example of this phenomenon, they describe the blogosphere’s reaction to the news that the US government was taking over the AIG insurance group:

At the macro level, the blogosphere usually exhibits “storming” accompanied with social events. For example, Figure 4 [not included in the present paper] shows the dynamics of the “Financial & Crisis” blog posts during September and October 2008. Noteworthy is the sudden “jump” of “Financial & Crisis” posts around September 17. . . . The blogosphere sustained very high interest in “Financial & Crisis” (about 1.2 percent of all blog posts) around September 17. However, the temporal high interest began to wane around September 19 (Guo et al. 2009: 112-113).

Biblioblogs, because they are a subset of the blogosphere and show the same characteristics as the blogosphere as a whole (Guo et al. 2009: 116-117), also exhibit storming in reaction to newsworthy events. To take the most recent example: After the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus was announced and the story broke in the blogosphere, bibliobloggers devoted a massive amount of energy to discussing the papyrus, analyzing it, and trying to determine if it is authentic, an ancient forgery, or a modern forgery. To the bibliobloggers’ credit, their attention spans are much longer than the rest of the blogosphere; conversation was roiling three days after the papyrus was initially announced on September 18, 2012, and was still garnering attention (though less frequently) on October 8.

The benefit of this “storming” behavior is that bloggers respond to the newsworthy events quickly, forcefully, and vociferously; indeed, quickly enough for their commentary to keep pace with the news, and forcefully and vociferously enough even to be featured themselves in the news, like Bob Cargill’s live CNN interview regarding the Jonah Ossuary.

The downside to blogging storms is that matters can potentially be decided before all of the evidence has been collected. A clear example of this phenomenon is the very early labeling of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife as a modern forgery. For example, James McGrath says:

Some are already pronouncing the issue resolved. I would like to suggest that that judgment is premature. . . .

. . . I would like to suggest that nothing that Watson presents in his article indicates that the work is a modern forgery, or even that calling it an ancient “fake” will usefully contribute to our understanding of the text. Chemical analysis may hopefully settle the matter to everyone’s satisfaction, and it may be worth the damage to the fragment that would be involved, in order to achieve that higher degree of certainty. Until then, the discussion should continue, and any pronouncement of the matter as settled is at best premature.

(I should like to note briefly that I have no dog in this fight, and I do not much care whether the text is authentic or a forgery ancient or modern. I include this example solely because it is a quick decision that has garnered controversy for its quickness.)

I see three reasons why bibliobloggers would risk substantial controversy in order to make quick judgments about a matter. The first reason is that the biblioblogging community places a high value on responding to newsworthy events quickly enough to keep pace with the news media. The second is that it rewards quick answers to questions, because the success of a blog and its relative importance in the conversation depend both on reacting to an event in a timely fashion and on frequent posts, as shown above. The third reason is that the biblioblogging community does not place as high a value on posts that are the result of longer periods of investigation, since these sorts of posts usually come after a story has died down and the interest has waned. In general, in discussions of newsworthy events, the biblioblogging community rewards quick responses more than slower ones, providing a strong incentive for scholars to make quick judgments and to stick with them.

Conclusion

So, in sum, I have shown that the world of biblioblogging exhibits three specific behaviors, all of which are similar to behaviors seen in the larger blogosphere: first, a power law distribution of blog traffic, which is itself dependent on factors like a blog’s age, how frequently it is updated, and the content written about in it; second, blog conversations about newsworthy events follow a specific pattern, that is, with instigation, votes, reactions, and summaries being written in turn; third, these blog conversations take place at a rapid pace and with a high volume, resulting in blogosphere “storming.”

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[1] Note: In order to have the most representative sample possible, I have only included the 40 blogs for which tracker data was available.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Scholarly Analyses

Blood, Rebecca. “How Blogging Software Reshapes the Online Community.” Communications of the ACM 47 (2004): 53-55.

Davila, James R. “Enter the Bibliobloggers.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. Philadelphia, PA, November 20, 2005.

_____. “What Just Happened: The Rise of ‘Biblioblogging’ in the First Decade of the Twenty-First Century.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. Atlanta, GA, November 22, 2010.

de Moor, Aldo and Lilia Efimova. “An Argumentation Analysis of Weblog Conversations.” Pages 197-212 in Proceedings of the 9th International Working Conference on the Language-Action Perspective on Communication Modelling (LAP 2004). Edited by M. Aakhus and M. Lind. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, 2004.

Du, Helen S. and Christian Wagner. “Weblog Success: Exploring the Role of Technology.” International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 64 (2006): 789–798.

Gregg, Melissa. “Feeling Ordinary: Blogging as Conversational Scholarship.” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 20 (2006): 147-160.

Guo Xitong, Doug Vogel, Zhongyun Zhou, Xi Zhang, and Huaping Chen. “Chaos Theory as a Lens for Interpreting Blogging.” Journal of Management Information Systems 26 (2009): 101–127.

Herring, Susan C., Lois Ann Scheidt, Sabrina Bonus, and Elijah Wright. “Bridging the Gap: A Genre Analysis of Weblogs.” Proceedings of the 37th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (2004): 1-11.

Lovink, Geert. Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Future. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Luzón, María José. “‘Interesting Post, But I Disagree’: Social Presence and Antisocial Behaviour in Academic Weblogs.” Applied Linguistics 32 (2011): 517-540.

Powell, Douglas A., Casey J. Jacob, and Benjamin J. Chapman. “Using Blogs and New Media in Academic Practice: Potential Roles in Research, Teaching, Learning, and Extension.” Innovative Higher Education 37 (2012): 271-282.

Shirky, Clay. “Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality.” Feb 8, 2003.

Bloggers’ Posts

Cargill, Robert R. “Sins of Commission and Omission: Digitally Generated Marginal ‘Fishes’ and Overlooked Handles on the So-called ‘Jonah Ossuary.’” March 13, 2012.

Goodacre, Mark. “SBL CARG Biblioblog Session.” November 12, 2005.

_____. “Disintegration of the Biblioblogging Community?” April 20, 2006.

_____. “Vertical Blogs vs. Horizontal Blogs.” August 8, 2012.

_____. “Jesus’ Wife Fragment: Further Evidence of Modern Forgery.” October 11, 2012.

Heiser, Michael S. “Just in Time for Easter Cash Flow: The Tomb of Jesus’ Disciples.” February 27, 2012.

Lombatti, Antonio. “Never seen a fish depicted upside-down.” March 1, 2012.

McGrath, James. “Is the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife a Fake?” September 21, 2012.

_____. “Lessons from Jesus’ Wife.” October 8, 2012.

Watts, Joel L. “$imcha Gives a Prime Example of the Theory of Motivated Reasoning.” March 6, 2012.

West, Jim. “The Dis-Integration of the ‘Biblioblogging’ Community.” April 17, 2006. (Accessed via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.)

_____. “It’s The August Biblioblog Carnival! The ‘Look, There’s a List of Biblioblog Twitterers’ Edition.” September 1, 2012.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “The Sociology of Biblioblogging

  1. Pingback: Cory Taylor’s SBL paper – The Sociology of Biblioblogging | Unsettled Christianity

  2. Jim

    sadly your statistics are skewed because they are based on the ‘top 50’s’ coding which, if users don’t embed, doesn’t accurately reflect the number of hits they receive. if you want an objective measurement for blogs you should visit alexa.com, plug in the blog’s url, and see how they rank by that matrix. doing so, however, will eliminate mcknight and others because patheos AS A WHOLE is the resultant alexa ranking. hence, all patheos blogs are ‘unknown quantities’- there being no way to know, objectively, how much traffic they actually receive individually.

    a different statistical tool will result in altogether differing statistics. ergo, your conclusions are called into question based, as they are, on faulty math.

    i don’t blame you though, i blame the rather unfortunate notion that the ‘top 50’ pretends to reflect reality and not the reality which exists only in the acceptance of its coding.

    • Thanks for your comment, Dr. West!

      You’re correct; the statistical section was the weakest part of the paper, since there isn’t any readily available source for all traffic across all biblioblogs. However, I thought it was necessary enough to include statistics confirming or denying my analysis, so I had to make do with what was out there.

      I considered using Alexa rankings as opposed to the Biblioblog Top 50’s rankings, since the latter has been hotly contested for so long. Like you said, though, Alexa ranks all the Patheos blogs together, so I wouldn’t be able to distinguish between McKnight, McGrath, and all the other Patheos bloggers. Likewise, for over a year now, the Biblioblog Top 50 rankings haven’t been reliable, in terms of objective statistical analysis.

      Ultimately, I had to make a compromise to get a good set of data. I searched through the archives at the Biblioblog Top 50, found the latest set of data where the most popular blogs still had tracker information and where I couldn’t find a serious dispute over the rankings (unlike later, where it is so common). Then, out of those 50 blogs, I removed the 10 blogs for which no tracker data was available, in order to yield a consistent data set.

  3. Excellent post!!!!!… I’m a sociologist by training and maintain a high level of interested in biblical scholarship, so your post really caught my eye. I would have liked to see more analysis on the structure of blogging though. I was thinking more on the grounds of gaming theory in the speed of blogging required to maintain a high level of traffic. As well, from your observations, it could be possible to argue a case for blogging being a release mechanism or of cognitive duality ala Daniel Kahneman’s theories. As I said, brilliant post. Any chance I could have a look at your larger paper?

    • Thanks, Daniel!

      This post is actually only half of a 25-minute paper (the other half is my own, more introspective, observations on the process and practice of blogging), so I didn’t have much room to go into a lot of detail — plus, I only dabble in sociology, thanks to my wife.

      The main lens I used for this paper was chaos theory, from Guo et al. 2009 (in the bibliography in the main post above). Thank you for the other theory/sources, though! I’ll be sure to look at them and incorporate them in later posts.

      And yes, shoot me an email and I’ll send you my full paper: coryandrewtaylor [at] gmail [dot] com.

  4. Pingback: Bloggers Review SBL « Euangelion Kata Markon

  5. susan

    I visit blogs that allow posting by regular folks as long as we follow the guidelines. I do not follow blogs that only allow posts with which the blogger agrees. I do not follow Dr. Jim West anymore.

  6. Pingback: Top Posts for 2012 | Ex Libris

  7. Pingback: Reflections on Blogging (SBL Paper, part 2) | Ex Libris

  8. Thanks for letting me know this is available!

  9. Pingback: The sociology of bibloblogging | Near Emmaus

  10. Pingback: I don’t check my blog for a day… | Ex Libris

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