(This is a draft version, comments and criticism most welcome).
Blogs have had a serious impact on communities all over the world. They have been the subject of debate – as both tools and nemesis of communities based on older resources such as forums and mailing lists. They have been criticised as community killers and enthused as the new shape of communities.
The truth is probably much more prosaic. A certain insight is provided by a series of experiments started in 2006 by the Macuarium community managers, and a recent conversation carried out in parallel at the com-prac list (with special input from Matt Moore, Hildy Gottlieb, Patrick Lambe and Andy Roberts), and at Emekaeme and linking blogs (perhaps most interestingly here).
To start with, a couple of tentative definitions might be useful:
This concept was first defined here, as the group of people that participate (even as readers) in linked conversations within a domain, regadless of the medium or the resource. Those conversations encompass blogs, forums, portals, conventions… as long as they are ultimately cross-linked.
Boundaries of communities
The conversation space is not homogenous; those conversations take place in different environments, sometimes in the midst of communities of practice. As explained here, a community is a social institution, defined by its culture (shared values and practices), and its conversations are very often sustained by a particular resource or channel.
Resources are therefore the substrate of conversations: the channel and repository, and by extension, the people who manage it in trust for their owners. A forum can be a resource, as can a blog, or a portal, or an association’s bulletin.
A. BLOGS AND COMMUNITIES
Blogs can play many roles within a conversation space; some were explored here. What we will explore now is the way in which blogs relate with established communities within a conversation space, and why.
What’s in a name
When a blog is multi-authored and links to several services (downloads, forums) it is a blog only in the name of the technology it uses: for any practical use, it’s a portal. Portals are different animals.
For the purposes of this article, we will consider blogs only those that are written by one person, or very few people; that expound their opinions and their take on a domain’s news; and which don’t integrate with other channels such as forums, lists or chats.
The blogosphere and other types of conversation
The core difference between a blog and any type of community resource is that “community” character. In a forum or list, the members all share the same level playing field (exceptions for moderation don’t usually distort conversations). In a blog, any conversation is totally asymmetrical: one person writes, the rest can only add footnotes… unless they’re blog authors too.
Indeed, a “blog conversation” is not usually represented as readers’ comments to an article, but as blogger’s editing and commenting on their own blogs about someone else’s original piece. These conversations connect networks of bloggers within a shared area of interest or opinion current.
Thus the “blogosphere” becomes a domain where a few bloggers discuss and a (wide, or not) readership adds footnotes. And most of that readership misses a serious part of the conversation, unless they’re adept at following crosslinking references and using RSS aggregators in a rather time-consuming way.
The differences with a mailing list are stark. There, everyone gets every message, and ignoring a message or not is a specific decision. Every answer gets the same diffusion. Everyone can chip in, the conversation is wider. And of course, the channel is simpler, familiar to more people, and does not require even browsing.
Forums introduce some level of control: eventually, a moderator could edit or delete a message, but she’d be acting as a “delegate” of community authority. On a blog, the owner can (and does) decide that a specific answer is either irrelevant or irritant, and eliminates it without further ado. Also, they require a browser.
As we have seen, besides its author’s network of bloggers, a blog generates a very peculiar community around its posts: it’s more a reader’s trail, that eventually coalesces when the same commenters emerge once and again and start conversing among each other. Sometimes, those commenters become contributors to the blog.
Blog effects on community
What is therefore the real impact on a community when a new blog appears in the conversation space?
The primary impact is double: a blog can provide alternative sources of news and content for passive community members, and it can also provide an alternate focal point for potential community collaborators.
A community runs on two things: a critical mass of members that provides a range of expertise able to answer other member’s questions and engage in meaningful conversations; and a significant number of collaborators who can take the lead in community initiatives for the good of the whole. In short, it runs on the time of members.
Therefore, a blog that takes reader time away is depleting the community’s ability to solve problems (and therefore its relevance). A blog that captures a collaborator’s time is taking away from the community’s ability to deliver initiatives (events, knowledge objects…).
A good take on this issue is here.
There is a secondary impact, as community members visit the blog and are exposed to the blog’s vision and values, which may be different from the community ones. When a blog community appears, it usually will gather enough identity to fracture from the old community, forming a separate group within the conversation space.
The difference goes deeper
Both these impacts are common when any new resource appears. Indeed, blogs are community-weak and thus the damage they may inflict is (ceteris paribus) less than portals or other communities. They are even less relevant for mailing-list based communities, as the channel (and the daily routine of members) does not overlap, than for forum-based ones.
But blogs are different in two ways:
– They transform the conversation space’s dynamics: instead of many-to-many conversations in densely packed spaces, with lots of different perspectives from every quarter, we find mostly separate blog communities that add comments and footnotes to the author, each blog node linked to the rest of the blogger’s network: a severely two-tiered participation mode.
– The unequal of participation and the complexity of following a complete cross-blog conversation makes for less participants: in Matt Moore’s words you “lose some of the tail” of the conversation.
That is not to say they have no advantages. Its format is better for publishing well-defined, long-worded pieces than either forums or lists, if not for commenting them.
B – RESISTANCE AND COLLABORATION
The reasons for blogging are many and good; their emergence is unquestionable. Thus, once we know that they affect both existing communities and the dynamics of the conversation, it could prove interesting to search for ways to manage their impact. It has been argued that this is hopeless, but experience suggests otherwise.
Blogging from within
Blogs have been proposed as a substitute for other community resources such as lists or forums: either as single portals or as networks of blogs. The advantages of having a portal of any sort are evident, if only as a showcase for knowledge objects. But the transformation of the community conversations when a conversation resource is substituted with a series of blogs is something to keep in mind.
A recipe for resistance
The lure of blogs for readers is their content; the lure for collaborators is their project.
The main way in which a blog can draw traffic from a community forum or list is by announcements of new, interesting content. The best way I know of thwarthing them is to draw that sting. The Macuarium community system follow a two-pronged policy: no announcements allowed in the forums (all announcements must be sent as press releases to be published on the community portal), and free rein to links to those same blog pieces… as part of relevant answers to forum questions.
The result is to highlight the role of the community in selecting relevant blog content, and keeping the conversation in the forums.
Blog projects are usually compatible with a community’s ethics and values, but sometimes not (i.e. a commercially driven project bashing into a community-driven support forum). A new, shiny blog project can draw eager commentators from the community. However, a simple policy of requiring that any quote of their content be restricted to original content can reveal typical me-too newsblogging as nothing more than content parasitism… and uncover many interesting new sources.
A recipe for colaboration
When a blog project shares a community’s essential values and practices (or indeed the blog author is a community member), it is a prime opportunity for collaboration. This can take many different shapes, but in practice simply requires both parts to respect and foster the other, keeping the essentials in their place.
A community is built on conversations and builds complex knowledge objects; a blog is built on personal analysis and thrives on short comments. An example of symbiosis could be the iPhoniac.com blog and the Macuarium.com community: selected value-added iPhoniac content is usually published as a Macuarium article, in full or as an excerpt, with full linkback to the blog and also to the Macuarium forums where it spawns conversations. Relevant Macuarium.com content is referenced on the blog. For the rest, the blog sticks to newsblogging and short analysis and the forums to support issues.
A more aseptic example of collaboration is frequent: community portals republishing blog content with links to the original source allow those useful articles (guides, reviews, opinions) to access a large community and become part of full forum conversations, while allowing the blog to extend its network and become subscribed by more readers.
Both examples require the community to have its own web publishing tool. Without it, though, the basic strategies would be the same.
Hearing of other resistance or collaboration strategies would be most interesting.