Monday, March 29, 2010

Observation Recapitulation

Hey hey hey, Zooplankton!

Yesterday I finished my observation of 15 threads on 3 websites (896 comments) posted from December 6, 2008 to March 10, 2010. That may sound like a lot, but considering about half of those comments were just a few words long, and many of them were funny (some intentionally, some not), I kind of enjoyed myself.

I also made a few more tweaks. I swapped out a few threads for others as I weeded out the political opinion posts and replaced them with engagement- and activism-centered posts. The complete listing of threads is:

"Should high school volunteering be a requirement?"
"How would you improve your country?"
"America's Dying: What are you going to do about it?"
"help the world: wat [sic] to do?"
"Why have you or have you not done volunteer work?"
"What strong beliefs do you have and how far would you go to defend them?"
"What cause would [you] promote during a protest or riot?"
"Democrat, Republican, Independent, or Other?"
"Did you vote for Obama?"
"Are you more open to strangers on the Internet?"
"Do you donate blood? Why or why not?"
"Why do we let the media influence our [lives]?"
"Best source for fair and balanced news"
"What's the worst source for news?"
"Democracy: why is it bad?"

Additionally, after realizing they weren't quite relevant to what I wanted to observe after all, I scrapped and and replaced them with


"Teenspot" =
"Bolt" =
"Student" =

These websites were not given pseudonyms. As I wrote in my revised Methodology for 316, Teenspot is a forum-based site which has the drab look yet abrupt pace of a chat room and is loaded with comical, animated avatars, pop culture soundbites, and is heavy on advertisements. Bolt has an artistic, somewhat exclusionary feel and a number of regular, long-time members who post more in-depth discussions; and Student is geared towards those on the cusp of high school and college and contains mostly neutral but sometimes slightly hostile or impatient comments.

While Teenspot was not lacking in threads about civic and political topics (it claims 1.1 million unique users per month), I noticed it did not attract many politically knowledgeable or self-efficacious users. The site allows people to post lengthy replies, but very few took that opportunity to meaningfully participate in discussion; most were happy to throw in a sentence or two with an insult and emoticon and leave. The threads I observed received between 26-57 of these types of replies. Another curiosity on Teenspot was the presence of a user I'll refer to as "Skullface" (pseudonym). This user appeared to be male and posted consistently coherent, thoughtful, witty, sometimes lengthy replies in Edited American English. His posts were progressive/independent in tone and often refuted the politically uninformed users, who usually replied back with even less intelligent comments. The majority of the discussions on Teenspot were unfocused and quickly got off topic.

Bolt had a similar user whom I'll call "Cheekboney" (pseudonym). This user also self-identified as male, consistently posted progressive/independent, extremely knowledgeable, witty posts, and essentially dominated the political forum. Discussions in which he didn't participate often stagnated, though not to the extent they did on Teenspot, because Bolt users tended to post longer, more thoughtful comments than users on Teenspot. Far from boasting 1.1 million unique visitors per month, Bolt is a smaller community of roughly 19,000 users and also has significantly less advertising.

No individual user's content stuck out on Student's "Question of the Day" section, although some had been recognized for answering questions more often. For several of the items I tallied on Student, large percentages of comments on political questions were answered with a proud "don't know, don't care!" On Bolt there were smaller percentages but they were still present. So, it seems that the "self-selection" effect (in which political posts asking about activism attract only those who are already active) was not as strong as I had feared.

I was somewhat surprised to see that political threads on Teenspot received equal numbers of comments as the relationships, advice, and music threads. Political questions on Student received equal numbers of comments as all other threads, including the fluffy, noncontroversial questions like "What did you have for dinner?"

On Student, there was an unprecedented and noticeable drop in the volume of answers to all threads in early August of 2009. My guess is that it had to do with some kind of administrative change to the site.

Both Bolt and Teenspot had several prolific conspiracy theorists who would post massive walls of incoherent, stream-of-consciousness text, with no punctuation or paragraph breaks. Nonsensical posts that were brief were often shrill and frantic (warning us to arm ourselves against the government, for example). Knowledgeable posters such as Skullface and Cheekboney would frequently step in with fact-based arguments, and they rarely, if ever, gave up on the nonsensical poster in frustration or anger. They rarely resorted to namecalling and instead called attention to literacy and reading comprehension. For instance on Bolt, one nonsensical poster, whom I'll call "Sheepskin," had begun 43 such threads on Bolt at the time of this writing. After one of these posts, a Bolt regular whom I'll call "Greyshirt" (and wouldn't necessarily call a knowledgeable poster) lashed out: "Man whats with all the constant politics? Dont you have a [life]. Post something different for *&%# sake." Another poster, a female, snapped, "What sort of idiot makes a post like this?" Cheekboney, on the other hand, seemed to yawn, "Your English, type layout and comprehension is terrible. I made an attempt to read this and came to this conclusion[:] you think the American government will take over the health care industry and this will bring slavery and some New World Order references that I had trouble understanding."

According to the works in my lit review, people who post a lot of content online are people who are already engaged, active, and empowered in real life. Surveys show that people who are active in real life are so because they believe they can change things or "make a difference," and this translates to online behavior. I doubt Skullface and Cheekboney would bother with these arguments if they felt like they couldn't influence the nonsensical poster at all. So, I concluded that knowledgeable posters were also ones who were the most civically/politically engaged in real life, while the posters who gave up in frustration on the nonsensical posters were probably people who were disengaged in real life.

As for an analysis of the attitudes I found, that will take me some time. Stay tuned!