What should researchers infer from links on an organization’s site?

Recently I’ve been thinking about the use of hyperlink analysis as a methodology for studying organizational change over long periods of time. It’s cliche now to point out that the internet has provided us with a treasure trove of data to pursue questions we never thought possible. The consequences of that bounty are becoming more obvious — we now need to develop rigorous, systematic, and valid methods for analyzing this data.

One kind of study that is appearing more often–and that I am reviewing more often–is the study that looks at links on organizational websites in order to make a claim about the organization itself, particularly how connected it is to certain other types of organizations, whether for business purposes or for strategic purposes. This is a fine type of methodology if it is conducted with a thorough knowledge of the technology behind the link.  Problems arise when we study them using our ordinary non-expert understanding as consumers of websites. Why? Because links are not necessarily what they appear to be.

So, here are some of the thoughts I have for studies using hyperlinks to infer organizational characteristics:

  1. A “link” is not just a classic hyperlink (defined as clickable text).  In addition to anything that combines includes an “anchor” tag (a href=), other tags, javascript, and php code may also import or embed material from other sources.
  2. You can’t have a one handed handshake — don’t conflate “link” with “linkage.”  I might link to a site with that other site having no knowledge.  Any claims of networks are an artifact of a problematic operationalization.
  3. Related to this point, don’t conflate “link” with “ally”.  Links provide a pathway from one site to a site but do not imply endorsement. Extremists can link to their opposition.
  4. Don’t conflate change in technology with change in business model — so, e.g., if looking across time, graph both links that change, but also any files that change.   The approach to web site development may have changed without a concomitant change in the organization itself.
  5. Be sure to say where the links are.  Several links are automated and may carry over from page to page within a site because they are part of a site template, particularly in industries where there are applications for building a standard web site, such as newspapers, hotels, or the travel industries.
  6. Related to that, seek to identify if the site is custom coded, or if it uses a standard platform (which often standardize link patterns), such as WordPress.
  7. Inbound links are hard to identify, yes, but they need to be included.  Any claim of  “link economy” needs to presume both.
  8. Understand the capabilities for automated return links, such as pingbacks.
  9. Understand the place of link farms and content farms in your results, or design a means to filter them.
  10. Convert URL name addresses to their IP counterpart. It is possible for a single organization to register a number of URL names and develop content with different look-and-feel in order to appear as though there are interlinking organizations.
  11. Take into account any fads or fashions of the time.  Web Rings were popular in the mid 1990s before reliable universal search engines, as a way to increasing the visibility of your site. In the aughts they were often used to manipulate search engine rankings. In the past 10 years, applets such as Google’s AdSense can be embedded into any site, with dramatic effects on link patterns.
  12. Following from above, determine if the links are hard-coded or served up dynamically. Dynamically served links will be more difficult to trace and a different method might be more appropriate.
  13. Instead of using links, use the ratio of (links to orgs) with (links to blogs), or links in templates with links in individualized content, or links of specific members of one organization to specific members of another organization.

I wrote almost 15 years ago about the need for comm scholars to have a greater understanding of the flexibility and mutability of hyperlink technology in order to understand the various rhetorical forms that could be created from that simple affordance.  It is time to do that again.

Jackson, M.H. (1997). Assessing the structure of communication on the World Wide Web. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 3(1). http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol3/issue1/jackson.html

2010 Dissertations V: Technology and New Politics

I wrap up this series of posts on 2010 dissertations with two very interesting examples of what might be emerging as a new area of study, what I call “new politics.”  Does the Internet deliver a new ability for any particular individual to make a difference? One of the dissertations here says no, this is a deception. The other says maybe, but it isn’t in the form we are familiar with.

Jin Kim (PhD, U of Iowa, and faculty, Hope College) critiques the promise of “user-generated content” revolution, from what I think is a novel point of view. Rather than dwelling on the question of whether or not user-generated content is worth attention, he traces what follows from that. And he argues that what follows is a striving for attention, for celebrity. He writes, “Self-expression on the web is often imbued with the fascination with fame, but is not the same as user empowerment…YouTube seems to make the audience into interactive users, but that interactivity is close to active consumption in the realm of disposable celebrity.”

Darren Brabham (PhD, U of Utah, and faculty U of North Carolina) takes aim squarely at our ideals of traditional local political participation, questioning whether forms (and forums) such as “town hall meetings, hearings, workshops, and design charrettes” are really all they are made out to be.  If we are honest, actually, the answer would be no, they aren’t.  Anyone involved in local government can attest that they are readily filled with by nonproductive–or at least nonparticipative–interaction and dynamics. Brabham explores the potentials for crowdsourcing for creating new potentials for citizen participation.  I think of crowdsourcing as, basically, non-interactive communication: the accumulation of very many small contributions into an aggregate that is accepted as shared and collaborative. His study of Next Stop Design ( to build a better bus stop ) establishes that people can be motivated to participate. A remaining question is whether that participation is tied to civic engagement, or if it remains individual.

Brabham, Darren. Crowdsourcing as a model for problem solving: leveraging the collective intelligence of online communities for public good. PhD diss, University of Utah, 2010. http://content.lib.utah.edu/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/us-etd2&CISOPTR=194399

Kim, Jin. User-generated content (UGC) revolution?: critique of the promise of YouTube. PhD diss., University of Iowa, 2010.  http://ir.uiowa.edu/etd/529.

2010 Dissertations IV: Activism

Researchers in social movements or social activism face something of a crossroads in the face of the Internet.  Movements are an area of empirical communication research that — at least in traditional research — seem to have effectively identified recurring and successful dynamics and patterns, and to have developed a fairly straightforward agenda for building on research in this area.

One part of that agenda is identifying and documenting cases of movement or activist strategies and tactics, and articulating what is effective, or less so, within these cases. What part, then does the Internet play? I’ve written elsewhere how online communication is opening new questions about what constitutes activism  (“Case Study: Internet and Political Activism”).  Two 2010 dissertations take up this question in different ways.

Amy Pason (PhD University of Minnesota, faculty at U Nevada-Reno) conducted a rhetorical analysis of Cindy Sheehan’s protest of the US involvement in the Iraq War.  Pason examined a wide range of texts, including Sheehan’s online writings. In this sense, Pason has naturalized online communication, as it becomes simply another source of texts.  What is interesting, however, is the way in which Pason uses an online-based metaphor to identify the emergence of (and to advocate for) a new activist strategy. From the abstract of Cindy Sheehan and the peace movement: Networks of care and rhetorical exploits:

“…resistance is defined through the concept of exploit, where, like computer viruses, movements use rhetorical forms to exploit norms of dominant systems to gain access, “recode” norms, or disrupt systems. Movements, employing distributed structures, work to “write code” or build new systems through a politics of the act .”

Activists as hackers? An interesting upending of the formula, though I look forward to future work to really explore the robustness of this idea.

A second part of the agenda of social movement research is to delve deeper into the motivations and identifications of activists. If we accept that there is such a thing as an “activist” identity, what are the communication processes that recruit individuals to that identity, and that keep them engaged and motivated?

Donjin Lim (PhD SUNY-Buffalo) conducted experiments to analyze how processes and practices typically associate with successful activism translated into online social networking contexts. Not surprisingly, Jin found that reciprocity and contact frequency were positively related to enacted support.  Jin measured the extent to which participants engaged in acts of altruism–i.e., completing requested tasks–which could be taken as an indicator of social mobilization.  Interestingly, the extent to which participants held to local social norms was a key factor.  Which raises an interesting paradox — one strength of the Internet is mass mobilization, yet the effectiveness of this mobilization might depend on provincialism.  Further large-scale investigation of “internet activists” might explore this question.

2010 Dissertations III: Celebrity

What is celebrity in the age of social media?  How do those two achieve the status of “celebrity” through other media use online social media to maintain and cultivate celebrity?  Alice Marwick (PhD, NYU, now at Microsoft Research) traces the connection between social media and the drive for celebrity and status, even among ordinary folks.  Which raises an interesting question–if we grant that social media makes interpersonal connection less personal, then what does connection look like?  It is easy to find voices that say that we will be more isolated, less connected.  Yet if we indeed need to connect to one another, a better question is to ask how communication evolves to fulfill that craving.  Perhaps achieving celebrity and status can meet that need.

Those who are already cultural celebrities rely on a strong base of followers to maintain that celebrity.  Clearly, the Internet provides a more accessible space for fans to feed celebrity. But what are the elements that make this more or less successful?  Erin Meyers (PhD, U of Mass., now post doc at Northeastern U) examines blogs to trace how stardom as a cultural phenomenon is changing, particularly allowing ordinary individuals to challenge the industry’s control over creating celebrities.

2010 Dissertations II: Communities Online

For several years, communication scholars debated whether or not a community could exist online. Could something really be a community if there is no physically embodied interaction? What happens to elements we typically associate with community, like accountability, identity, and responsibility?  Communication dissertations defended in 2010 suggest that this question may be turning. These are less interested in the question of defining or characterizing “online community.”  Instead, the overall question seems to have shifted to understanding communities , when they are online.  This might signal a willingness to presume that a community may exist, independent of knowing if it is “virtual” or not.

Once we accept that online communities are simply communities online, this opens the field to a range of rehearsed research questions.  For example, does interacting with a community improves the effectiveness of an intervention? Hua Wang (PhD University of Southern California, faculty at SUNY-Buffalo)  examined the contribution of the social game Wellness Partners (think social media mixed with play) for improvement of participants’ overall wellness. Wang’s results are not conclusive, suggesting that there are different levels of effectiveness (as we might expect in any diverse community of users).

Another standard question is what are the interactional mechanisms that allow a community to sustain itself? Similarly, what communication is harmful to community? Li Wang (PhD Ohio University) uses a structurational perspective to try to explain the mechanisms that allow an dispersed online community- the Communication Initiative— to sustain itself as a community of practice.

A last example here is the question of how participation in a community can help to empower the individuals within it. Kittie Grace (PhD University of Nebraska, faculty at Hastings College) uses Habermas’ theory of the public sphere to trace how women in a health support group came to change their sense of their own authority and confidence in speaking with medical experts about their condition.

As our research continues to move in this direction, we should be careful so that we don’t go too far into taking online community as natural, because this may cause us to miss the opportunity to recognize and interrogate our basic assumptions of what community is, how we theorize it,  and what it might be.

  • Grace, Kittie E.  “Contesting sphere boundaries online: Private/technical/public discourses in polycystic ovarian syndrome discussion groups.” PhD Diss., University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2010. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/dissertations/AAI3412862
  • Wang, Li. “Online communities of practice: A case study of the CI network from a communicative perspective.” Ph.D. Diss., Ohio University, 2010. http://rave.ohiolink.edu/etdc/view?acc_num=ohiou1273170599
  • Wang, Hua. “Building personal wellness communities: Meaningful play in the everyday life of a network society.” PhD Diss., University of Southern California, 2010. http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~hwang23/Research/JournalArticles/HelenDissertationFinalPubDec2010.pdf

2010 Dissertations I: Blogging

Blog posts offer an interesting new source of text for communication scholars.  They are our modern day equivalent of the soapbox, without needing a public square — and sometimes in contexts where a physical site for open discourse is an impossibility. Online, they sit side-by-side with traditional media, easily consulted and possibly just as likely to influence opinion.

Two communication dissertations examine the influence of blogs on political discourse.  Daniel Munksgaard (University of Iowa) argues that blogs show us “backstage” discourse  — what people really think when social roles and norms hold less sway.  He analyzes three blogging sites and shows “a steady integration of anti-Islamic perspectives within the American Left.”   Sharon Shaojung Wang (SUNY at Buffalo) argues that the openness of blogging is important in post-socialist China. She examines how this type of internet discourse might support a “networked public sphere and nascent civil society.”

Each dissertation is available from UMI.

  • Munksgaard, Daniel Carl. “Warblog without end: online anti-Islamic discourses as persuadables.” PhD diss., University of Iowa, 2010.  http://ir.uiowa.edu/etd/715/
  • Wang, Sharon Shaojung. “The Internet battle between the authorities and the public: The power and the limits of social control and informational capitalism in China’s blogosphere.” PhD diss., State University of New York at Buffalo, 2010. http://gradworks.umi.com/34/23/3423543.html

Rediscovering The Diffusion of Innovations by Rogers

Every scholar working in communication and technology should make it a point to read Everett Rogers, The Diffusion of Innovations. In addition to proposing what have become foundational concepts across so many academic disciplines and practical interventions, concepts such as adopter categories and the innovation-diffusion curve, the text is an important exemplar for understanding a research program based in a perspective heavily based in social psychology and a soft form of technological determinism — what I’ve called the Technology as Change Agent perspective (see my research page to get the articles).

The influence of the text is, in some measure, tragic.  It laid out a set of concepts, terminologies, generalizations, and research questions in a such a clear, systematic, and coherent manner that it became a sort of guidebook for any number of researchers across disciplines including communication, marketing, public opinion, international development, media, and even software engineering.  Its lucidity has meant that it speaks more as an honored elder, and less as an active participant in current discussions and debates about communication and technology. If it has been some time since you engaged Rogers directly (as opposed to through a secondary source or even your own lecture notes!), I suggest that it would be worth returning to take a closer look at the primary text.

I reread Rogers this week in preparation to my graduate seminar. Rather than having the bookstore get the text, I just asked that each student get a copy on his or her own. Among the 5 of us, we had 3 copies of the 3rd edition, 1 of the 4th, and 1 of the 5th (published 40 years after the first edition!). Remarkable to me — though not immediately obvious to the students — was the way in which the later editions revisioned or reconceptualized technologies. In keeping with more general trends across communication studies, the editions moved toward a more constructionist perspective. The 3rd edition contained sections that referred to innovations as having intrinsic informational content — essential properties that allowed them an entitativeness outside of use. These sections were deleted by the 5th.

Because I was using my trusty grad-school copy (3rd edn), I didn’t find out about these changes until a few minutes into our discussion as I was rendering some passage from my text with students reporting that the passage was absent from their later editions. I now realize I need to go back and investigate this mystery…how does one of the quintessential sequential models of diffusion reconcile itself with constructionist and emergent assumptions?

References

  • To learn more about the amazing influence of Rogers and his work, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Everett_Rogers
  • Houston, R.H. & Jackson, M.H.. (2003).Technology and context within research on international development programs. Communication Theory, 13, 57-77.
  • Jackson, M.H. (1996). The meaning of “communication technology”: The technology-context scheme. In B. Burleson, (Ed.), Communication Yearbook 19 (pp. 229-268). Beverly Hills: Sage.
  • Rogers, E. M. (1962). Diffusion of innovations. New York: Free Press.
  • Rogers, E. M. (1983). Diffusion of innovations (3rd ed.). New York: Free Press.
  • Rogers, E. M. (1995). Diffusion of innovations (4th ed.). New York: Free Press.
  • Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of innovations (5th ed.). New York: Free Press.

The “Difference Question” : Online v. face-to-face communication

Across all areas of research in communication technology, one of the most pervasive questions is “how does technology-mediated communication differ from non-technology mediated communication?”  This is what I call the “difference question.”  This question tends to dominate the earlier research on a particular technology, and then taper off. One reason it tapers off is because the technology simply becomes more familiar to us and its use less remarkable. I argue that the more important reason it tapers off is because the question is valid for only a very short time. The separation of “online” and “offline” communication is artificial, a conceptual convenience that looks meaningful on the surface but that reduces communication to channel effects. This is a move resisted in many other areas of communication research, yet one that persists in technology research.  Why? One reason could be that such studies are not so much about communication — they are really about trying to make sense of technology.

The latest Journal of Computer Mediated Communication offers two studies that ask the difference question – Vincent Cho and Humphry Hung (Bowling Green State University) ask why people would say something on SMS that they wouldn’t say in person. And Melissa Taylor and colleagues at Bloomsburg University attempt to understand the conditions under which students prefer face-to-face v. email-based communication.

Cho, V., & Hung, H. (2011). The Effectiveness of Short Message Service for Communication With Concerns of Privacy Protection and Conflict Avoidance. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 16(2), 250-270. doi: 10.1111/j.1083-6101.2011.01538.x.

Taylor, M., Jowi, D., Schreier, H., & Bertelsen, D. (2011). Studentsʼ Perceptions of E-Mail Interaction During Student-Professor Advising Sessions: The Pursuit of Interpersonal Goals. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 16(2), 307-330. doi: 10.1111/j.1083-6101.2011.01541.x.

Communication Research 38(1) loaded with Tech

Something of a sign of the times, perhaps — 5 of the 6 articles in this issue of Communication Research are technology studies. All treat online communication or computer-mediated communication as legitimate forms of communication in their own right, rather than as proxies for face-to-face communication. Keeping with the journal, the studies are mostly quantitative, and they tend toward behavioral and attitudinal claims. Worth checking out. [Read more…]