“Hearing Women’s Voices: Digital Communities and Feminist Ethics”

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Interesting (and well footnoted!) essay by blogger lauredhel that is accessible here. Below is an excerpt:

A dilemma for the blog sociologist springs from the distributed, difficult-to-track nature of these ties between blogs. How can “community” be readily studied and defined when there are no boundaries, when there is no easy-to-identify “space”, no archived corpus of data? Efimova and Hendrick searched for community in the connections between blogs. Their paper included an exploration of the methodological difficulties in blog community research. But can their mathematical social network analysis techniques compete with an ethnographic approach? Approaching online community public archives as a corpus of data, rather than examining a “live”, online community in all its formats, risks losing much of the richness, even begging the question. Efimova and Hendrick did note that subtle but important misinterpretations of the data took place by researchers unfamiliar with the norms and culture of a blog community:

“In order to define community structures, a researcher must not only collect artefacts, but have sufficient prior knowledge in the significance of reading the artefact.”

Blogs are not limited to a one-to-many “announcement” followed by linking between blogs. A blog’s readers may form communities centred around that blog’s comments section. Comment conversations also flow back and forth between blogs, making these communities even more difficult to pinpoint for academic study by the “outsider”.

Accessibility of community data is another concern for the researcher. An important aspect of blog communities is private communications. If a researcher has access only to the public face of a community, much of the richness of the communication is lost. From personal experience, I know that online communities tend to include an enormous amount of “backchannel” chat – in email, “locked”/”friends-only” blog posts, instant messaging and private chat channels, private face-to-face meetings. This aspect of online community has been only briefly touched on in research. Takhteyev and Hall demonstrated the interdependence of public & private, online & face-to-face interactions in their interviews of graduate students within a real life/blogging community. However, the community they studied was a geographically-proximate community; studies of back-channel chat in primarily online communities are lacking.

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