Issue and its Public: Application of Social Network Analysis to the Content, Structure, and Dynamics of Discussions in Blogosphere

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Alexander Semenov, Department of Sociology, National State University Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia, semenoffalex@gmail.com

This paper reports an ongoing research implementing a new approach to analysis of opinion formation in online social networks. It is based on the analysis of four types of networks representing different types of computer-mediated communication in blogosphere, which altogether represent the “issue publics” in LiveJournal.

Introduction The influence of blogosphere on public opinion grows each year. LiveJournal is the most popular blogging service in Russia. Its influence is so high that many public discussions and political debates started in blogosphere evoked significant reactions in mass media and even provided policy change. Habermas used concept “issue publics” for the process of splitting the global public sphere into groups where people could discuss issues relevant to their interests. The main goal of this study is to investigate how interactions in the blogosphere influence opinion formation on a given issue and how such opinions evolve over time.

Methodology I employ the concept of “issue public” to study computer mediated communication between LiveJournal bloggers. I distinguish four types of computer mediated communication around specific topics that shape “issue publics” between LiveJournal bloggers: Posting – writing text entries in the blog; Friending – adding or removing a blog as a “friend”; Commenting – writing comments on other bloggers’ postings; Linking – quoting other bloggers with hyperlinks to blogs or other Internet resources. Each type of computer mediated communication can be interpreted as a social interaction. For example, “friending” another user’s blog can indicate blogger’s interest, connection in the real world, or trust towards that user, while un-friending can indicate the opposite. Quoting and providing hyperlinks usually facilitate diffusion of information. Commenting on other users’ blogs is the most common type of interaction in blogosphere which is very similar to face-to-face conversations in everyday life. Finally, blog entries represent blogger’s opinion on particular issues. While the first type of communication is the least informative because the reason for friending is unknown for the external observer, the analysis of comment networks and network text analysis of blog postings can reveal the substantive structure of interrelations between bloggers and their position on an issue. 1

Each identified type of communication can be quantified and presented as a network: Binary directed network for “friending”; Bi-modal network for blog entries and web-resource for “linking”; Weighted directed network for “commenting”; Semantic network of concepts used in blog entries. I visualize these networks and trace evolution of the relationships between bloggers and the content of their discussions over time.

Background I use the case study of the scandal at the department of Sociology, Moscow State University, which exploded in 2006 and was mediated mostly through LiveJournal. The controversy started in October 2006 with the blog entry of a student, describing procedural violations in the election of the dean V.I. Dobren’kov. Soon after that she was expelled from the University and a group of students, called “OD-group”, started a discussion in LiveJournal on issues related to university’s policies. These complaints have caused a great controversy in blogosphere which spilled over into on-line media and became so intense, that even the New York Times ran a story about it.

Data and analysis I collected blog entries in LiveJournal between 2007 and 2009, relevant to the controversy. The dataset contains 301 entries, 129 bloggers and 422 hyperlinks to web-resources. Based on this information, I constructed four networks, described above. The following set of analyses was performed on this data: centrality analysis to reveal the most active and influential bloggers; clustering the network of comments, the results of which were compared with bi-modal clustering to check whether the bloggers who comment each other frequently also tend to link to the same web-resources; ERGM modeling to examine structural properties such as reciprocity, transitivity, and various star-effects of friendship and commenting networks; dynamic visualization of the issue as a network map of the used concepts changing over time across blogosphere.

Conclusion Preliminary results demonstrate that bloggers tend to group around several opinion-leaders and each clique tends to use and discuss different aspects of the issue, using different concepts. The correlation between the position of a blogger in the networks of friending, linking and commenting and the contribution of his concepts in the general mental map of the issue is yet to be found.

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