Saturday, 8 September 2007

Why Bother Having Sitemeter on the Blog?

Well, this was [obviously!] the question I asked myself before adding Sitemeter. My justification came from some of the Luhmannesque points I've brought up in recent posts. Could I learn anything from observing the observers observe? (i.e. observing those who were observing my observations) It would be a bit disingenuous to say I was "really" motivated by vanity or idle curiosity, given the fact that I've tried to democratise the blog as much as possible by inviting other contributors, letalone the fact that my own identity is hardly blatantly advertised in a bid at self promotion (no glossy photo or even use of my real name when posting). Dylan Trigg, that young man in a perpetual hurry, suggests that blogging is a virtual graveyard, littered with detritus, a grim sounding assessment that [according to Trigg] paradoxically actually affords opportunities to stand back and make some piquant "big picture" observations outside of the routine jockeying for power that dominates more organised forums. I would argue though that the conversion of failure into opportunity diagnosed by Trigg falls into the category of what the social choice theorist Jon Elster characterises as the conversion of "sour grapes" into "sweet lemons". From this perspective, pretty much any point of view can be turned into a claim to some mantle of power. If this is so, then one can be lead to understand that it will be evenly distributed across all forums that make a claim, however humble, on anyone's attention span. Understanding this effectively relativises Trigg's claims. From this point one can also discern that "failures" of this kind are rife throughout universities, so we shouldn't be fooled by the surface appearance that an academic feels they have somehow "made it", by sheer virtue of the fact that they have landed a job. A re-reading of Adorno's shrewd judgements in Minima Moralia will only reconfirm this critical impression.
Rather than harvesting sweet lemons then, I wondered instead if Sitemeter could help me reach any conclusions about other issues I've periodically raised on this blog about modern communications and democratisation. The thought occurred to me that Albert Hirschman's typologies in Exit, Voice and Loyalty offered a promising ideal type, (Weber's methodological term), for comparing with other kinds of sites, and thereby determining if there are any signs of different forms of social capital, virtual community, or trust, being generated across the spectrum. I guess the most obvious point about the web is that its anonymity makes it pretty easy to bypass gatekeepers who might, in the "real" world, insist on tokens of loyalty to be redeemed/converted into social capital. In other words, unlike the Internet, one cannot, in such situations, merely "exit" without expressing, "voicing", dissatisfaction about issues in need of redress. This seems to indicate that the majority of visitors to blogs, for example, will be "lurkers", who will not post any comments in response to what they read, or even perhaps, (though probably this would constitute a minority of cases), end up using elsewhere. Lurkers will simply "exit" as soon as the attention span is dried up. If they don't really like what they read, or aren't interested enough to read anything at all on a site, they will not "voice" suggestions for critical reconstruction. Given the amount of choice on the web, implicit in such instances is that individual consumer choice is sovereign; the web is a bottomless reservoir, so the thirst for stimulation can be replenished elsewhere. Furthermore, simple heuristics would tell us that "bounded rationality" almost requires that folks will not necessarily have either the time or the resources available to formulate responses, even if they do observe something of interest to them. Finally, acknowledging someone else's knowledge claims can in effect mean substituting them for your own, and there is little to compel people to do this, especially if the person making the claims is not held accountable via a mutually agreed tests. I suppose that the closest I come to this democratic imperative is permitting the posting of responses, to "put me on trial", as it were.
I do not permit the posting of anonymous comments though, because I thought it would help curb the spontaneous forms of human combustion associated with the flame attacks of the final archetype, the "trolls". Another variant of this, the bottom feeders of the virtual world, is the spammers, whose insidious spider programs will trawl through the net, looking to post on any blog they can find. Unfortunately, the strictures against the posting of anonymous comments offers no protection from periodic incursions of this kind.
What I've discovered then is that certainly the majority of visitors fall into the "exit", (or lurker), type, and I again assure anyone who may break the mould by actually reading this, that I am harbouring no delusions of grandeur. If there is an upside to this, remaining the equivalent of the mummified space jockey, fittingly chosen as the motif for this blog, then I guess it might have something to do with some healthy ego checking, and preventing a lapse into megalomania. Afterall, the highest quotient of hits on this site is either something to do with pictures of "sex dolls", or an inspection of a photo essay on "Giger's Sanctuary". The average time in such instances between entry and exit clocks in at 0.00 seconds. But I guess this might prove a point from the earlier post on "critical media resources": apart from the celebritism attached to the example of Giger, sex and violence will generally always do the best in terms of popularity, because they differ from other forms of communication in the sense that they don't really need to expend too much effort in translating cultural differences in order to transmit their meaning. Rather, it is more the case that their content can be easily understood as a kind of [perverted] cultural esperanto. Indeed, in the case of pornography, cultural and other forms of difference are simply commodified as eroticised "exotica", thereby regenerating desire for otherwise jaded consumers, (or rather "observers", as Luhmann would call them), who are seeking a combination of difference and repetition (the presentation of different bodies, sexual orientations etc, within a limited repertoire of possible sexual acts). As Luhmann would have it, such forms of communication are characterised by a peculiar combination of an increase and a reduction of complexity. In comparison, theory by itself has little of these apriori "advantages" [sic], and is hence more likely to fall victim to anonymous individualisation: general categories no longer suffice in a Luhmannesque differentiated world, thereby reducing any potential for cross cultural translation for bloggers with a primarily theoretical focus, whilst simultaneously creating new "niche" markets for intellectual exchange. Such are the paradoxes of "world society".
But if the data is to be properly contextualised, it would require a relatively wide sample size/cross comparison, and I have hardly marshaled the resources to do this. Another reason for not wanting to jump to premature conclusions, and here is Luhmann's point again, that it has a lot to do with the position of the observer. Researchers should therefore be wary about generalising "exit" strategies in the virtual world, and then extrapolating about declines of social capital in the "real" world. For this reason, I've pasted an interesting piece by Paul Streeten below, "Reflections on Social and Antisocial Capital":

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