Thursday, April 17, 2008
New Research Into Why People Read
Posted by Tom Weber
The question of what drives people to read blogs is a big one for traditional media losing time with their audiences to the Internet and companies looking to tap the Web for marketing. It's also of more than passing interest to bloggers themselves (including us here at Buzzwatch).
One view suggests that, with such a broad smorgasborg of blogs and posts to choose from, readers will only dine on the most compelling content. But some researchers who studied a group of blog readers say one factor may be unappreciated:
When University of California at Irvine researchers delved into usage patterns, they found study participants who labeled their blog-reading time as "chilling out" and "doing nothing," with one describing his impulse to read blogs as similar to his cigarette habit. Another talked about following through on her blog-reading routine even when she wasn't interested in some of the content.
In other words, when it comes to some blog readers, keeping them may be much easier than getting them in the first place-a finding that suggests the importance of good marketing for blogs. The study, "Exploring the Role of the Reader in the Activity of Blogging," was presented last week at a conference on human factors in computing.
There are some caveats to the research-most notably, that the study examined just 15 blog readers. The researchers say their results point to areas worthy of bigger studies-and note how little academic research has been done on blog reading.
One interesting finding: the blog readers typically professed little stress about information overload in trying to keep up with their favorite blogs. When they got behind on reading posts, they just skipped the old ones. (Blogs apparently are not like the pile of New Yorker magazines you intend to get to-someday.)
We asked two of the study's authors, Eric Baumer and Bill Tomlinson, to answer a few questions. Mr. Baumer is a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Irvine. Mr. Tomlinson is an assistant professor there. Here's the interview:
Q: Your study suggests that regular blog readers are reading out of habit, rather than making content-oriented decisions about whether to read. Do you think blog reading is becoming more like TV viewing, to which some people devote hours while complaining that they can't find anything good to watch?
Mr. Baumer: While blog reading often becomes habitual, that does not mean it is not about the content. Motivations for reading are highly multifaceted, and while routine is one motivation, there are many others, including finding current news, fostering a personal connection with the blogger, fulfilling social obligations by reading a friend's blog, entertainment value, etc. While blog reading is often habitual, that habitual nature interacts with many other varied motivations.
With respect to the comparison with television, the form of the habitual activity is different from TV viewing. With few exceptions, TV limits the viewer to being a mostly passive participant; it is not a medium that facilitates much audience interaction. On the other hand, blogs enable interaction in a number of different forms: comments, email, trackbacks, etc. Thus, while blog reading might in part be habitual, those habits include interaction and engagement by the reader in a way not possible with television.
Q. People told you that they don't get stressed out if they're not up-to-date with their blog reading-which you point out is at odds with the pervasive notion of information overload. What are the implications? And does this ring true for you personally?
Mr. Baumer: In the paper, we actually reference a quote that describes the excessive amount of information available and that people will soon be completely overwhelmed by it; that quote is from 1613.
There are a number of important implications here. First of all, this rhetoric of information overload is not new, and is certainly not only a product of digital information technologies (keeping in mind that books are a sort of analog information technology).
Second, I think this finding helps to open up the design space in terms of tools to support blog reading. Rather than focusing on helping readers wade through a deluge of information content, one could envision tools that focus on the reader's relationship with the blogger or allowing more fluid, nuanced interactions between bloggers and readers.
Does it ring true personally? Yes. Shortly after I started reading blogs regularly, I gave up on trying to stay completely up to date, as it was a futile effort. When I have a chance, I'll skim through titles and maybe glance at some interesting looking posts, but I'm not trying to get to everything in my RSS feed reader.
Also, one of the biggest ways I find items of interest is through other people I know. If another student in our lab or a friend of mine finds something interesting, they're likely to share it. Lots of online sites, such as del.icio.us, are built around this idea of social filtering, but that sort of filtering happens through casual offline conversations, too.
Q. What are the signs that someone's own reading of blogs has become habitual? Also, you say that tools to raise self-awareness could be needed. What might those be, and what problems would they address?
Mr. Baumer: Habits aren't necessarily bad; reading the same blogs in the same order at the same time every day can help make it easier to remember which blogs one wants to read.
However, habits aren't necessarily good, either. Habitual reading can become potentially detrimental when people disengage mentally and don't think very critically about what they're reading. Many of our participants were reflective about why they read blogs, but not as reflective about how or what they read.
In terms of self-awareness, there is an interesting potential for tools that encourage critical thinking and reflection about what a person is reading. We want to encourage and enable people to ask questions about what is being said on the blogs they read, not just by the words themselves, but between and behind the words. Encouraging this sort of critical reflection may be an interesting and compelling way to make blog reading a more engaging experience.
Q. Your results are based on 15 respondents-all under age 40, and many of them bloggers themselves. What are the limitations of that sample?
Mr. Tomlinson: In the early stages of research into a topic, it's often helpful to begin with small qualitative studies such as this one in order to figure out the key issues. Quantitative studies with larger sample sizes are then useful for refining the understanding of these issues and developing statistical analyses of specific phenomena.
While the small sample size in this study does limit the generalizability of the findings (i.e., not everyone will have the same perspectives as the 15 people in this study), it nevertheless allowed us to go into much greater depth with each participant and develop a nuanced understanding of their way of approaching the blogs they read. This study has helped us to identify behaviors and perspectives for this particular group; further studies can then help see if these findings hold across broader samples and different communities.
Q. Many bloggers are obsessed with-and depend financially on-the size of their readership. What do you see as the most important takeaways from your results to bloggers? How might they be used to improve blogs?
Mr. Tomlinson: One of the most important lessons for bloggers from the study is that readers are heterogeneous - they're coming from different backgrounds, and have different expectations and motivations. Even among the participants in this study, there was a wide diversity of perspectives on several key issues.
Being aware of this heterogeneity in their readership can help bloggers think more carefully about the content they are providing, and how it will be perceived by their audiences. Blogs as a medium are highly varied and give rise to a broad range of interactions between bloggers and readers; understanding a bit more about the dynamics of these relationships was one of the core goals of this study.