Friday, March 04, 2016

Under the Microscope

My blog has been around for 9 years - 10 in August. During that time I've received requests for people to do a guest blog post, or for me to review a book, or for me to join their "artistic workshop" gang, or what-have-you.

Mostly, I ignore those requests. If something seems personal and not a form letter sent to every blogger on the planet, I might respond back.

That is what happened about three weeks ago. I received a message from a Ph.D. student at University of Southern California who was "researching the personal experiences people write on the web about their everyday lives, and your blog came to my attention." He had the name of the blog right, for one thing, so I read on.

He said his study was an examination of "how the thoughts and experiences written by people like you on weblogs and other social media can be used to make conclusions about society as a whole. I am contacting you because I am trying to collect reliable data about bloggers’ opinions, experiences, and characteristics in order to refine and evaluate my analyses."

The student went on to include a link to a survey which would "correlate your responses to this survey with what you write about your life on your weblog."

I am always dubious about such matters, and while I realize everything I write in this space becomes public, I try to be careful about what I put on here. Stuff sneaks out, though.

Anyway, I wrote the student back asking how my blog came to be chosen, the criteria it met, and if the survey linked with the blog. I had also looked up the links for the section of the college for which this person was studying and noted they did things for the military, so I wanted to know if this would be used for the military in any fashion.

The student did not respond for several days, but ultimately did reply. " We’re interested in storytelling and the knowledge contained in stories. Several years ago, we wrote software to automatically find personal, non-fiction stories written on weblogs. It makes errors from time to time (confuses fiction with non-fiction, for instance) but for the most part it’s pretty good. Our software picked up your blog as one that these sorts of stories are posted to fairly often. I’ve emailed about 10,000 bloggers whose blogs also have a lot of personal stories posted to them (and have been getting a 8-10% response rate)," the student said.

In the email, the student went on to point out that there was no way for me to know who else might be studying my blog for whatever purpose. "The prevailing view among academics is that public web content and profiles are “fair game,”' the student noted. However, this person believed in notifying people that their blogs were being studied, which I appreciated.

He also said there was no military component involved with this study.

I have often wondered about the public nature of blogs. For all I know, my photos are being sold in Brazil and someone has taken my personal essays and turned them into an ebook and is selling it on Amazon. Not that I think I am that interesting, mind you, but some of my pictures aren't too bad and occasionally I write something that, if not spectacular, is thoughtful and articulate.

Since I felt like I was dealing with a real person, I decided to do the survey, which means I am taking part in this person's study. The survey questions seemed a little off-kilter politically to me, but since I am not entirely sure what the person is doing it is hard to know. Being a journalist my sense of "fair play" was aroused by the nature of some of the questions. There were a few questions that seemed too personal, and those I declined to answer. I think the questions were based on previous research and therefore deemed appropriate polling data (like, have I had the flu or did I get a flu shot).

As far as I can tell, this has to do with the nature of my writing and what I write about, and does not include comments. This has to do with personal bias and some effort to understand "demographic differences between web users and the general population (“demographic bias”). This survey will provide ground-truth data to use to evaluate methods to deal with the demographic bias problem," the student wrote.

I hope he did not have to respond personally to thousands of dubious bloggers for his study. He answered my questions in a manner that most certainly was not generic so I know he read my letter and responded to it. That was the reason I went ahead and agreed to participate. It seemed sincere.

And then I thought I should let you know, my dear reader. Because your comments are as public as what I write, and I don't know how you might feel about that. I assume the study will end in May when the school year ends.

It is an interesting question, how much to share of ourselves. I am wondering now why I do it. I know I started this blog as a creative outlet and a space for draft columns for the newspaper. I did not expect to find real-world friends here, but I have. Nor did I expect to find numerous online friends, but I have. Most of my opinions are milky and not so controversial, and I try to be fair because I am a fair person. So only occasionally have I had to deal with someone who wanted to blast me for something I wrote. That's fine with me. I don't really have the stomach for a lot of flame wars and back-and-forth efforts to defend a stance on most topics.

I share much more here than I do on Facebook. I know how many "friends" I have on Facebook but I am not clear on how many people read this blog. Somewhere around 400-500 a week from the numbers blogger provides. I have no idea who you are, unless you are one of my frequent commenters. Maybe half of my readers are research robots, hitting my blog because of its longevity. I don't know.

But if you're a real person, thank you for reading.


  1. I received the same email from this person. Like you, I ended up taking the survey. I sometimes wonder what makes people read my blog. However, I confess that I enjoy seeing how others live, through their blogs.

  2. I got that email. When I went to the site there were so many political questions that I opted out. Didn't see how that correlated.


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