15 May 2009
Hello Meedaneen! (with my apologies to all the transliteration sticklers)
My name is Will Ward and I’m currently at the University of Copenhagen as a visiting fellow at their New Islamic Public Sphere Programme. My project, which is co-sponsored by Meedan, is to research how analytic blog mapping projects of the sort done by John Kelly might be of use to academic researchers who are interested in social, political and religious trends in the Arab world.
Since 2007 I’ve been working as the managing editor of the journal Arab Media & Society and been involved with publishing some fascinating research on the social and political impact of blogging and online media in the region. The best research on blogs that I’ve seen combines close reading of the posts and comments themselves with actual personal interaction with the bloggers or audiences. Analyzing blog content is important – but it must be paired with intimate knowledge of the social and political context. The real world.
Like most people who saw John Kelly and Bruce Etling’s recent paper on mapping the Iranian blogosphere, my jaw dropped at the sheer coolness of the project and the types of connections it was making. But, given my experience with qualitative blog analysis, I was a bit skeptical of the project’s enduring value for social science researchers because it represented just a snapshot in time (i.e. the paper and data set was a one off affair that could not give an idea of trends and changes in the blogosphere) and also because in addition to mapping the connections between bloggers themselves, the researchers were mapping their own subjective descriptors and categories (labels like “secular/ expat” or Twelver Shi‘a) onto the blogosphere. There was no way for outside researchers to dispute the Kelly and Etling team’s labeling of a given blog, review or challenge the global labeling schema, nor to suggest new, potentially interesting or valuable alternative ones.
Meedan is interested in incorporating Arabic blogs into its cross-language conversations and in the social good that could result in having analogous mapping data publically available, while Copenhagen is interested in how blog maps and the underlying data can help academics better understand trends and group formation on the Arabic internet. My job here, when not cavorting through Tivoli Gardens, is to pull together the existing research on Arabic blogging and think creatively about a project that can fill both of these needs.
I’ll be writing a few more posts in the coming days to share my observations and results so stay tuned.