COMM 154: Social Communication and New Technology
Project: Portrayals of the Self on the World Wide Web

prepared by Jean Teng (Winter Qtr 2005, UCLA)

Table of Contents

I. Introduction

a. Xanga
b. Blogger/Blog*Spot
c. LiveJournal
II. Methodology/Results
a. survey
b. interviews

i. Xanga interview
ii. MySpace interview

III. Discussion
IV. Conclusion
V. Sources


Introduction

Online blogging has emerged as a social phenomemon in recent years so much that it claims an official spot in the Merriam-Webster Dictonary: “Blog, noun – short for weblog (1999): a Web site that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments and often hyperlinks provided by the writer.”

The Pew Internet and American Life Project found blog readership jumped 58 percent in the United States last year, representing about 32 million people, or roughly 27 percent of all Internet users. It also finds that 27 percent of online adults in the United States read blogs, and 7 percent write them. The online world of blogging is dubbed as the “blogosphere.” The blogosphere is so massive and diverse there are weblogs of all topics, all credibilities, and all types of writers. There are even annual weblog awards called The Bloggies. A set of 30 publicly-chosen awards are given to the blogosphere’s favorite weblogs. The year 2005 marks the fifth annual weblog awards.

Online blogging has become so popular that the blogging community has become a growing market for major business competitors. Microsoft Corp. recently launched in beta a free blogging service called MSN Spaces which integrates their instant messenging service MSN Messenger 7.0 and email client Hotmail. Google Inc. bought Blogger and Blog*Spot, one of the original blogging services, in 2003. America Online Inc. also offers its own service called AOL Journals. LiveJournal was also recently acquired by blogging pioneer Six Apart Ltd.

Along with all these business ventures, the online public have congregated to these weblog services. Popular sites are Xanga, LiveJournal, Blogger/Blog*Spot, MySpace, and Friendster among others. Those were the most common among my survey responses. The blog phenomenon may have started with personal homepages, but they have evolved into much more. Blog content range from being very superficial to very personal thoughts and incident for anyone who has internet access to read. Why do people feel the need to portray themselves so publicly online? Why do they lay it all out there? I hypothesize that it provides an outlet for stress and that it helps them project a sense of self that may not always surface in their offline lives.

Previous studies have been done about these kinds of services focusing on user demographics. (http://www.students.haverford.edu/hchoi/final%20project.htm and http://www.americanwalrus.com/psych-LJ.html). But in the following pages I will explore why these blogs exist in the first place and what their purpose is. I focus specifically on Xanga, Blogger, and LiveJournal.

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Xanga

Xanga originated in 1999 not as a blogging tool, but as a site to share book and music reviews. However, today it has become very blog centered due to member preferences. It still has the ability to link to Amazon.com to include a thumbnail of a book or a CD.

The WYSIWYG editor allow easy customization with smileys, symbols, links and uploading images. Like Blogger, Xanga also allows users to post blogs via email. Other members can comment on posts and give “eProps” to their favorite ones. Members can also subscribe to one another’s blogs where you can read all updated posts in one email that’s sent to you. Blogrings are groups where members with similar interests congregate. Xanga is also very customizable even in its free version if you know some html code. A premium version with even more options is also available for about $2.00 per month but other payment options are also available.

Xanga boasts about 2.5 million users. Its byline is “the weblog community” and it is probably one of the best and most popular weblog service that connects friends and non-friends in an easy to comprehend network.

Xanga screenshot:

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Blogger/Blog*Spot

In May 2004, Google gave its Blogger service a major upgrade. Blogger program manager Evan Williams said, “Our aim is to bring blogging to a wider and more mainstream Internet audience. This is the biggest batch of new feature we’ve done ever.”

Those features include a comments section and a background profile on interests, similar to Xanga. Another feature helps non-technical users to easily post blogs by sending content through a designated Blogger email. Blogger has also added 27 new design templates users can choose from and incorporated Picasa Inc.’s Hello online photo-sharing application where users can post photos stored in Hello directly into their blog.

Links to Blogger profiles can be posted into comments as well. The profiles also link to other user profiles that share common interests. These kinds of features emphasize building a community among bloggers, connecting networks of bloggers through common interests. “We are focusing on helping users connect to one another, and that has always been a core part of blogging,” Williams said. “With the combination of profiles and comments, we make it more built in than it’s even been before.” However, the profile feature does not include friend-of-a-friend networks like Xanga, where users’ friends are displayed on the page too.

Blogger/Blog*Spot screenshot:

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LiveJournal

Mena and Ben Trott were one of the business pioneers of blogging. Their company Six Apart Ltd. developed two widely used blogging tools: Movable Type and Typepad. Six Apart Ltd. also recently bought blogging service LiveJournal in January 2005.

LiveJournal has become a popular space where college students chronicle their daily lives. The service is free but a premium version is available for $25 a year. LiveJournal is one of the original big blogging platforms and has a reported user base of over 5.6 million. According to its ever-changing statistics page there are currently about 6.4 million total LiveJournal accounts, with about 2.6 million that are active in some way.

While the free version of LiveJournal does not have many options to customize your page, it does allow others to comment on your journal entries. The online journal is mainly text-based, but does allow one graphic avatar on the page.

LiveJournal screenshot:

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Methodology

I used two methods: survey and interview. I hoped that the survey would get a general sense of who has those web pages and why they do, but surveys are not very open ended. An interview with different people who use different ranges of web pages described above would complement the project better. Then I can also see if the reason people use different types of web pages differentiate.

Survey

My survey consisted of 12 questions that dealt with the content, purpose, and usage of online blogging. I targeted respondents who were possible members of the specific weblog communities that I am interested in so that I would have more relevant data to work with. I also had a handful of respondents who were not part of those specific weblog communities but were members of other related communities like MySpace, Friendster, and Facebook. There were a total of 63 respondents to the survey.

Survey questions were as follows:
1. Do you use or have you used any of the following web services? Check all that apply or fill in the one you use if it is kind of related (i.e. myspace).
2. If you have never used any of the web services mentioned above, have you seriously considered it before? Do you plan on joining one in the near future? Check all that apply.
3. Why do you choose to use a web service instead of building your own personal homepage? Check all that apply and/or fill in another reason.
4. If you have a personal homepage, why do you choose that over those web services? Briefly explain below.
5. If the free web service that you currently use starts to charge for usage (at a hypothetically reasonable price you can afford), would you pay to continue what you’re doing? Choose one.
6. For you, what’s the most important feature of a web service? Choose one or fill in your own.
7. What do you blog/post journal entries about? Briefly describe below.
8. Why do you keep a page? Why do you blog/post entries? What is the purpose? Briefly describe below.
9. On average, how often do you update your page or post a new blog/journal entry? Choose one.
10. Do you wish you had more free time to spend on your page? Choose one.
11. When you do blog or post journal entries, who do you hope reads them? Check all that apply or fill in your own.
12. On a scale from 1 to 7, how comfortable do you feel with complete strangers being able to read your page? (1 being very uncomfortable and 7 being very comfortable)

Survey results are as follows:
(essay responses will be discussed in section V. Discussion)
An overwhelming majority use Xanga, which is definitely the most popular weblog site in this survey. Many respondents were part of several weblog communities or hosted their own personal homepage, showing perhaps the different purposes of each site.



Since I targeted those who would probably already be part of weblog communities, there were few respondents who never used any of the web services before. Thus, no substantive data resulted in a generalization of how non-members view the communities.

The majority of respondents chose a web service over building a personal homepage because it's (1) easier because it's a free service that provides web space and (2) a homepage takes too much work/time to build from scratch.

Most of the respondents surveyed would rather find another free weblog service if their current service started to charge for usage. Most of the people who replied "no - it's not worth it" were those who were not even members of weblog communities. Thus, it seems that the people who are already involved in weblog communities will continue to find other channels in which to do so.

Most respondents felt that the most important feature of their web service was that it allowed them to read friends' blogs/journal entries. This is interesting because they valued it above the ability to post their own blogs/journal entries. After reading the essay responses this data makes more sense because most people said that they use the weblog community for the purpose of keeping in touch with their friends. That is what the feature centers on - keeping in touch with friends through their blogs/journal entries.

Those who said the most important feature was finding friends and old friends were predominantly MySpace users. Although MySpace has a blogging feature, its main feature is accumulating and searching for friends whereas Xanga, LiveJournal and Blogger are centered on blogging.


Most respondents update their page or post new blogs/journal entries between 2-3 times a week and once a week. This seems like it would be a more effective way to keep in touch with friends rather than updating in monthly intervals.


Most respondents felt that they had enough free time to spend on their pages. However, those who replied yes were also more likely to update their pages in slower intervals than those who replied no. This seems to show that people hope to be able to update their page at least weekly.


Most respondents said that they hoped family/friends read their blogs/journal entries. Another significant number said that it didn't really matter because their blogs/journal entries are just for themselves. Many actually pointed out in the "other" box that they hoped friends would read their pages but not necessarily family which I found very interesting. Perhaps people disclose information just for their friends' discretion or perhaps there is no need to keep in touch with family.


The average comfort level resulted in 4.9 on a scale of 1 to 7, 1 being very uncomfortable and 7 being very comfortable. So people seem relatively comfortable with the fact that anybody with internet access may be able to read their page, even if some posts disclose personal thoughts and experiences. However, it is also important to note that not everybody posted about personal thoughts and experiences. Some people chose to not to, some do, and still some did only when they felt like it.

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Interviews

I managed to conduct interviews with one Xanga user and one MySpace user. I would have liked to do more, especially with a Blogger user and LiveJournal user but I didn't have enough time. However, the interviews that I did conduct were very informative. I conducted these interviews before I launched the survey so that I could make more insightful questions from the kind of responses I received in the interviews.

Xanga interview

Excerpts of interview with Mindy Cheng, a 3rd year at UCLA, are as follows:

Q: Why did you join Xanga? Why do you take out the time to continue updating and reading other people's entries?
A: I started because it seemed kinda fun what people were doing. I used to write a lot about what I did a lot and if it's boring to me then it's boring to other people. So I don't write as often cause I try to write stuff to get people thinking. The other day I wrote about how my roommates were saying why all the pinoy guys they know at UCLA are gay and that's more interesting than oh, I ate spaghetti today. It's so hard to keep in touch these days so I think it's really imporant to know what friends have been up to. It's not really keeping in touch face to face interaction but it's a way to keep them familiar. It's also a way to, at least for me, for filtering people. Kinda makes me have to choose who's important to me and who actually matters cause they're the ones that keep me motivated to keep reading entries and keep up to date with what they've been doing.

Q: Why do you comment on other people's entries and why do you choose to comment on certain types of entries?
A: I comment on what they said that made me think about other things, kind of like sharing thoughts. Those things that they say are almost relevant to me. If somebody said the other day I saw this kid wearing a West High sweatshirt it would make me think how long it's been since I graduated high shool and think about how old I'm getting. I'd comment cause I think about that all the time. I would say something like I visited West High the other day and everybody was so tiny. Choosing entries is just how I personally feel about the entries. Hearing people talk about some stuff gets kind of old. Do I really wanna read 30 entries a day about how this girl went to school and fell asleep in class and so did this guy?

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MySpace interview

MySpace is another online community that is less centered on blogging and more centered on accumulating friends and their friends. People are allowed to comment on your page, as well as your blogs. There are also MySpace groups, which are kind of like blogrings. Although I did not specifically focus on MySpace in my project, I felt that this interview was very revealing because my particular informant did write blogs on her page, so I concentrated more on that during the interview.

MySpace screenshot:

Excerpts of interview with Erin Choi, another 3rd year at UCLA, are as follows:

Q: What kind of blogs do you write and what compels you to write them?
A: I don’t like to write blogs about insignificant things in life. So I only write when something’s important to me. I only wrote a couple but they’re very long and very involved. You can see the inner voice of somebody and see what they really care about. I wrote really long about shows and it was very intimate thing for me and wanted to write it down so if I wanted to look back at it then I could look at it in print and also other ppl probably also feel the same way. I wanna share things with people but don’t really know how to, cause a lot of things my friends don’t really care as much so maybe if I wrote it down here then maybe somebody would care. What compels me to write it is that it’s weird cause I write them late at night when I should be sleeping and feels like I need to cause I never really wrote in a journal or kept with it. My blogs aren’t a day to day account of my life but more about milestones or things that I should remember when I get older so really they’re more reminders for yourself. So when I look back at it and I see it I can almost feel how I felt at the time. I try to write really descriptively, and really try to pour myself out there and I don’t really do that a lot. I feel the people will put effort to read someone’s blog instead of just general interests. People who actually will read a blog actually care what you say because it’s delving into more personal stuff. It’s very subjective, not objective and not a waste of words. I know it’s public and stuff but I really feel that the people who actually read it are a select group of people because most people just quickly read through the general stuff but won’t read a long blog. So it’s public yet it’s private.

Q: So you don’t mind that people you don’t know can read your personal blog?
A: No because if it was really really personal then wouldn’t write it. Stuff that I would be uncomfortable for others to read.

Q: Why participate in the MySpace community? Why spend time to update?
A: If I don’t update then not updating my own life and not showing those ppl what I’m doing. Both for myself, how I’m kind of progressing. I can see tanglibly how I was before, changing my interests and see what they were before, a lot of times you can’t see how you were before if you don’t write down. So I can see how I’ve changed since I started my account. And other people who read it can see that as well even if I don’t always talk to them.

Q: Is it important that other ppl read what you write?
A: Yeah, I think it’s so important that I feel like I have to let it out. It’s almost like I wish some of my other friends will read it and they’ll understand how it is at the show and how it’s important to me. That they won’t think it’s just this fun thing I like to go to but really it’s more than that. I guess I just hope they would read it and they’ll understand more about who I am.


Another page that is more related to MySpace than the weblogs is Friendster. It is also more friend-based than blog-based and was a lot more popular before MySpace was introduced. However, as you can see from the screenshot below, Friendster is also joining the blog bandwagon and has launched a beta blog for its site that is powered by blogging tool Typepad (owned by the same company that owns LiveJournal).

Friendster screenshot:

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Discussion

These weblog pages are almost like personal homepages, and not only are they free, but they create online communities. That seems to be the overriding theme from the survey. I received many informative responses through the essay response portions of the survey. Most people reiterated that the purpose of keeping a weblog was to keep in touch with friends and see “how my freinds are doing without having to KIT with them. It’s easier for me becuase i dont have much time to write email or AIM.” It seems like in a technologically driven society people are beginning to have less time for face to face and real time interaction. It is very convenient to update a page at your own pace and on your own time because you “can’t call my friends everyday to chit chat so I post it, and they read.” But old fashioned interaction (if you call email old fashioned) is still possible through these fragmented posts and comments: “if you have a comment about what you read you can always email them if you want to talk directly to them.” The point is that it’s always possible to set up actual interaction if you are so inclined. The only downside for all this convenience is that these pages are published on the World Wide Web for all to see.

For some this does not even constitute a downside, but for some respondents they have felt the sting of laying it all out in public: “you have to watch what you say and be alarm because it’s public, people tend to read and over analyze your life, or worse, dig in your life for gossip purposes.” Others have created distinct public and private spheres: “In public entries, I write about things I think about. In private entries, I vent about problems I’m having and possible solutions for them (I don’t air out my dirty laundry in public anymore).” However, most respondents felt perfectly comfortable with the fact that complete strangers had the ability to read their pages.

In Andy Greenwald’s book, Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers and Emo, he suggests that emo music has helped to foster online communities like LiveJournal and now these communities are big in their own right. “What kids want at that age is to be taken seriously,” he said, “and that’s what emo and these diaries allow. The impulse to LiveJournal is the same as to go to the show and sing your heart out in front of strangers.” Perhaps he is referring to people’s decreased inhibitions in cyberspace and paralleling that to a public, anonymous space. The show also provides itself as a place with minimization of authority and a kind of dissociative anonymity in a large crowd. Platforms like LiveJournal have provided another avenue or outlet for this generation.

This outlet functions in different ways for different people. Some use it as a creative space for “poetry – it’s the easiest place to share it yet still semi-private” or simply to post about “past events and pictures and just random funny stuff to entertain people with.” Some people said that their weblogs were purely for other people’s entertainment purposes. However, a significant number stated that weblogs provided a “venting space” for “things I would want to vent on that I wouldn’t necessarily dump on my friends personally.” It’s become a place to complain without being complained about. All in all “it’s a good way to relieve stress.”

Many respondents also indicated the weblogs as a tool for serious self-reflection. The weblogs provide an informal, personal space to “organize thoughts” and even “develop myself as a person.” The journal provides a “constant emotional catharsis” and “allows me time to gather my thoughts and eloquently and accurately present them.” Whereas Six Apart Ltd. owner Mena Trott insists that a blog doesn’t have to be profound to be worthwhile, weblogs do have a profound purpose and meaning for many of their writers, even if the content seems inconsequential. Why not choose handwritten journals or diaries? Weblogs are much more convenient to archive thoughts with easy access to past entries and unlimited storage space. It even encourages more expression because “the ease of which I could write and edit my entry would encourage me to write more” than a handwritten journal.

Another aspect is the strong portrayal of self that is represented in these weblogs. The page is all about an individual’s interests, likes/dislikes, thoughts, activities, and personality, down to the font color of their blog. Even their connections/subscriptions to other members reveal something about themselves because like Erin said in her MySpace interview, “you can tell a lot about a person from their friends.” These weblog pages simply exude the person’s individuality and very well encourages it through personalization/customization. It makes sense however, since most of the weblog community clientele are young high school to college students, when asserting individuality and finding a sense of self are pinnacle.

The portrayal of self is also an important aspect in fostering deeper relationships with friends. Because the weblog is a representation of the self, “if people want to get to know me better, than reading my blog is a good way to do so.” Like Erin, one person used a weblog “to show people different sides of me that they may not see in the spaces that I know them in, like my love of music.” Putting yourself out there for recognition and acceptance on a weblog is a lot less risky than in person and the pay-off turns out to be higher. While some people didn’t care whether people read their blogs/journal entries, most hoped that at least their friends read them. (Surprisingly, a significant number selected the choice of the more the better in terms of readership.) While reciprocal readership is necessary to successfully keep in touch with friends, there is also another reason for the need to be read. In Erin’s interview, if she doesn’t update her page then she’s “not updating my own life and not showing those ppl what I’m doing.” Her “life” is validated as updated by other people viewing her updated page and recognizing it as so. This idea stems from the sociological theory of self and society, where a person’s sense of self is only sustained by the recognition of others. All the comments and blog subscriptions and eProps give recognition to the writer’s sense of self and encourages more self expression within that medium. Those weblog pages that get no attention, no comments, and no eProps will soon fade away because the person’s sense of self is getting no love from the community. Even if the writer started the blog only for him/herself and not for others, he/she would have been more encouraged to express a sense of self if more recognition was received. In this case, the writer may go to another avenue for self-expression and self portrayal. Because Erin’s friends read her blog and hopefully “understand more about who I am,” Erin feels she understands who she is too because her friends are validating that understanding by giving positive feedback.

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Conclusion

Personal weblogs have become one of the most efficient and hip ways of keeping in touch, especially among college students.

Why not keep personal homepages instead? The key theme here is convenience and community. In our modern society where everyone is being pulled in a million different directions with people trying to contact us through snail mail, email, instant message, voicemail, etc., weblog communities have emerged as “a way of reaching out to socialize” on our time and on our own terms. It provides convenient control of who we want to keep in touch with, what we write about, how we want to project our sense of self, but just not who gets to read it. But that didn’t seem to be a significant issue from the survey. It would be interesting to see if it becomes more of an issue as weblogs evolve though.

One survey respondent characterized blogs very simply: “basically it can be anything that the person wishes to express themselves to the public, friends, or in private. If you think about it, it’s like a personal diary, cell phone, instant message or email. It’s just a world of expressions.” Weblogs have become an evolved extension of face to face interaction, conversing, handwritten journals, and even shows. Because it provides such an infinite spectrum of self-expression, there really are no limits to where people will take online blogging to next.

And as you can see from the discussion section, weblogs are really a very healthy way for self-expression, personal connections, and personal growth. I think it is a very good thing that this generation is claiming this kind of individualistic medium for themselves away from technological homogeneity.

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Sources

http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,1759,1590147,00.asp
http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,1759,1400391,00.asp
http://www.nytimes.com/2003/08/10/arts/music/10CARA.html
http://www.livejournal.com/stats.bml
http://www.fortwayne.com/mld/journalgazette/living/10904298.htm
http://www.publish.com/article2/0,,1758220,00.asp
http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,1759,1734396,00.asp
http://business.bostonherald.com/technologyNews/view.bg?articleid=69826
Goffman, Erving (2001). "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life," in The Production of Reality, Third Edition. O'Brien and Kollock (Eds.) Thousand Oaks, Ca; Pine Forge Press, pp. 309-313.
Suler, John, Ph.D.. The Online Disinhibition Effect. Cyberpsychology and Behavior, Vol. 7 Number 3, Mary Ann Liebert Inc.

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