How many friends can you make in a week?

The New Scientist reports some research by Susan Jamison-Powell at Sheffield Hallam University which seems to show that prolific bloggers are more popular, regardless of the quality or tone of their posts.

[She] studied the popularity of 75 bloggers on the site Livejournal.com. She looked at the number of friends each blogger had, the number of posts they made, the total number of words written and the overall tone of the posts. She then asked the bloggers to rate how attractive they found each of their peer’s blogs.

She found that the more words a blogger posted, the more friends they had and the higher their attractiveness rating. The tone of their posts – whether they contained mostly positive or negative comments – had no effect.

The BPS goes into a little bit more detail, explaining that the Liverjournalers were invited into a new community and then asked to rate their fellow community members after one week. I’m not sure if this falls within the bounds of Bad Science, but it’s certainly not an accurate reflection of how communities build in the real world.

My first problem is that you just can’t extrapolate from communities on LiveJournal to blogs in general. LiveJournal has always had a different demographic to, say, bloggers using Typepad or WordPress. LiveJournal has always had a gender bias towards women, for example: currently it has 62.5% female and 37.5% male, the rest unspecified. And the bulk of users are between 18 and 34 (with an impressive spike at 30), historically much younger than demographics for other tools.

Furthermore, LiveJournal is culturally different to many other blogs and blogging platforms and has traditionally been the meeting place for people who felt that other platforms were too open for them or who felt disenfranchised by mainstream tools and wanted to be with their peers. LiveJournal, for many, was where you could be yourself and enjoy the company of people like you, no matter how weird others thought you were.

LiveJournal isn’t a typical blogging community and results from studies on LiveJournal can’t be applied to other bloggers.

But furthermore, after only a week of getting to know someone, you have very little information to go on. Those who talk most will almost certainly get higher rankings than those who are quiet simply because they stand out and can easily be remembered. If you are trying to get to know 75 people in just seven days – and you have to ask if that is even possible – you’re going to rank the noisier ones higher just because they are the people you’ve had most exposure to. If you’ve had very little conversation with someone you are bound to rank them near the bottom simply because they are still strangers and humans tend to be stranger-averse.

How would this study have turned out if they had got to know each other over the course of a month? Or six months? Or a year? You know, real human friendship timescales. And how does the nature of the community change how people react to each other? The study doesn’t say what the raison d’ĂȘtre of the community was, and whether these people were gathered around an issue they cared deeply about or were just mooching around online, killing time.

The lesson that this study appears to be teaching is that bloggers should write more, and not worry about quality. Frankly, I call bullshit on the whole thing. The way that we form relationships through blogging is a complex and nuanced process, just like the way that we form friendships offline. We get to know people over time. We decide whether we agree with their points of view, whether we like the way they present themselves, how they interact with others and we build a picture of them that is either attractive or not.

That this study should get headlines in The Telegraph and BusinessWeek shows how poorly social media is still being covered by the mainstream press and how little understanding or critical thinking they do.

We do need a lot more research into the use of social media and particularly its use in the UK. Studies like Jamison-Powell’s, however, do not advance the debate in any useful way.