Video, slides and notes from my presentation on Software-Engine Relations at HASTAC II and SoftWhere 2008

Download the hi-resolution Quicktime movie from the SoftWhere08 website.

Software-engine relations in the blogosphere

Thank you very much for inviting me. My name is Anne Helmond and I am currently a New Media Lecturer at the Media Studies department at the University of Amsterdam. I also work at the Institute of Network Cultures, an Amsterdam based media research center. I am focusing my current research on software-engine relations, analyzing the entanglement of the engines into software.

I would like to propose to redefine the current perception we have of the blogger because people might think of the blogger as a pajama clad revolutionary or the lonely writer who sits in the dark in his room. However, the blogger is an active researcher. One would have to admit that the main amount of this activity is engine based. A lot of research is done via engines, it is engine work.

Then one starts to think about engines and bloggers and how are the software-engine relations are build into the medium and practice of blogging. Then one would have to think about the engines:

  1. What is missing from the current studies into software is the recognition of the central role that the engines play in blogging. How one actively blogs with the engines in mind.
  2. And also increasingly how engines are playing a role in how the blog software is continually being optimized for the engines.
  3. The engines have a particular idea of what the blogosphere is, namely that the blogosphere of the indexable which is posts.

Let’s examine these three points in reverse chronological order.

The blog software feeds the engines for the engines’ indexing and thereby creating what you might call a symbiotic relationship. In some specificity: The engines index the blogosphere through site feeds and ping. The WordPress default site feeds only syndicates the five most recent posts which reinforces the distinct unit of the post as the native format of the blog. Comments are offered in a separate feed and pages are not syndicated at all. What is the blogosphere? According to the engines, that what is indexible namely the five latest posts. The engines see the blogosphere as posts only. The blogroll, pages and comments are not part of the blogosphere as seen by engines. This means that the comments actually form a different part of the blogosphere, the commentosphere.

Blog standards have also enabled the engines to construct a blogosphere in which the bloggers are subject to a software-engine regime. The daily blogging practice brings users directly into the disarray of software-engine politics as illustrated in the case of spam and nofollow. The nofollow attribute as an example of the political implications of the software-engine relations on the blogosphere. Spam is one of the practices that exploit the software-engine relations within the blogosphere.

What is nofollow?

Nofollow is an HTML attribute value used to instruct some search engines that a hyperlink should not influence the link target’s ranking in the search engine’s index. It is intended to reduce the effectiveness of certain types of search engine spam, thereby improving the quality of search engine results and preventing spamdexing from occurring in the first place. (Wikipedia)

Nofollow is a default setting in all the major blog software and it is important because it is a visible intervention, unlike other indexing decisions, by the software makers and the search engines and not the blogger. It has an impact on the meaning and value of links and it influences ranking and indexing which is different per search engine.

Blog software is optimized for the engines. This symbiotic relationship between the software and the engines is not without consequences. The engines are increasingly entangled in both the medium and practice of blogs which has implications on several levels. The influence of the engines on the medium and practice of blogs asks for a critical examination of this relationship.

A WordPress blog notifies ping servers by default which means that a WordPress blog is almost automatically included in the engines. The relationship between the software and the engines is two-fold: the software embraces the engines and the engines embrace the protocols within the software. WordPress implicitly acknowledges this relationship by implementing features that connect to the engines but it also explicitly states that “WordPress, straight out of the box, comes ready to embrace search engines.” The default settings in WordPress, such as providing feeds and pinging the engines, feed your blog to the engines.

Google is seen as the entry point to the web. Google as the number one search engine is regarded by many to be “the start page for the Internet” (Dodge, 2007) and “Google has become such a commonly used resource that people are beginning to regard it as synonymous with the Web.” (Searls in Gudrais, 2007). The main entry into the blogosphere is also provided by the engines which is why we need to critically examine their role. On top of that the different engines seem to create different blogospheres.

In a previous case study done with the Digital Methods Initiative of the University of Amsterdam we asked “To what extent do search engines not only map the blogosphere but also construct it?” Google, Google Blog Search and Technorati all construct different parts of the blogosphere with a small overlap.The engines seem to segregate the web by demarcating different web spheres, for example the blogosphere, the newssphere and the tag-o-sphere and different blogospheres.

By using the RSS protocol for indexing the engines duplicate the distinction between blog posts and other blog content and segregate the web by just indexing posts. According to Google blog search the blogosphere consists of blog posts. The question is whether software-engine relations contribute to the
construction of different web spheres?

The blog is not a closed environment but a dynamic entity due to its dispersive nature. This graphic by Wired Magazine illustrates the symbiotic relationship between the blogger, blog software and the engines.

So my research concerns the radical idea that bloggers do not so much blog for a public, but for engines, with the aid of blog software.

4 thoughts on “Video, slides and notes from my presentation on Software-Engine Relations at HASTAC II and SoftWhere 2008

  1. This was a good presentation. I especially appreciated the link to the interactive infographic about the symbiotic relationship between the engines, bloggers, and blog software.

    Human blog-tagging behaviors are on the increase, and from your perspective, for the benefit of the engines. Indirectly, this benefits the people who search for blog topics or elect to receive information through “Google Alerts” and RSS feeds.


  2. Thank you for your kind words. The Wired infographic is one of my favorite ones to illustrate the topic I am dealing with.

    I agree with you that the engine-based work does not only benefit the engines but also those who use the engines. I think that is why it makes it particularly interesting. It is a circle in which the engines play a major role, often neglected in blog research.

  3. Pingback: Anne Helmond

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