Reminder to journalists: a blog post garnering 110 comments doesn’t say much about social trends

In reading a book this weekend (a review to come later this week), I ran across a common tactic used by journalists: looking at the popularity of websites as evidence of a growing social trend. This particular book quoted a blog post and then said “The post got 110 comments.”

The problem is that this figure doesn’t really tell us much about anything.

1. These days, 110 comments on an Internet story is nothing. Controversial articles on major news websites regularly garner hundreds, if not thousands, of comments.

2. We don’t know who exactly was commenting on the story. Were these people who already agreed with what the author was writing? Was it friends and family?

In the end, citing these comments runs into the same problems that face web surveys done poorly: we don’t know whether they are representative of Americans as a whole or not. That doesn’t mean blogs and comments can’t be cited at all but we need to be very careful of what these sites tell us, what we can know from the comments, and who exactly they represent. A random sample of blog posts might help as would a more long-term study of responses to news articles and blog posts. But, simply saying that something is an important issue because a bunch of people were moved enough to comment online may not mean much of anything.

Thankfully, the author didn’t use this number of blog comments as their only source of evidence; it was part of a larger story with more conclusive data. However, it might simply be better to quote a blog post like this as an example of what is out on the Internet rather than try to follow it with some “hard” numbers.

Twentysomething: “What people in the past might have gotten from church, I get from the Internet and Facebook”

In a small segment of a larger interesting article about “twentysomethings” (known in some academic circles as “emerging adults”), one twentysomething blogger talks about the role the Internet plays in her generation’s lives:

Thorman suffered the post-college blues. She worked in an entry-level job, was in a so-so relationship, and wondered if this was all there was to life. Her existence, she says, felt inconsequential: “You graduate from college and you want to matter and be a part of something bigger.”

Then she launched her blog, and all of a sudden she was engaging hundreds of people from around the world in a discussion. The Internet gave her a place for connection and community much like neighborhood bars and churches did for previous generations.

Thorman is part of the 25 percent of twentysomethings today who say they have no religious affiliation. “What people in the past might have gotten from church, I get from the Internet and Facebook,” she says. “That is our religion.”

I have read a number of articles about SNS and Facebook use among emerging adults but I’ve never quite seen this idea before: religion has been replaced by Internet communities.

Additionally, the motivation for being part of these communities is different:

But blogging isn’t just about community and connectivity. It’s fundamentally about the individual. “I like blogging because I feel like a mini-celebrity,” Thorman says.

She’s not the only one to express that sentiment. “Attention is my drug,” Julia Allison told a New York Times writer. Allison is a Georgetown grad who became an Internet celebrity in her twenties and whose photo landed on the cover of Wired magazine with the headline GET INTERNET FAMOUS! EVEN IF YOU’RE NOBODY—JULIA ALLISON AND THE SECRETS OF SELF-PROMOTION. A Pew Research poll asked 18-to-25-year-olds about their generation’s top goals, and 51 percent responded with “to be famous.”

But Thorman doesn’t want fame in the Paris Hilton way—famous for being famous. She wants to be recognized, on the Internet, for her insights and ideas.

These online communities are different than traditional religion then in that the focus is on the individual users and their accomplishments rather than a transcendent power or a totem (in Durkheimian terms).

Where will this all end up? Some options you will hear in the popular discourse:

1. Disillusionment. This article talks a lot about twentysomethings looking for fulfillment and the Internet helps provide this. But is this ultimately satisfying? What if one can’t find a fulfilling long-term career? What if the other choices that were not taken always look more attractive? This argument tends to come from older generations – is there a way that twentysomethings can avoid this?

2. This is just another sign of secularization as organized religion drops in influence among younger generations.

3. The America celebrity culture, literally at everyone’s fingertips both as consumers and producers, will continue to grow. This celebrity culture will make it difficult to have intellectual discussion and debates in an online realm where even the most traditional news organizations have to cater to celebrity-hungry web surfers.

4. If these are the goals of this generation, who will tackle the big issues like dealing with poverty in the world, paying for Social Security and Medicare, etc?

It will be fascinating to watch how this all shakes out.

Determining the most valuable blogs

The world before blogs may be difficult for many Internet users to remember. This list from 24/7 Wall Street lists the 25 most valuable blogs which was based on a number of factors including pageviews (as measured by multiple sources), revenue, and operating costs.

If you were looking for some insights into what is considered valuable on the Internet, take note that the top 10 are dominated by entertainment, news, and technology sites and the two news sites, the HuffingtonPost and the DrudgeReport, dabble in both news and entertainment.