Understanding the Arabic Blogosphere

I was pleased to see that the Foreign Policy editors’ blog picked up our research on the Iranian blogosphere. We are already off and running on our next blog research project, which will analyze the Arabic blogosphere and will use a similar methodology to our Iran study (a combination of social network analysis and content analysis). As we dig into the Arabic blogosphere, I was interested to see a post about Arabic bloggers on PostGlobal. Nicholas Noe and Maha Taki raise many of the same criticisms that John Kelly and I heard about the Iranian blogosphere–specifically, that the view of foreign bloggers is driven by media attention on a limited number of bloggers, often those who write in English and are therefore easily accessible to the Western press. These types of bloggers also fit with what the West wants to think about the Arabic (and Iranian) blogosphere–that it is full of secular democrats. As Noe and Taki write, “These bloggers are the type to which the Western media generally reaches out. Young, active, secular and opposing the authoritarian states of the Arab world, they fit well with the general rhetoric surrounding the use of the Internet for democratization.” As we wrote in our Iran study, “In contrast to the conventional wisdom that Iranian bloggers are mainly young democrats critical of the regime, we found a wide range of opinions representing religious conservative points of view as well as secular and reform-minded ones, and topics ranging from politics and human rights to poetry, religion, and pop culture.” We expect we will find a similarly wide range of opinions in the Arabic blogosphere.

Our understanding of foreign blogospheres is also clouded by the natural bias of bloggers (and most of us, to be fair) to inflate ones own importance and to interpret the world based on our understanding of one little corner of it–be it your hometown, or, in the online world, your network neighborhood. John Kelly calls this phenomenon ‘Network Myopia.’ Social network analysis of blogospheres allows us a better way to understand the shape of an entire blogosphere, and the issues discussed in it, than talking to a few ‘A-list’ bloggers.

Social network analysis also shows that most bloggers tend to read, write about and link to similar things, usually sources that reinforce their own views. This tendency to surround ourselves with those that think and read the same things is called homophily, a term originally coined by Lazarsfeld and Merton in 1954 and more recently discussed by Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and James Cook in “Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks.” Berkman Fellow Ethan Zuckerman has thought a lot about this recently and has a long but thoughtful post on the subject that is well worth the read; it also has several great links. Some of the most important bloggers, then, may be those that are read by more than one network formation (or social group), and that draw different groups into debates on certain topics. In terms of the Arabic blogosphere, it will be interesting to find those bloggers that link different countries together, since early mapping of the Arabic language blogosphere seem to show that different Arabic speaking countries form the largest groups in the network.

We expect to release the results of our research on Arabic blogs this summer. In the mean time, we will present our Iran research and early Arabic maps at the Networks in Political Science Conference here at Harvard next week.

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