A tale of two posts: The vortex and the virus

[cross-posted at the TechLearning blog]

As David pointed out, two posts from a couple of weeks ago fostered a great deal of conversation in the blogosphere. Both were impactful, but in very different ways. The first one was Will Richardson’s post about 21st century skills for educators (and presenters). The second was my post highlighting seven videos that students had taken of their teachers during class. Since the target audience for the work I do at CASTLE consists of school administrators who mostly tend to be unfamiliar with the blogosphere, I thought it might be helpful to dissect the two posts a bit to illustrate some of the power and potential of blogging.

The vortex

It’s fun to get comments on a blog post. I know that I eagerly check my Recent Comments section each day to see if anyone has chimed in on what I’ve written. In fact, the feedback can be addictive, sparking the desire to write more and expand the conversation. Those of us who blog know, however, that most of our posts get a handful of comments at best and often get none at all.

In contrast, Will’s post was a veritable vortex. He started a conversation that drew in numerous people and inspired them to participate and to return again later to check in on its progress. A multitude of comments swirled around and doubled back on each other and, like a tornado, new discussion threads were sucked in and incorporated into the larger whole. Will’s post took on a life of its own, a storm of conversation that grew in unforeseen ways. Will was the first to admit that the conversation that occurred was far bigger than he ever could have anticipated at the onset.

How do we capture the impact of a post like Will’s? Well, we can do a simple count of the total number of comments: an astounding 164! Recognizing that online readers rarely have to scroll down more than a few screens worth, we also can note that the total commentary represents 119 screens’ worth of information (at least in my browser). My copy-and-paste of the entire dialogue into Microsoft Word reveals a count of 713 paragraphs over 63 pages (Times New Roman, 12–point font): a total of nearly 23,000 words! Or we can use Britt Watwood’s innovative approach and represent the conversation as a word cloud (below is the one I just made in ManyEyes):

2008WillRichardsonTagCloud01

I’m sure there are other ways to think about and represent a vortex-like post. The essential idea here is that a blog post of this nature draws in outsiders and keeps them swirling around the central core (the post itself).

The virus

If Will’s post was notable for the number of comments it spawned on his blog, my post illustrates the other kind of impact that a blog post can have: the ability to spawn conversation and connections in places other than the original blog. Similar to a nuclear chain reaction that continuously sparks additional activity further and further out, a virus-like post captures the attention of others and inspires them to comment, not on the original blog but on their own blogs. In other words, the original post ‘infects’ a few other bloggers, whose posts ‘infect’ even more people, who in turn ‘infect’ even more, and so on. Commenting and hyperlinking is occurring in a variety of different places, many far removed from the original post. In its totality, a rich, complex dialogue is occurring. It’s just difficult to figure out where.

Although conversations that occur across the blogosphere are much more difficult to monitor due to their dispersed nature, Technorati, a blog search engine, can help. After searching for the URL of my post in Technorati, I painstakingly went through the results. I visited each unique blog link, read what it had to say about my post, and counted how many comments it had garnered. I also put the URL of each of those posts into Technorati to see how many links they had garnered in addition to my original post. The table below shows that my original post garnered 88 comments and that 57 other blog posts linked to it. Those 57 posts in turn sparked another 198 comments and another 92 blogs linked to them. If I was ambitious, I could have searched each of those 92 secondary links on Technorati to see which of the 57 were cross-linking to each other, if there was a third level of additional blogs linking to those 92, etc. However, what I did was already very time-intensive so I decided to stop.

The essential idea for a virus-like post is that much, if not most, of the conversation is swirling around outside the original blog.

2008StudentCellPhoneCameras

Closing thoughts

Two types of blog posts. One that generates conversation on-site. One that sparks discussion out in the wild, wooly world of the Web. Is one kind of post better than the other? Nope. But together, these two kinds of posts illustrate the powerful and interesting connections that can occur across geography and time if we choose to take advantage of the affordances that these technologies lend us.

6 Responses to “A tale of two posts: The vortex and the virus”

  1. Your post really caught my interest. It is very hard to get a grasp on how conversations link in and out of the blogsphere. Some posts really do gather a lot of conversation and it’s amazing that Will Richardson’s post generated 23,000 words. I also like the visual representation.

    Harder to get at are the links that spawn from a blog. I’m not very savvy with Technorati, but I can imagine it was an awful lot of work to generate your table. I read your post about the students captured teacher video. It was a bit painful to watch, actually.

    This has given me quite a bit to think about and process. Thanks.

  2. I enjoyed sharing your video post with my staff. It generated a great conversation about the role of the teacher as a model for appropriate behavior. It takes more guts and courage to stay cool and diffuse the situation. ODD kids often have a story that’s led to their attitude. We need as professionals to understand this.

    Love your writing. Thanks for what you do!

  3. I like your vortex and virus analogies.

    I was thinking of these “viral” blog posts as trees. The trunk of the tree is the initial post. The branches are the comments and primary blog reactions. Then you have branches coming off those branches which are the comments/blog reactions stemming off the primary comments/blog reactions.

    Unfortunately, along with the powerful and interesting connections that occur there’s a downside in that these conversations become overwhelming to follow.

  4. Great post, Scott. When I encourage comments in my Open Threads, I try a third option: encouraging people to comment in the comment thread, AND to copy the comment into a post on their blog too, if they so desire.

    Yes, they can simply link to my post if they decide on the viral approach, but they don’t contribute to the flow of ideas in the thread itself that way. And any stat-reader knows that readers rarely click on trackbacks in comments threads.

    But since we’ve all written comments on others’ posts that we like enough to want to keep on our own blog, I really think copying and pasting a comment onto your own blog, and prefacing it with a simple “This is a comment I left on [link here]” is the best of both worlds. I wish more people would do it.

    Interesting process you went through to count the viral spread. I wonder if any of your readers know of any tools or methods to chart viral pathways (and count their ‘hosts’) automatically? I wonder if even an advanced Google search might not be the ticket?

  5. @David: It took a LONG time to track down all of the linking posts, count comments, put each of them into Technorati, etc. I like the tree analogy but somewhere the metaphor also has to reflect that the links intertwine with each other (i.e., they cross-link to each other rather than just the original post). That’s why it’s such a giant hairball – trying to figure out who’s linking with whom…

    @Clay: Great suggestions. I wish there were software for this too. One day there will be!

  6. I loved being able to share your video post. I am sure that there have been a few moments when my students could have captured me in a moment of frustration. Everyone needs to be aware of the power of YouTube and cell phones.:)

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