In early May 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that requires bloggers with more than 3,000 daily visitors online to comply with the same regulations as mass media outlets, i.e., to verify the information they are posting, to protect other people's privacy, to face the restrictions imposed by electoral legislation, and to indicate the minimum age for users.
In their study ‘Top vs Casual Bloggers: Spin Doctors vs Vox Populi’, Sergey Koltsov and Olessia Koltsov found that the Russian LJ accommodates a number of semi-professional bloggers who blog to generate publicity and convert it into other resources. Often, they use their blogs to influence public opinion rather than express personal views, and some of their postings can be compared to mass media publications. The Koltsovs used the Russian LiveJournal as the source of material for their study, as this blogging platform is now hosting most of Russia's civic and political debate.
The researchers wondered whether studying the content posted by top bloggers is sufficient for monitoring public opinions shared and shaped online, or perhaps whether postings by less popular bloggers also have independent research value for sociologists. The Koltsovs sought answers by reviewing the content posted by bloggers with large and small followings to find out whether there were substantial differences.
The researchers selected the period between September 14 and October 14, 2013, during which no particularly important or large-scale events took place. They used special software to construct two samples of LJ's top-rated and less popular casual blogs. The first sample contained 2,000 postsmade by the most popular and prolific LJ bloggers, while the other group included posts in random LJ accounts with ranks between 2,001 and 150,000. The study’s authors note that very few if any active bloggers can be found among those ranking below 150,000. More than 20,000 random blogs were included in the casual blogging group to match the total number of posts produced by the 2,000 top-ranking bloggers in the first sample.
Top-ranking bloggers differ from the rest in that they post more content. "Most casual bloggers wrote just one post over the entire month, while most top-ranking bloggers produced between 40 and 60 posts in the same period," the researchers note. Even though the study found that the 20 most active casual bloggers produced about the same amount of content as the 20 most active top bloggers, more than half of the casual bloggers did not post anything during the studied period, while virtually all top-ranking bloggers produced at least one post.
The Koltsovs also noted the difference in the number of comments to posts of top-ranking and casual bloggers: the former received about 2.5 million commentsin total, while the latter attracted less than 300,000 comments combined; 40% of casual bloggers did not receive any comments at all.
Some 50,000 posts by top-ranking bloggers – and less than 3,000 posts by casual bloggers – attracted more than 10 comments each. The chances of finding meaningful discussions that are likely to shape or change opinions are minimal in comments on casual blogs, the researchers note. However, those who comment on casual bloggers' posts are also likely to reflect the genuine sentiments of the broader public.
The findings did not support some of the researchers' initial assumptions, such as the weekly patterns of blogging. The Koltsovs had expected to find top-ranking bloggers posting mainly on weekdays, as opposed to casual bloggers expected to post more on weekends in their spare time. However, their findings show that both groups tend to blog more on weekdays.
The Koltsovs note that most studies comparing the content posted by top-ranking and casual bloggers have been infrequent and limited by manual processing and small samples.
In contrast, this study used specially developed software to analyze blog content grouped into four broad categories: civic and political, recreational, personal, and not suitable for interpretation (garbage).
The analysis found that civic and political topics prevail, followed by recreational. Approximately 12% of posts are on private topics, and about one fifth of all posts are not suitable for interpretation.
The authors' assumption had been that top-ranking bloggers seeking publicity and leadership in shaping public opinion would be more likely to target a broader audience by writing on topics of public interest, whereas casual bloggers would be more likely to share personal and recreational posts with an audience of friends and acquaintances. But again, the assumption was not supported as both samples showed an almost identical distribution of topics.
Hardly any differences can be found between casual and top-ranking bloggers, the authors conclude, except in the number of posts they produce on average.
Both groups are equally interested in politics, recreation, and personal matters. The Koltsovs suggest that sociologists may benefit from focusing on less popular LJ contributors, in addition to top-ranking ones, as both represent self-generated public opinionon the internet.
The authors admit, however, that casual bloggers are more difficult to research due to fewer posts and the fact that their voices are often lost among bots and inactive accounts. Thus, focusing only on the top LJ bloggers may be acceptable for researchers, as the topics covered are largely the same.