A very simple research
Software use by 204 blogs in October 2006

Arie Altena

Last week I conducted a very simple research.

I wondered what software is used by the bloggers that I read. After all, I am interested in how the use of technology influences writing and publishing — and vice versa . Nevertheless I had, up to last week, never actually made a count of who uses what.

One could make an informed guess of course, based on what one encounters daily: still a lot of Blogger-sites, quite a bit Wordpress, maybe some Movable Type, even a few who seem to stick to hand-coding or who use their own handcrafted custom-cms’s. Then there is the availability of all kinds of so-called Web 2.0-functionalities, possibilities like tagging one’s content, adding links to make bookmarking to delicious or to digg easy, integrating one’s Flickr-pictures, doing automatic trackbacks, et cetera. Some of these features are integrated in software packages, others rely on installing plugins for the blogging software used, need a little bit of hand-coding, or registering at a website. How many actually use these features? An informed guess might say that these ‘extra features’ are used quite a lot amongst bloggers who also write on technology, and much less amongst bloggers for whom the uloading of content, or the writing itself, is central. But, as I said, I never made a count.

I am interested in bringing into view what I — and I guess many others — actually see every day, while surfing the web; what those of us who are blogging, who are reading and writing the web, encounter. What is used in our environment? What is, for instance, the level of ‘design’ in this blogging environment?

Of course, I could have look up the statistic at the various weblogging services — Blogger, Typepad, Movable Type, Wordpress, and get data and clues from there. I could also have looked at information at Technorati and the research done by PEW Internet research. I could’ve also searched for more statistical research in various academic journals, since there seems to be so much of that around, especially in this field.

But I wanted the research to be more personal, more partial. I am less interested in the general use (like noticing that MySpace grows in comparison with MSN), less interested in general statistics (amount of blogs created at Blogger compared to the amount of times that Wordpress is downloaded), than I am in the actual use of software in a certain ‘cultural environment. In this case, the environment is mine.

The research-question that I proposed is simply: “what technologies (blogging services, CMS, software extra’s) do bloggers use in creating, designing and editing their blogs.” More particularly, in this case, it concerns bloggers in the environment of someone who has been blogging since 5 years, uses Wordpress, is interested in (blogging) theory, writing, art, and technological development, who uses mp3-blogs for downloading music, who researches blogging, writes on new media art, and teaches in that same field.

I used a very crude methodology. I collected all the urls of blogs that I had bookmarked, for whatever reason, in either Firefox or Safari (I switch browsers now and again) since october last year. I added the blogs that I subscribed to in my RSS-reader. I also added the blogs that I “bookmarked” for instance by collecting them in a VoodooPad file (I did that a few times), and went through the old-fashioned links-page that I made earlier this year, and the links-list of my blog. Last but not least I added a few blogs that I never bookmarked in any way, but that I spontaneously remember having visited often (there were about 5 or 6, not more). (Later I realized that I forgot to check if there were blogs in my delicious-account). I threw out the doubles. I visited all these blogs between monday 16th and wednesday 18th of October 2006. Sometimes it turned out I bookmarked a specific page of a blog, in those instances I went to the index page. I included those. In less than 10 cases a blog did not exist anymore or was ‘taken over by spammers’ (something that seems to happen in the area of mp3-blogging). I did not include those. In a few cases the blog still existed but was abandoned. (Most tragically Poezienotities by Jeroen Mettes, whose last empty blogposting signifies his suicide). I did include those, and even added 3 blogs that are since long abandoned but which I still feel are important (Droommachine Sporenburg, Alamut, and nqpaofu — the last one not really abandoned but was offline in its new Wordpress-jacket in October). I also included my own blog.

Some of the included blogs are collaborative — I included those as long as the format was clearly that of a blog (on first view) and not of a magazine. (It’s a very fine line that distinguishes those publication-models. To give an example: I did not include the collaborative music blog De Subjectivisten — I see that as more of a magazine. I did include on the other hand the blog at cut-up.com, though it probably would be as easy or difficult to argue for the opposite). This also means it is possible that I included different blogs that are actually maintained by the same person(s). Nu.cult is the personal blog of Theo Ploeg, but, as far as I know, he’s also the main contributor to the blog of cut-up.com. Also amongst mp3-blogs there is a fair amount of people who maintain different blogs. Generally I did not often bookmark blogs that were part of organizations, or part of an organizational website.

The choice of blogs is of course highly dependent on my interests, research and also, my, mostly very erratic bookmarking behavior. (Another example: it turns out I never bookmarked a blog on cycling, though I did read one for a while). There is a considerable amount of mp3-blogs amongst the 204 because I wrote a paper on mp3-blogs earlier this year, and also because, I habitually get some music from mp3-blogs for daily listening instead of listening to internet-radio, my own cds or cassettetapes. Most blogs are in English, but there is also a fair amount of blogs in Dutch (there are also blogs in English, written by Dutch bloggers). There are about 10 blogs in German, just one blog in French (a mp3-blog) and one in Italian.

In the end I counted 204 different blogs. Of all of them I made a screenshot, saved the url and noticed which content management system was used (where content management system may also be read as hand-coded html), and a short note on the design (the template used, and occasionally a remark like, ugly or elegant, or standard).

There are no blogs in my sample that are hosted by MySpace, MSN or another service focussed on social networking, chatting or personal profiling. There are also no blogs that are associated with or hosted by De Volkskrant (though I know that a friend of mine used to have a blog there), or The Guardian (though I did have a lot of the bookblogs bookmarked that are often mentioned in The Guardian).

Of course after I finished my ’sampling’, I remembered various blogs — even blogs of friends — that I apparently never bookmarked. But since this is a research and not about including all my friends, colleagues and acquaintances, I left it as it was on wednesday night, 18th.

Finding out which ‘cms’ is used by a blog is easy. Often one even sees it right-away, a lot of the Blogger-templates are immediately recognizable, the same goes for some Wordpress-templates; only with Movable Type and Typepad one can sometimes makes mistakes, which is not so strange, since Typepad is based on Movable Type. Apart from this immediate recognizability most blogs mention by which ‘engine’ they are powered in either the sidebar or the bottom of the page. In the few cases where no mention was made of the used ‘engine’ I looked at the sourcecode of the index-file. Sometimes it clearly stated that Blogger or Typepad was used, sometimes no mention of any ‘engine’ was mentioned. In the cases where xml or php-scripting was used I assumed that a custom made cms was used, made, possibly by the blogger him/herself. If the sourcecode was ‘pure html’, I assumed that the blog was edited in the old-fashioned way: handcrafted. In just a few cases I was unable to make an informed guess.

Of the 204 blogs:

67 use Blogger (of whom 56 used blogspot for hosting) = 33%
40 use WordPress = 19,6%
23 use Typepad = 11%
20 use Movable Type = 9,8%
10 use handcrafted, hand-coded html, or do almost certainly do so = 4,9%
4 use Livejournal
3 use Drupal
3 use Twoday.net (all German blogs)
2 use TextPattern
2 use Xs4all-blogger (all Dutch blogs)
2 use Skynet (a Belgian service)
1 uses Tinderbox (guess who…)
1 uses Nucleus
1 uses Expression Engine
1 uses the CMS made for Sequenza21 (a composers-website)
1 uses Web-log.nl (a Dutch blog)
1 uses Pivot
1 uses Flash
15 use a custom CMS, or do almost surely use a custom CMS = 7%
6 is the number of blogs for which I couldn’t make an informed guess

I wasn’t expecting so many users still sticking to hand-coding. I also did not expect that the amount of Wordpress users would be so close to the amount of users of Blogger. Actually together more people use Wordpress, Moveable Type, Drupal, Typepad and Textpattern, than there are bloggers using Blogger — that is, in this sample.

105 have their own domain name = 52%
85 use one of the various blogging services for hosting, 56 of these use blogspot (so 11 use Blogger under their own domain, one of those uses BloggerPro)
14 use a folder on their university website, or at their provider for hosting the blog, but have no separate domain name

44 of the blogs in my sample are mp3-blogs. Of these 29 use blogspot, and 8 use WordPress. Since mp3-blogging is a much younger phenomenon than blogging, the high percentage of Wordpress users compared with the use of Typepad and Movable Type (both 1) would correspond to my hunch that most of the blogs that use Typepad, and surely those that use Movable Type, have been around for quite a while — people generally stick with the choices they made. (Movable Type was for a long time the preferred blogging software — until they went commercial, at which point Wordpress took the place as the open source mysql-php-package of preference amongst discerning users.)

After having done all this, I realized there were more aspects I could count. I revisited all blogs again on thursday 19th October and noticed if they used categories or tagged the content, if they used comments, if they linked to Technorati, Flickr or Delicious, included links to add the content to Delicious, Digg or another service, I also looked if they maybe integrated Flickr-pictures automatically, or had a tagcloud.

170 have comments enabled = 83%
3 more — all 3 blogs that have been around for very long — use a form of their own making as a way of adding replies/reactions by readers (total 85%)
14 (of those 173) had no posts with comments on the front page = 8%
30 have no commenting possibility (save sending an e-mail)
1 seemed to have made the decision to disable comments in the week of this research

65 used the possibilities to assign a category or tags to content = 32%
6 made a distinction between tags and categories, i.e. used both
7 have a tagcloud on the front page
Some remarks are necessary here:
– technically, for most softwares and services, tags and categories are similar.
– when Wordpress was used and the only category present was ‘uncategorized’ (the default category of Wordpress), the blog was counted as not using categories (5 in total).
– Blogger does not use ‘categories’, nor tagging; the high amount of blogger-blogs in this sample partly explains the low percentage of category & tagging-use.

15 have a Technorati-button
8 blogs have a visible ‘button’ to bookmark content in one’s own delicious-account, or send it to Digg
4 do this for every single posting
6 have pictures from a Flickr-account automatically integrated

Mostly, these are the same blogs, the blogs that focus on, or love technical developments.

Only a relatively small percentage uses a Web 2.0-functionality in any form, and a very, very tiny percentage is really blogging in a complete Web 2.0-way (tagging, adding links to delicious, et cetera). (Although many Web 2.0-pushers actually see blogging itself as a Web 2.0-phenomenon, I would argue that there is ‘the old’ way of blogging — exemplified by simple Blogger-sites and old-skool html-blogs) and a ‘new way’ of blogging, where packages like WordPress are used, including tagging possibility; or when blogger decide to visibly and functionally link various aspects). Especially since there are quite a few blogs in this sample that publish on blogging, blog theory and tech-developments, I find this percentage astonishingly small. It would confirm my ‘feeling’ that a large amount of the blogs in my sample focus on writing and content, and blog because they are passionate about writing and about what they write about. Editing such a blog is about writing; the writer only occasionally adds new functionalities or features. Also it seems that a lot of blogger stick with choices they made at some point. (I know I do). But that’s a hypothesis more than a fact confirmed by this research.

Because this percentage of complete Web 2.0-adopters amongst the bloggers in this sample is so low, I counted how many blogs use any extra’s in any way, like, apart from the mentioned aspects, tip jars, amazon-book-ads, podcasts, excessive use of Youtube-links, very prominent links to Flickr- and delicious-accounts, or other paraphernalia that struck me. In that case I counted 61 blogs that used, well, something in some way. Still that is not a lot.

As a final part of this simple research I resized all the screenshots to 10% of their original size, and put them all in one html-page: in that way one can see in one view, the ‘visual’ environment made up by the blogs I visit. The result is actually also a sketch of the interface that I would like to have for reading blogs. Of course in that, dreamed-of interface, you would see the actual index-page of every blog, and every thumbnail would zoom to full screen-size once clicked on. In that way one could quickly navigate and read through various blogs, and immediately getting the visual feel — something that is miss in rss-readers. I assume that such an interface is fairly easily made: the only thing I would not know how to do myself is the resizing and the zooming (but I’d say someone has written a script for that). The problem is rather the loading time of all the blogs: loading a hundred blogs at one time takes more than a few minutes. Of course one could counter that by making use of the caching of web-pages to quicken the loading-time, in that way it would become a real application. It would be nice to have such a tool.

Here is the web-page: http://www.xs4all.nl/~ariealt/jve/204_blogs.html

Some additional remarks about visual design and lay-out. About half of the blogs I bookmarked seem to use one of the ready-made templates that are furnished by the different blogging softwares, and did not change the css in any way. Many use the minimal white template for Blogger. The black minimal template is second in popularity. Amongst the Typepad, Movable Type and WordPress-users the majority uses a restrained, elegant template, often with dark-grey text in a good screen-font against a white background. Only a minority uses brightly colored backgrounds. Only a few have a really muddled designed page — but none is comparable to the sort of visual ‘mess’ that one sees at a MySpace-page. Amongst the bookblogs and blogs by poets and writers the use of bad design (multi-colored backgrounds, mediocre typography, muddled interfaces) is considerably higher — unless they stick with ready-made templates.

Are there any conclusion to be derived from this simple research? Since this sample is in no way representative for a ‘general group’ of users, the answer might be a straightforward no. Also because there is not another sample, to compare these results with, for instance all the blogs read by a very different person than me. This research ultimately only tell something about blogs in my cultural environment, ultimately about my use of blogs.

Nevertheless I would suggest that, with my simple research at hand, one has a bit more ground to stand on when one would like to make a point for these aspects:

that amongst bloggers who take their writing seriously: a) a fair amount (say 50%) do have their own domain names, b) a fair amount chooses to use server-side blogging software (at least 40%, with 5% sticking to hand-coding), c) in 2006 Wordpress is wining out against MovableType and Typepad, d) a majority chooses to use fairly simple, elegant templates, mostly one that is ready-made, e) extra functionalities are not taken up in great numbers.

One could then say that about half of the people who take their writing seriously, also take the publishing tools seriously. The others seem to be content with what, for instance, Blogger gives them. (Again, this is more an hypothesis, to be confirmed by further research, than a fact). To be honest I do not know if this 50% is high, or terribly low.

My little, simple research could also give fuel to the argument that what drives people in blogging, is the content, the writing, (but also: the images, the video’s, the music). They are much less interested in tagging, ordering, and all sorts of Web 2.0-features. Although they are also not against it (to find that out one could count how many have a technorati-account, or how many mp3-blogs are connected to the Hypemachine).

To finish off: there are a lot of other things that I could have looked at, for instance:
– how many use RSS or another form of syndication
– how many use a standard template
– (if studied over a longer time) how many have changed software (I suspect, if the period is longer than 5 years, once)
– how many use pictures, and where those pictures are hosted
– how many have mp3 or podcasts on their own server
– how many have a copyright, or a creative commons statement

And then there are the more interesting questions, like
– how do they use links?
– how long are the entries?
Luckily there is research done in this field.

Here is the document with all the names and urls of the 204 weblogs: http://www.xs4all.nl/~ariealt/jve/204_blogs_list.html. (The numbers are unimportant, they referred to the screenshots).

This text is part of the Ubiscribe-research-project In the Loop, residency at the Jan van Eyck Academy, Maastricht, in 2006. Thanks to the Jan van Eyck Academy.
http://www.janvaneyck.nl/
http://www.ubiscribe.net
It was published on October 25th 2006 at http://ariealt.net/blog/a-very-simple-research/
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Arie Altena
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