Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Curation, representation, and democratic discussion in the UMC blogosphere

Last week, I wrote a post in which I demonstrated that white American men write the majority of posts in the United Methodist blogosphere, at least as measured by those blogs submitted to and compiled by Methoblog.  This week, I want to follow up by looking at another source of blogs in the United Methodist world: those blogs posted to the Blogs and Commentaries page on UMC's official website.  The Blogs and Commentaries page includes both links to articles on external blogs (including blogs by UMC boards agencies) and some content hosted by umc.org itself.  It is curated in that the articles included are there by choice, not automatically populated, though I don't know the curation policies used to select blogs.  Both in its mix of off-site and on-site material and in its curated nature, the Blogs and Commentaries page is different from Methoblog.

I was able to load articles from 25 authors whose race, gender, and nationality I was able to determine.  All but two of these authors wrote a single post.  Larry Hollon, chief executive of United Methodist Communications, wrote several of the posts, so I'm going to analyze just the number of authors, not the number of posts, since any difference is almost entirely a result of Larry Hollon.

What do the numbers show? 36% of authors (9 of the 25) were white American men.  28% were white American women.  12% were African-American men.  8% were Latino-American women.  4%, 1 author, was an Asian-American man.  1 author was an Asian-American woman.  1 was a white European woman.  1 was a black African man.

These numbers are certainly more representative of the UMC as a whole than the numbers I found for the blogosphere in general last week.  Africans and Asians are still underrepresented, but there's a decent sampling from among domestic US groups.

These results show that curation matters.  The best way to have a relatively representative collection of voices in the blogosphere is to select those voices rather than wait for those voices to come to you.  This approach is also that taken by UMC Lead, a curated blog site where nearly half of regular contributors are women and at least a quarter are people of color.  That's also the approach taken by UM Insight, whose numbers I haven't had a chance to crunch.  It's the approach taken by this blog too, for its posts written by authors other than me, though I'll say more about us next week.

Of course, curation implies its own type of privilege - some people are chosen to be heard, confering privilege on them, and other voices aren't.  Those choices may serve good ends, like assembling a representative collection of United Methodist voices (however you may want to define that), but at the end of the day, it's not a system where anyone who wants can speak.  Yet, as demonstrated last week, a system where anyone who wants to can speak can end up dominated by those who speak louder or more frequently than others.

What we may be forced to admit is that there are at times tradeoffs between different standards for what counts as democratic discussion online (as in other settings).  Openness and representativeness don't necessarily coincide, and we may have to make choices between which of these is a more important criteria for democratic discussion.

2 comments:

  1. Outstanding work, David! Thank you for taking a look at the numbers, and then doing a good job of interpreting what those numbers might mean. I also appreciate the shout-out to UM Insight. I’ll redouble my efforts to find more representation from people of color and women to balance the skewed white-male demographic in the general blogosphere. You’ve done us all a great service!

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  2. As your penultimate paragraph suggests, we must also be mindful who the gatekeepers and curators are. If these folks are also members of the dominant culture, we perpetuate having that perspective deem was is valuable and what should be included. Even if they do a balanced job, it's not great that the decisions of who is accepted are still in the hands of established status quo.

    Thanks for your time in researching the numbers. I know that's quite an effort.

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