17 January 2013

Studying the Aid Blogosphere

How powerful is the aid blogging community? A working paper from Ryann Manning at the Harvard Business School uses the case study of the 1 Million Shirts flap to examine the networks. Based on the way that aid bloggers engaged with Jason Sadler when he formed his idea and the ensuing changes affected by their influence, Manning concludes that the aid blogosphere "combines features of a public sphere, in which people convene to discuss issues of public interest, and an invisible college, in which experts create, verify, and legitimise knowledge and expertise."

The first part of the findings are based on a systematic reading and following of many of the top aid blogs (see Appendix A in the paper for a list). Manning read many of the usual suspects including Chris Blattman, WhyDev, Texas in Africa and Wronging Rights. She analyzes and groups the blogs based on the number of authors, style of blogs and tone. The last table is interesting as it breaks down the snark divide between those who support and oppose its use as an aid blog style.

The idea of blogging as an invisible college that Manning cites was first mentioned by economics blogger J Brad DeLong in a 2006 article (gated) for the Chronicle of Higher Education. DeLong writes, ‘It's a brilliant intellectual community, this little slice of the world that is our visible college... But I am greedy. I want more. I would like a larger college, an invisible college, of more people to talk to, pointing me to more interesting things. People whose views and opinions I can react to, and who will react to my reasoned and well-thought-out opinions, and to my unreasoned and off-the-cuff ones as well… With the arrival of Web logging, I have been able to add such people to those I bump into – in a virtual sense – every week.’

For an aid blogger, it is nice to learn from an outsider. Manning brings a unique perspective about the dynamics of aid blogging and her assertion about the invisible college makes a lot of sense. However, the analysis misses out a bit because of what it omits and cannot include. For example, Twitter was one of the main rallying points for the 1 Million Shirts debate. Blogs were a means to develop longer ideas and create more comprehensive arguments, but it was on Twitter that the aid blogger community began to take a much stronger form. The two interacting together contributed.

Further, the community developed in ways that went beyond visible social networks. Nearly three years later, many of the people listed are in communication with each other in more ways. I have personally met and spent time with a significant portion of the people who are listed and continue to stay in contact through emails, Skype, gchat and so on. There are many relationships that have formed which have helped to create professional collaborations. For example, WhyDev is an expanding blog that is getting more professional and now provides a peer coaching service. The TechSalon is up and running in due part to the tireless networks of Wayan Vota and Linda Raftree.

This is all to say that there is even more than what appears in the study by Manning. In fact, the larger reach is further evidence of the invisible college that does exist within the aid blogosphere. I would love to see more on the specific aspects of the college to see who are the teachers and what ways their students are learning. As someone who has learned an incredible amount from the invisible college, I can at least attest to its value in my developed understanding of international aid and development.

Anyways, it is worth thumbing through the study itself if you are interested in aid blogging. It definitely provides a much needed new perspective to aid blogging.