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  • The words that we write and exchange on Cowbird make us feel that we are embedded in a vast community, and it is pretty big – 31,451 authors and 67,734 stories at this particular moment. That's a whole lot of people to get to know one another. So perhaps cowbird.com houses a collection of small groups that do not interact with one another very much. Are we cowbirders a bunch of semi-isolated cliques or are we a big happy family that just gets bigger all the time? And if we do form little knots of authors, how do we bridge the gaps between them?

    The more I thought about these questions, the more I wanted to find a way to answer them. Then, a few months ago, I suggested to an academic friend who studies how people interact online that we take a look at cowbird.com as a case study in how Internet communities develop and organize themselves. The project intrigued him, and so we set out to identify patterns in which cowbirders connect and associate. Our research has taken several months so far and is still not complete, but we are starting to make sense of the place now, so I wanted to share some of what we have discovered so far with you, my Cowbird comrades.

    First we had to case the joint. We took a "snapshot" of cowbird.com in mid-November of last year to construct a database with tables of authors, stories, tags, and loves. We looked at story content but mostly dwelled on author relationships. The database chronicles the content and relationships Cowbird has accumulated since its birth in 2011, less the stories and accounts that authors subsequently deleted. We gleaned nothing that a stranger can’t find by searching or browsing the site (i.e., no personal info or messages). We just did it a little faster.

    So what did doing all that work tell us? Let's begin with content. The first image shows a cloud of the most commonly used words on Cowbird, sized by frequency. Why “around” should be the most common one is hard to say. Other common words are “life,” “time,” “years,” and “began,” which are all temporal concepts that bespeak a storytelling context. You can also find “Lakota” “ridge,” and “reservation” – many of which must come from the longstanding Pine Ridge Community Storytelling Project. Almost all the words raining from our little cloud are journeyman terms, not what you would expect from, say, an academic journal or political blog.

    But where, pray tell, is “love”? Love is by far the most common Cowbird tag, seen almost twice as much as the next most common one (Life), but it apparently goes by other names in Cowbird narratives.

    We were keen to understand how active and connected authors are: how often they publish, read stories, love stories, and have their stories loved. The next image shows a visualization of how authors connect and associate.
  • The two blobs are clouds of points, each one representing a Cowbird author. The right blob is a blow-up of the center of the left blob, and shows links between authors. Each link is a Love going one direction or the other. The red circles indicate the most-loved/loving authors, which we call the Inner Circle.

    What you don't see clearly is how more closely connected authors in the Inner Circle are than the average Cowbird author. Also, there’s only one core concentration, not a bunch of separate inner circles. I found that pretty surprising. My hypothesis had been that within the Cowbird Universe we would find some number of Cowbird Galaxies, each a group of authors relating to one another more than to the whole community. Instead, it’s like a thick coating of wax around a small ball of well-aged cheese.

    I won’t name any names, but I’m sure you would recognize most of the people near the center of the inner circle. They write a lot, love a lot, read a lot. Most have been around for at least two years, although a few of them have pedaled back for various personal reasons. They are literary energizer bunnies who create and reciprocate.

    By contrast, the vast majority of Cowbird members never publishes more than a couple of stories or joins very many audiences. For them, there's not much happening here. They apparently drop in once in a while to browse and only very occasionally to deposit a story.

    The next graphic shows how people have used the Heart button to love stories.
  • The jagged pink line shows how many times people are pushing the Love button day by day divided by the number of stories told then, averaged over seven days to damp down the noise. That number ranges between four and 19 loves per story. It looks a lot like the stock market during a boom-and-bust cycle. Right now, we seem to be in a bust period. People are not investing in loving stories the way they did at their peak in August 2012.

    The thick blue line shows accumulated loves divided by accumulated number of stories through time. We see that as a whole, Cowbird has stabilized at about 12 loves per story but that this figure is heading toward 11. The current situation is worse than that; we're now at about six loves per story.

    The dark red line is a curve fitted to the pink line to describe its overall trend. Loves are lower now than any time since December 2012. This is kind of alarming. It makes me fret that the cowbird community could be in decline. Even though vital new authors sign up apace, amazing stories pour out day after day, and hearts, comments and messages ensue, collectively we may not be as effusive as we once were. Could we slowly be going stale?

    I have noticed that reactions to my stories over time have followed the curve that the graph shows. As much as I try to infuse my writing with cool ideas and expressive force, I sense a certain flagging of enthusiasm for my scribblings and for many of the stories I read. It's good to know that it's not just me, it's you too.

    I follow about 90 writers, i.e. I belong to their audiences. I get told whenever they issue a story here and I pretty much read each one. I believe I could keep up with 100 writers, so I will continue to look for newcomers to follow to broaden my horizons. But that's not going to solve the problem of diminishing affection unless everybody did that.

    There are nine stories viewed by more than 10,000 people, and three that were viewed more than 100,000 times, but only 35 stories have received more than 300 loves. We can do better.

    More than 20 people joined Cowbird today. Let's find them, get busy, and join some audiences. Read, love and respond to stories, because it's not just the content that makes Cowbird a special place, it's the vibes too.


    @images: Visualization of data tables produced in Condor and Excel. Condor is an application created by my colleague to analyze individuals' roles in digital social networks.

    Sprouted from All in the Virtual Family.
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