Center for Strategic Communication

By Edward T. Palazzolo and Dawn Gilpin (With analysis support from Nick Brody, Jesse Herrera, Krista McNaughton, and Jordan Wolff)

This is the third post in a series about the one-year anniversary of the State Department’s Dipnote blog. In Part 1 we focused on reviewing DipNote management and processes. In Part 2 we looked at what the State Department bloggers were writing about. In this post, we focus on our analysis of all the readers’ comments in response to the 344 DipNote posts that existed as of early October. We were able to gather 4,057 comments and place them into 13 emergent categories.

Recall from Part Two that 99 of the blog posts were not authored posts, but were links to Today’s Top Issues. Therefore, the following analysis omits those 99 entries, leaving us with 245 DipNote posts for comment analysis. Likewise, the corresponding 99 analyzed “No Comments” were removed resulting in 3,959 comments for analysis.

On average, each post received 16.2 comments. The graph on the above shows the distribution of number of comments per post. Across all categories, the most popular post in the blog’s history was the October 23, 2007 Question of the Week, Does the UN Successfully Fulfill Its Mission?, which brought in a total of 542 comments by itself. This one post accounts for just over 13.7% of all analyzed comments. Other extremely popular posts included the original September 25, 2007 Welcome to DipNote post by Sean McCormack, with 314 comments (7.9%), and the November 6, 2007 post Letter From Iraq to My Overwrought Colleagues by John Matel, with 221 comments (5.6%). So, these three posts are responsible for over 25% of all comments written on DipNote.

Given the three popular posts, the average number provided above does not represent the full picture in this case because they skew the average upward. Removing those three posts yields an average of 11.9 comments per post. The graph below shows the distribution of the number of comments per post with those three outliers removed. Without the outliers, the distribution becomes easier to see.

Next, the frequency chart below shows the overall distribution of comments as classified by type of comment. The largest category by a significant margin is Question of the Week Answer which represents comments by readers on the Question of the Week posts (1,277 or 32.3% of the 3,959 comments analyzed). This result is not too surprising given that the Question of the Week appeared weekly and, therefore, had the greatest opportunity for comments. The DipNote editors were anecdotally aware that this was their most popular feature, and the number of comments confirms this impression. Still, it is worth noting the effort by the State Department to generate interest and conversations in foreign affairs appears to be working.

The second largest category consists of Responses to Others’ Comments (21.4% of the total comments). This finding is significant because it provides further evidence the State Department has succeeded in creating a social media space that fosters interaction among readers. Burgess, Foth & Klaebe (2006) noted that engaged citizenship can be practiced through social media that offers opportunities for community building, so fostering interaction can be seen as an important sign of effective public affairs communication.

A related finding is the relatively small number of direct interactions between the blog authors and commenters. Only 5.4% of comments were addressed to blog authors, and only 2.1% consisted of responses by blog authors to commenters. It seems DipNote commenters are creating a community that exists independent of the specific blog authors. Perhaps this is a result of the number and variety of blog authors (see the Part 2 analysis), as well as the limited responsiveness of authors. Thus, although the DipNote blog represents a two-way asymmetrical form of communication between the State Department and readers, with limited dialogue between the organization and its constituents, the resulting space allows for “multi-way” communication to emerge through conversations in the comments.

The third largest category is Critique which makes up 15.1% of the comments. This category includes comments that critique U.S. domestic or foreign policy, foreign countries, or individuals. After that, Positive Feedback is the fourth largest category, making up 10.4% of comments. This category contains complimentary comments regarding policy, government, or even the individual blogger. Taken together, it is encouraging to see that 25% of the comments to DipNote posts are remarks, either positive or negative, about the issues presented to them. This is further evidence that DipNote is promoting discussion and creating dialogue within its community of readers. The State Department has succeeded in creating a space where readers feel comfortable expressing a broad spectrum of opinions.

The remaining nine categories make up 23% of comments. These categories are Direct Question to Blogger (5.4%), Policy Suggestions (4.9%), Link to Outside Article (3.1%), Policy Questions (2.4%), Blogger’s Response to Comment (2.1%), Off Topic (1.9%), No Comments (0.6%), Hostile Comments (0.5%), and Other (0.1%). It is nice to see that approximately 5% of comments are Policy Suggestions. Critique comes easily to most people, but identifying alternatives requires considerably more effort–the kind of effort people typically exercise when they believe the outcome is worthwhile and they will be heard. It is also worth noting that less than 0.5% of the comments were Hostile Comments. While this finding is evidence of a civil dialogue, it may be artificial and not reflective of the universe of blog readers: DipNote comments are moderated to some extent such that hateful and overly hostile messages are removed by the editor. Therefore, it is not possible to completely interpret this finding based on these data alone.

As a final note, excluding the Today’s Top Issues posts, only 9.0% of DipNote posts went without comment. Thus, almost every post sparked at least one response from a reader. We judge this to be an impressive success rate given that this is only the first year of the blog’s operation.

In the next post in this series, we look at how the State Department, and DipNote in particular, is using other social media to enhance their efforts to create greater transparency and increased dialogue.