Reading a blog can become as much of a habit as checking e-mail, a new study looking at readers, rather than bloggers, suggests.

Researchers from the University of California-Irvine presented their study, which they said was the first to look in depth at the readers of blogs, on Wednesday at the Association for Computing Machinery Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI) in Florence, Italy.

In a release, they said that previous studies about blogs have typically focused on the writers, "largely overlooking those who go online to read, comment and participate."

With an estimated 57 million adults in the United States reading blogs in July 2006, doctoral candidate Eric Baumer, undergraduate student Mark Sueyoshi and informatics professor Bill Tomlinson decided to look at the relationship between blogs and their readers.

Canvassing participants online and through printed flyers, the researchers tracked the in-depth blog reading habits of 15 participants aged 18 to 31 through interviews, data logging software and questionnaires. The participants all identified themselves as blog readers and checked at least five different blogs two to three times per week.

They found that regular blog reading can become "an internet ritual," with the content secondary to the process of checking for new posts. The researchers said this is much like the routine of checking e-mail regardless of whether a new message is expected or not.

"Sometimes, even the usefulness of the blog content itself can be less vital than the activity of reading or skimming the blog to fulfill a person's particular routine," they said in a release.

The researchers also found that the date and frequency of the posts matters little to the readers, but the position of the entry on the page is important.

The report said that readers are more likely to read the most recent posts, unconcerned about age, and that they were not bothered when they couldn't read every post.

"Some would eventually catch up on old posts when the time suited them, while others simply choose the more recent or most interesting posts to read, skipping the rest," the researchers wrote. "This attitude challenges the commonly accepted notion that users feel overwhelmed with staying constantly up to date."

"A missed post is not usually a missed opportunity."

Other findings of the report included:

  • Most participants considered reading blogs a form of "chilling out" or "wasting time."
  • There is no firm definition of a blog, with participants pointing to aspects such as Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds and trackback links, as well as personal content and comments.
  • Most definitions of blogs from participants included the word "journal" or "diary."
  • Readers feel pressured to produce worthwhile comments in response to good posts.
  • Readers are more likely to post on blogs belonging to their friends than on mainstream sites.

"With the increased popularity of blogs, various tools like Blogger and Movable Type have made writing a blog easy for a wide audience," said Baumer in a release. "But, until the technology embraces the role of the audience, the full social potential of blogging remains untapped.

"One of the goals of this research is to stimulate the development of tools to foster that social potential in terms of both readers and bloggers."

Such tools, the researchers said, include a logging tool to help bloggers learn about their readers and target content for them or a blog habit tracker for readers.