Escaping the blogosphere

Wednesday, November 23, 2005
There is an excellent discussion by Clay Shirky
on the dynamics driving the “inequality” of blogs. Although it was written almost two years ago the principles mentioned would seem to have been validated by time.

The question posed is “Why do a handful of blogs account for a disproportionate amount of blog traffic?” In other words, why are site visits not more equally distributed across all blogs?

The answer, according to Shirky, is that “In systems where many people are free to choose between many options, a small subset of the whole will get a disproportionate amount of traffic (or attention, or income), even if no members of the system actively work towards such an outcome. This has nothing to do with moral weakness, selling out, or any other psychological explanation. The very act of choosing, spread widely enough and freely enough, creates a power law distribution.”

There are accompanying graphs of what Shirky refers to as “power law distribution”, and a prediction of how the world of blogs will evolve over time.

At the head will be webloggers who join the mainstream media (a phrase which seems to mean "media we've gotten used to.") The transformation here is simple - as a blogger's audience grows large, more people read her work than she can possibly read, she can't link to everyone who wants her attention, and she can't answer all her incoming mail or follow up to the comments on her site. The result of these pressures is that she becomes a broadcast outlet, distributing material without participating in conversations about it.


Many of the “A list” bloggers have reached this point and no longer have comment sections, which is the “conversational” aspect of blogging. They might be said to have reached the blogospheres escape velocity.

Meanwhile, the long tail of weblogs with few readers will become conversational. In a world where most bloggers get below average traffic, audience size can't be the only metric for success. LiveJournal had this figured out years ago, by assuming that people would be writing for their friends, rather than some impersonal audience.

In between blogs-as-mainstream-media and blogs-as-dinner-conversation will be Blogging Classic, blogs published by one or a few people, for a moderately-sized audience, with whom the authors have a relatively engaged relationship. Because of the continuing growth of the weblog world, more blogs in the future will follow this pattern than today. However, these blogs will be in the minority for both traffic (dwarfed by the mainstream media blogs) and overall number of blogs (outnumbered by the conversational blogs.)


There are some implications here for Open Source Media and similar efforts. One is that the blogging model does not scale up very well. Once a blog passes a certain traffic threshold it becomes impractical for the blogger to spend time reading and responding to comments. Instead the “mega-bloggers” read and respond to other bloggers, as well as regular news reports.

The other is that the large blogs will become over time something closer to the “MSM” than to the blogs from which they sprung. Their large volume of traffic gives them influence. This attracts the attention of influential people looking for outlets for ideas, who give “access” in the journalistic sense to anyone with an audience. The circle will be complete when the former bloggers begin to be seduced by the notion of themselves as insiders; in other words, they will become increasingly like the Old Media which they initially and rightly excoriated.

9 comments:

MeaninglessHotAir said...

Good points.

I read Clay Shirky's article years ago and got fascinated by the Power Distribution, or Zipf Distribution. It is very common and never taught in statistics courses. City populations obey it, record popularity obeys it, movie popularity obeys it.

Jamie Irons said...

Flenser and MHA,

Yes, I too encountered this article(through reading Den Beste) right after it first appeared. But even before that, I had read a book by Manfred Shroeder, Fractals, Chaos, Power Laws, which is worth the price of admission just to learn, on page 3, about an elegant proof of Pythagoras's theorem proposed by the eleven-year-old Albert Einstein, that argues from a diagram erecting an altitude on the hypotenuse of a right triangle, using the three similar triangles thus constructed, to come up with a formula oddly and eerily isomorphic with Albert's 1905

E=mc^2

!!!!


;-)


Jamie Irons

Charlie (Colorado) said...

The circle will be complete when the former bloggers begin to be seduced by the notion of themselves as insiders; in other words, they will become increasingly like the Old Media which they initially and rightly excoriated.

*cough*Jeff Jarvis*cough*

Charlie (Colorado) said...

City populations obey it, record popularity obeys it, movie popularity obeys it.

particle size distributions follow it, network traffic follows it, income distribution follows it (Pareto distribution is an inverse power law), and on and on.

Charlie (Colorado) said...

Actually, though, there's another aspect of this that flenser doesn't mention: the "long tail" means that there are very small specific markets. Goth knitting patterns, say. The traditional media depends on having very large circulations in order to be profitable, because the fixed costs of traditional publication are so high. (Big presses, big distribution networks, and you have to pay about the same for those whether you circulate a million or ten million.)

In fact, I'd argue that "main stream media" does have a straightforward, positive meaning: the mainstream media is the old media built around high cost of entry. When I was talking with Roger, I did the numbers in a back of envelope fashion, and saw that for the New York Times the basic cost per copy is just about its "cover price".

Internet publication, whether through blogs or other means like iUniverse, has a much smaller cost of entry (essentially zero) and very very low cost per "copy".

What this means is that the place on the "long tail" at which an operation becomes profitable is much farther down the tail. The exciting thing is that because of this, people could very well be able to make a small but respectable income publishing a small but respectable publication.

When someone can make a couple hundred bucks a month out of their goth knitting patterns site, the publishing business will be very different.

Morgan said...

Word frequency follows it, popularity of ice cream flavor, supposedly, as well.

I wonder if the number of phenomena describable by various distributions follows a power distribution.

Anonymous said...

The circle will be complete when the former bloggers begin to be seduced by the notion of themselves as insiders; in other words, they will become increasingly like the Old Media which they initially and rightly excoriated.

Exactly right, and it's already happening. (And not just Jarvis.) I'm finding my interest in a blog is generally inversely proportional to my perception of the "insiderness" of the author. And while I don't frequently comment on blogs, there's something off-putting about a blog without comments.

And since OSM^H^H^H PJM was mentioned, Roger's blog (and to a lesser degree Charles') became notably less interesting to me as the pajamas thing started ramping up.

I guess I'm looking for some different POV's - not reversion to the mean.

MeaninglessHotAir said...

Ok, anonymous, we here at YARGB listen to our audience! So, what would you like to see happen here?

Oh, and Morgan, you've hit on something whether you know it or not. Somebody wrote a paper showing that under certain conditions, distributions of distributions will follow the Zipf distribution, and that this explains in some sense the ubiquity.

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