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« The Critics Are The First To Go | Main | Communication Is Content »

October 20, 2003

Power Laws and Weblog Patterns

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Posted by Clay Shirky

Liz, pointing to Weinberger's great piece on weblogs operating at large scale, says
The problem I’ve always had with the “power law” view of weblogs is that it treats all weblogs as the same sort of medium…
For the record, my original Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality essay, from February of this year, said
At some point (probably one we've already passed), weblog technology will be seen as a platform for so many forms of publishing, filtering, aggregation, and syndication that blogging will stop referring to any particularly coherent activity. The term 'blog' will fall into the middle distance, as 'home page' and 'portal' have, words that used to mean some concrete thing, but which were stretched by use past the point of meaning. This will happen when head and tail of the power law distribution become so different that we can't think of J. Random Blogger and Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit as doing the same thing.
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. 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. Publishing an essay and having 3 random people read it is a recipe for disappointment, but publishing an account of your Saturday night and having your 3 closest friends read it feels like a conversation, especially if they follow up with their own accounts. LiveJournal has an edge on most other blogging platforms because it can keep far better track of friend and group relationships, but the rise of general blog tools like Trackback may enable this conversational mode for most blogs.
I've never seen anyone mix discussions of power law distributions and assertions that weblogs are one cohesive medium; in fact, the post that kicked off the fuss specifically referenced the effect unequal distributions of readers have in separating different patterns of use among weblogs.

Comments (7) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


1. Ross Mayfield on October 21, 2003 12:45 AM writes...

Yep, its an ecosystem of networks with different modalities. I thought we have been through this?

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2. Lawrence Krubner on October 21, 2003 1:56 PM writes...

Dave Winer is so persistent in saying that "Clay is harping on the power law thing again, saying weblogs are like television" that I've been wondering if you'd written some second, more controversial essay than the one I read. I thought your meaning was quite clear in the essay you link above. I'm not sure why it has drawn as much venom as it has, and continues to do so.

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3. P6 on October 21, 2003 3:39 PM writes...

It draws venom not so much because people disagree with what it says, but because they don't LIKE what it says.

If you could plot the amount of effort it takes to become an A-lister (which a lot of folks really want to do) on a graph (X axis=length of time weblogs have been in existance, Y axis=effort to become A-list) the essay implies the line goes veticle at some point. And Mr. Shirky says it probably already has. That shatters a lot of dreams of minor celebrity.

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4. Clay Shirky on October 21, 2003 4:23 PM writes...

I haven't written anything recently, though I did give a talk at Pop Tech on Saturday on the ways link distribution in the weblog ecosystem challenges a number of assumptions we make about traditional media. I haven't read David's recent critique (which would probably been of my talk as filtered through Weinberger's real time blogging from Pop Tech), but a fair chunk of the talk was given over to the ways in which weblogs are *not* like television, as they show strong inequalities of audience without the artificial scarcity created by our current spectrum policy.

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5. Kevin Marks on October 22, 2003 11:53 AM writes...

Anyone got some good public viewing statistic for TV? I covered newspapers & movies in my orignal Power law paper,and I'd like to include TV if I can when I redo it.

I recently plotted the distribution of icoming links for all the blogs Technorati covers and got a very convincing power law.

I do think that Clay underestimates the volatility of the rank order though - a scale free distribution implies changes of arbitrary size in the ranking too.

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6. Seth Finkelstein on October 23, 2003 8:54 AM writes...

What "P6" said. There's also an aspect that the essay shatters the dream of weblogs creating a classless society ("Emergent Democracy")

Rather, the situation is more like "Meet the new boss (A-list), same as the old boss (cultural elite)"

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7. Dan on October 31, 2003 7:53 AM writes...

I'm not sure if it's been mentioned here before, but there was an interesting news piece in the new scientist along these lines.

Mikhail Simkin and Vwani Roychowdhury from the University of California, Los Angeles, analysed the fame of "ace" pilots who fought for Germany during the World War I by comparing the number of web pages that now mention each pilot with the number of planes that the pilot shot down.

They discovered that rather than being directly proportional, the fame of the pilots actually increases exponentially with the number of planes they shot down. This means that fame is not distributed fairly among the 393 pilots in the sample.

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