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October 21, 2003

Blogs, Curves, and Grades

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Posted by Paul B Hartzog

Rather than deciding whether to post in the comments of my original post, or Clay's rebuttal, or Seb's follow-up, I'll add yet another top-level node. I didn't really see my original post as particularly "venomous," nor did I name Clay specifically--but apparently the mere mention of "power laws" is now equivalent to invoking his name. ;) In fact, my negativity surrounding the power law characterization hasn't been based in a rejection of its accuracy, or in any sense that the emergence of an "A-list" is a bad thing. It's a result of my frustration with the sense that on some level, people are equating large audience with quality or success. The language we choose is important in this regard. "A-list" vs "C-list" has strong metaphorical connotations, as does "head" vs "tail" of the curve. Intentional or not, they shape our perceptions and understanding of the data presented. At any rate, I think we have a definitional problem. On the one hand, we want to describe "blogs" as part of a single phenomenon, and study them as such (plot them on curves, describe their "typical characteristics", etc. On the other hand, we want to distinguish among different modes, defining the "broadcast blogs" as qualitatively as well as quantitatively different from the "diary blogs," etc. The whole "A-list" idea is one that I'm fascinated by in this context, really. My anecdotal experience is that most people don't particularly want to be on that list. It comes back to the balance between public and private that's so central to the whole concept of blogging. The more public one becomes (through increased readership), the more pressures the author feels regarding his or her writing. Relative anonymity provides a greater (though not necessarily more accurate) sense of privacy and community.

Comments (6) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


1. Lindon Parker on October 21, 2003 8:09 PM writes...

I hate to be just "me too-ing" but this post is sooo right on the nail. I think Clay(who's work I admire) and others should be careful about the language we are using here.

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2. Greg Lastowka on October 21, 2003 8:31 PM writes...

Another me too.

When the power laws of blog come up in conversation, which they often do, the technorati "top 100" are not uncommonly perceived as the NBC/NYTs of the blogosphere. Most of the people who make that observation don't blog, though -- or they blog instrumentally (don't ask me what I mean by that). Fwiw, I highly doubt Clay intended, despite certain word choices, to suggest that the "A-List" crew had achieved blogging success, whereas the B-list had not.

It is probably more appropriate to think of the A-List as the Burger Kings of blogs, or the NASCARs of blogs, or the Madonnas of blogs. The metric of bigger is not the metric of better.

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3. Clay Shirky on October 21, 2003 9:49 PM writes...

The phrase "A-list bloggers" was received wisdom when I started looking at link distribution, so I adopted it as a way of saying "Yes, there is a group of people whose inbound link count is disproportionately high."

That having been said, Liz is right that an uncomplicated adoption of that language, of which I am guilty as charged, actually obscures the fact that much of the value in weblogs, considered from the writer's point of view, is in communication within small groups.

I am trying to be clear about when I talk about value to readers vs value to writers, and I think Liz is right that the A-list/C-list split is needlessly priveleging of the idea that the A-list is more successful in absolute terms.

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4. Kevin Marks on October 22, 2003 12:21 PM writes...

Indeed, especially as collectively the lightly-linked blogs together have many more links than the heavily linked ones.

The other thing I object to is breaking what is a really smooth distribution (In log/log space) into arbitrary sections and treating them as different in kind.

A key part of weblogging is that the barriers to entry are so low; obviously we can't all have as many incoming links as Instapundit, but one of us could displace him, like balamasque did. (check the technorati top 100 today)

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5. Lucas Fletcher on October 23, 2003 4:06 PM writes...

Right on. A-List. I mean come on, what a snotty term. There are 3 major reasons that I can think of for public blogging (as well as many minor ones): achieve popularity and the adulation of the masses (blogging as a sort of self-promotional game), locate and achieve community and raport with like-minded individuals, and to communicate to a known set of individuals. The first is a tie-over from traditional media, and tends to produce good but non-exceptional quality content since fame is a great motivator, but playing to your audience will always sacrifice what you can bring to the table. The quality of the second varies greatly, and depends on the individual reader, but has the potential of being much more interesting. The last still has to be considered public blogging simply because of the lack of a standard identity infrastructure.

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6. Lawrence Krubner on October 23, 2003 5:03 PM writes...

I thought it was Clay Shirky, though I guess it must have been someone else, who said there was no A-list in a power curve, since the biggest gap is the gap between the first entrant and second entrant. An A-list suggests something like the Rat Pack of the 1950s, or the Beat poets - a group of roughly equal celebrities who are different from you and me. But with a power curve, there is no group of roughly equal participants at the top, rather, the greatest inequality is at the top. What Kevin Marks says above is to the point - the distribution is smooth. But steepest at the start. You've a concave curve. If we had, instead, a curve with its concave side reversed, then we would have an A-list. That is, a curve that starts on a high level and remains there for a short time, but then falls off steeply - that is the kind of curve that describes an A-list at the top.

Do we really want to keep using the phrase "A-list"? For most people the phrase will bring up Hollywood associations, and those associations will be inaccurate. More so, it brings up associations describing publishing forms where barriers to entry are higher.

Lucas Fletcher's approach, above, seems wiser - lets describe blogs based on the motivations of the writer.

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