February 12, 2006

shirky's law: "equality. fairness. opportunity. pick two."

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The always thoughtful Seth Finklestein says the "New Gatekeepers Are Still GATEKEEPERS".

This world is exactly the same as *every* *other* *media* *world*, in that there's a few participants who have enormous reach, while most have little to none ("Power Law"). That's just a mathematical fact. One obvious corollary is that if an A-lister (very high audience) writes a personal attack on a Z-lister (very low audience), the Z-lister has no *effective* means of responding, to any comparable extent. This is hardly life-threatening, but it's not pleasant.
Not sure if I agree with Seth this time. If an A-Lister does something squirly against a Z-Lister, the word soon gets out. Nothing like the threat of instant mass-retribution from thousands of scalp-hunting bloggers to help keep you honest, regardless of your stats.

Besides that, he's not exactly offering any solutions to the problem.

Of course he isn't. Because there isn't one. There is only "Shirky's Law":

Equality. Fairness. Opportunity. Pick Two.
[From Clay Shirky's seminal essay on power laws, "Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality":]
Diversity plus freedom of choice creates inequality, and the greater the diversity, the more extreme the inequality.

... Once a power law distribution exists, it can take on a certain amount of homeostasis, the tendency of a system to retain its form even against external pressures. Is the weblog world such a system? Are there people who are as talented or deserving as the current stars, but who are not getting anything like the traffic? Doubtless. Will this problem get worse in the future? Yes.

The fact is, the more closely the blogosphere resembles the real world, the more interesting and dynamic it gets. And that means inequality. To have the blogosphere as a place where lots of interesting people are doing all sorts of interesting things is far more preferable to me, than it ending up as a detached online refuge for "Pet Toys", where nothing ever happens, except indignant people living vicariously through others, and whinging about their lack of traffic.

Posted by hugh macleod at February 12, 2006 1:53 PM | TrackBack
Comments

Mr. Finklestein is forgetting something else as well: that even though most Z-listers still don't have much individual power, there are now things you could call "Z-List Aggregators" (like Technorati, del.icio.us, etc) that have much, much more power than any A-lister could possibly hope to have. (In fact, it could be argued that such aggregators skip the "lister" argument altogether, and should be compared in power instead to such publications as the New York Times.) I agree that most bloggers as individuals still can't make much of a difference; but when a million Z-listers all talk about the same subject at once now, it has the same power to disrupt as formerly only an article in a major news magazine did. Or, to cite your example, if 1,500 Z-listers all talk about how unfair it is that that A-lister is ganging up on that poor Z-lister, believe me, the word will quickly get out about that A-lister.

Posted by: Jason Pettus at February 12, 2006 3:37 PM

Hugh,
First off--great card today. I guess I owe you a free book. Second, if an A-Lister picks unfairly on a Z-Lister, the rest of the blogosphere will stomp on him or her for being a bully. Third, I wonder how Seth's rankings are rising for picking on an A-Lister, in my opinion, unfairly.

Posted by: Shel Israel at February 12, 2006 4:27 PM

Agreed, Shel.

Besides, while some people are whinging endlessly about blog hierarchies and power laws, other people are successfully using blogs to spread the word on the kickass companies, products and ideas they're creating. A much more interesting and powerful use of one's time, IMHO.

Posted by: gapingvoid@gmail.com at February 12, 2006 5:24 PM

I think the" A lister ganging up on a Z lister" scenario is not really relevant. While I agree that aggregation might thankfully work to right such a wrong, his statement about gatekeepers is essentially correct - increasingly so as the blog traffic rises. The rise of Huffingtonpost being one clear example unfortunately. However, he does miss the key difference - it is now possible for a Z lister to rise to the top if they have something interesting to say.

Posted by: john at February 12, 2006 8:16 PM

Around-for-ages maxim (no idea what the original source is):

Enjoy your work.
Make lots of money.
Work within the law.

Pick any two.

Posted by: frosty at February 12, 2006 10:16 PM

Great post, Hugh.

John: "it is now possible for a Z lister to rise to the top if they have something interesting to say"

Well, maybe not the top, but certainly it's possible to get a large enough audience *without* A-list blessing or linking. It's still exponential if a bunch of bloggers with two readers each find something they like, the word still spreads... one friend or co-worker at a time. Delicious is a great example of where a Z-lister's tag of your post weighs just as much as if an A-lister tags it. Even if just 15 people--each with *no* readers-- tag something as "worth saving", that can push any post onto the delicious/popular page, and THAT guarantees more traffic than if an A-lister points to you. Having something interesting--and worth referring friends or co-workers to--and worth someone's time and effort to bookmark--would seem to be worth a lot more than having an A-lister link to and/or endorse you. I've seen lots of folks complaining about power laws who get plenty of A-listers linking to them (nearly every time they complain), but if people don't find anything at the end of the link they feel is worth subscribing or returning to, all the A-list traffic and gatekeeper blessing in the world won't make their blog popular.

One who believes their blog is unpopular primarily because they don't have A-list endorsement/support is either arrogant or they have overestimated how compelling their content is.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra at February 12, 2006 10:44 PM

Attention ... links ... :-) :-) :-)

Regarding: "If an A-Lister does something squirly against a Z-Lister, the word soon gets out. Nothing like the threat of instant mass-retribution from thousands of scalp-hunting bloggers to help keep you honest, regardless of your stats."

What this neglects is that there's *far* more likely to be thousands of approval-seeking sycophants to try to gain notice from the A-lister. Again, this is simple mathematics. Moreover, it would take 100 100-reader Z-listers to equal the audience of a single 10,000-reader A-lister. That sort of collective reaction almost never happens, in an organized way. Even with *aggregators* (which are not magic, and often reflect A-listers influence).

You are indeed correct, I have no good solution to the problem. It's extremely tough and difficult. I have a hard time even getting people to recognize and engage with the problem, that's how far from a solution I am.

Further, agreed, it's a reflection of the general problem of society, per "Shirky's Law". But I think you're going to extremes, the equivalent of arguing that if pure capitalism produces poverty and injustice, anything to address that is communism ("To have the blogosphere as a place where lots of interesting people are doing all sorts of interesting things is far more preferable to me, than it ending up as a detached online refuge ..."). There's a difference between a *trade-off*, and an *extreme*.

Kathy Sierra: As I point out, if there's a myth of meritocracy, one way of re-inforcing this myth in the face of anything contrary, is to claim all Z-listers are whiners. I think the power-level structure refutes this definitively and objectively. Though I recognize to those making such a claim that it's not a matter of mathematics, it's a matter of social ideology.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at February 12, 2006 11:31 PM

The blogosphere provides a special environment that distinguishes it from the way 'voice' is heard in the real world. The ability to comment - as I'm doing now - and have that voice as part of the debate - means that the once unheard voice can be heard. If that voice becomes influential, then great. If not, then does it matter?

I think Hugh's point is worth expanding upon. Is there anything inherently 'wrong' with inequality? I don't think so. The very existence of inequality is what brings social order through the creation of hierarchies and change, through the disruptive influence of those with fresh ideas.

The downside is that influence brings power. And it is in the exercise of that power that people are ultimately judged.

Hugh attacks Madison Avenue - great. I attack incumbent software players. These are inanimate objects, corporations or places associated with specific issues. What I don't see is Hugh attacking individuals - except in a clearly playful manner. (Ahem.)

Provided those with influence - whether it is as part of some list or as part of a niche community - recognise the power they potentially wield as Seth clearly does - then the blogosphere will continue to work just fine.

Posted by: Dennis Howlett at February 13, 2006 3:13 AM

This seems as appropriate a place as any to address the more serious issue of spelling and usage associated with the verb "to whine." I bring it up now because we see the traditional spelling in Seth's comment ("...to claim all Z-listers are whiners.") and we see the contrasting modern variant in Hugh's ("...whinging about their lack of traffic.")

From whence cometh this "whinging?" What's with the extra "g?" I see this a lot, not just here, but I think there's something Euroid about it. How is it pronounced? If "wining," like "wining and dining" then why not leave the "g" out. If "winging" like "winging his way homeward," then WTF does that mean? Perhaps it's a soft "g" to rhyme with "cringing?" That might make some linguistic sense, but if so, then this is an emergent neologism that needs to have it's roots explicated forthwith. Ain't it?

Posted by: fp at February 13, 2006 3:59 AM

Re: "The fact is, the more closely the blogosphere resembles the real world, the more interesting and dynamic it gets. And that means inequality."

Yes, as important as this conversation is (even for me, a humble, not whinging, but possibly wining z-lister!) it is also giving me alarming flash backs to high school the never ending politics of cool.

fp: not sure if its 'Euroid' or not, but speaking from my experience Australians always whinge but rarely whine. As in 'to have a whinge'. I believe there's a subtle but important difference between the two although I'm not exactly certain what it is. Its definitely not a spelling error.

Posted by: leisa at February 13, 2006 6:28 AM

Hmmm... think there's another point being missed... that you don't have to be an A-Lister for blogs to be effective.

e.g. Thomas over at English Cut (englishcut.com) is not an "A-Lister", but his blog has made his business utterly explode.

"Links" are by no means the only currency...

Posted by: hugh macleod at February 13, 2006 9:45 AM

According to my 1890 OED, whinge is a northern/Scottish variant of whine. Certainly we had a lot of whingers where I came from in the East Midlands...

Posted by: Geoff at February 13, 2006 9:57 AM

Regarding ""Links" are by no means the only currency..."

Links are, however, *a* currency.

Regarding the little tailor:

Mathematics: "Survivorship bias". That is, people who started blogs and *did not* see their business utterly explode, would not be held up as success stories (worse, if they noted it didn't work, they might be accused of whinging ...). Just like there are few newspaper articles on people who did not win the lottery.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at February 13, 2006 10:09 AM

Again, Seth, this isn't saying anything new or offering anything useful. But you are spending time and energy typing.

This argument ultimately will go nowhere because nobody who's doing really interesting stuff with blogs, with or without A-Lister linklove, actually cares.

Posted by: hugh macleod at February 13, 2006 10:51 AM

P.S. Seth, the "inequality" is going to get worse, not better. And there's nothing anyone can do about it, unless you want to set up a centrally controlled system where everyone is allocated an equal amount of traffic, by an equal demographic cross-section of readers.

PS. "The blogosphere is not a meritocracy" is a dubious argument becasue there is no central, objective definition of what merit actually is. Who decides merit? I do. On my blog. Alone. And other people do the same on theirs.

Ergo, my blog is a meritocracy. And so is yours. And so is everyone else's. Ergo, the blogophere is a meritocracy.

Posted by: hugh macleod at February 13, 2006 12:15 PM

I've found this post and the ensuing discussion most interesting because of my position in the whole blogosphere. As a recent guest at this blogging party I've not even started a blog as yet (intend to but want to do my homework first). That means I'm not even a fully fledged member of the list, never mind having an auspicious letter to denote my position!

What I would say though is that I do hope that there is room still left for a relative latecomer to make an impact. And realistically I think there is. I am under no illusions; I will start out at the bottom rung of the ladder. I've got no contacts or A-List champions to give me a leg up (as they could in Seth's model) and at the moment a lot of my ideas (about blogging, Web 2.0 etc etc) are quite formative so I don't have the intellectual punch to automatically get myself a place on everyone's must-read roll (as such ideas could in Hugh's model).

However, I do believe that I have some things to say that are worth hearing. I also beleive that by participating in the right conversations (such as this one!) I can show people that I'm worth hearing.

The issue then becomes the meritocracy. I think therefore it's important to remember what a meritocracy actually represents. It's not about the best rising *automatically* to the top. I take Seth's point about there still being a hierarchy and this being detrimental to some bloggers. Similarly I take Hugh's point about the blogosphere staying interesting and not ending up as some sanitised, centrally controlled environment. But what I think is crucial is that a meritocracy (as this and the world at large should be) is really about equality of opportunity.

It is the responsibilty of all involved (A - Z) to ensure that the mechanisms are in place to ensure this equality of opportunity. Indeed developing new mechanisms, modifying old and opening the gates of opportunity should be right up there in everyone's priorities to help strengthen the blogosphere and raise the bar in terms of fascinating and vital conversations. I am confident that my place in the blogosphere will be what I make it. The mechanisms are in place and I intend to make full use of them (when I have learnt how to use them properly at any rate!)

Posted by: James P at February 13, 2006 2:14 PM

"Again, Seth, this isn't saying anything new or offering anything useful. But you are spending time and energy typing.

This argument ultimately will go nowhere because nobody who's doing really interesting stuff with blogs, with or without A-Lister linklove, actually cares.
"

Once upon a time, Mr MacLeod, before you got connected and dependent on A listers in order to push your various assorted businesses, you would have had a dialog with Seth, if not a downright discussion. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I don't think you would have been so arrogantly dismissive of someone who, to my knowledge, never says anything offensive. Well, other than the truth.

Posted by: Shelley at February 13, 2006 2:22 PM

Shelley, methinks you've missed the point.

I find that ideas spread on the internet because they're inherently easy to spread, not because some A-Lister arbitrarily determines them to be worthy.

The fact that you think I'm "dependant" on A-Lister linklove suggests to me that (A) you know very little about how my business works and (B) you know very little about how the blogosphere works.

Posted by: hugh macleod at February 13, 2006 2:44 PM

There's room for both points of view and for both to be valid. I have found Hugh to be inspiring on occasion. (Note to Hugh - you know that's no BS!)

On the other hand, Seth's argument does have merit (sic.) Not everyone 'gets it' first time out - I sure as heck didn't and in some circles that might still be regarded as true. However, I do know that what I'm doing in my little niche is making a difference. Is that the same as influence? I dunno, maybe it is, maybe not. If it wasn't for the likes of Seth - and Hugh - and a certain persistance probably born out of bloody mindedness, then I'd have given up. Not everyone is built that way. Thanks goodness. So encouragement in whatever form has to be a good thing.

What interests one person is not the same as what interests another. So in that regard Hugh, when you talk to the issue of 'really interesting things' you're seeing it through your own lens. And that isn't an expression of meritcoracy but personal bias - in my personal, biased opinion.

Posted by: Dennis Howlett at February 13, 2006 4:07 PM

And one day I really will figure out spellcheck!

Posted by: Dennis Howlett at February 13, 2006 4:09 PM

It's been said in a variety of many other words, but, part of your message clearly is,

"A great way to lose readership, is to whine about your lack of readership."

I've definitely learned that the hard way, too.

Posted by: Fenmere at February 13, 2006 4:34 PM

whinge (hwnj, wnj)
intr.v. whinged, whing·ing, whing·es Chiefly British
To complain or protest, especially in an annoying or persistent manner.
[Dialectal alteration of Middle English whinsen, from Old English hwinsian.]

Posted by: Jon Husband at February 13, 2006 5:05 PM

HM: I find ideas spread on the internet because they're inherently easy to spread, not because some A-Lister arbitrarily determines them to be worthy.

Yes, and a Z-lister in one niche can be an A-lister in another. The more obscure the niche, the better chance you have of becoming an A-lister. It used to be that if you were dealing in an obscure niche, you had almost now chance of being heard. That is rapidly changing to the opposite: through blogging you have a great shot at a world-wide-sized niche. What's there to whine or whinge about?

Posted by: Harry Chittenden at February 13, 2006 7:12 PM

I agree with Harry Chittenden ;-)

Posted by: hugh macleod at February 13, 2006 7:21 PM

I'm with you Hugh. We had an example of it last month. Yahoo deleted our YahooGroup (read the story here: http://www.anecdote.com.au/archives/2006/02/rebuilding_a_co.html) and it was a set of Z-listers and some M-listers rallying to get the A-lister to change its mind. Last week our group was reinstated.

Posted by: Shawn Callahan at February 13, 2006 8:24 PM

James P: You have a great attitude about it. Having "some things to say that are worth hearing" works as long as it is in a form that readers find compelling (enough readers for whatever *your* goal or measure of "an audience" is).

Those with content *people find compelling* have established plenty of success with no A-listy involvement... again, by getting one link at a time from many, many z-listers. One problem is that many folks know (or believe) they have good content, "worth hearing", but not enough readers who agree. Or at least who agree enough to subscribe or return.

For most of us, our content must be what some group of people *want* to read, and for that we are all on equal footing. I do agree, though, that one might need A-list support if they want to get people to read what readers do NOT find compelling enough to return to. That's a completely different issue.

We can't force people to read what we want them to hear, no matter how valuable or high quality we have deemed it to be. But people WANT to share what they like, and the things people really like spread quite quickly -- the extreme case being a viral video, but to a lesser extent, popular blog posts spread quickly as well, and it doesn't take an A-lister to start that. The problem is not GETTING people to the blog, the problem is KEEPING them, and only the blogger can do that. But *any* blogger has the potential to do that. The math and the stats that show otherwise do not seem to factor in whether the readers find the content compelling enough to return to.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra at February 13, 2006 8:32 PM

Regarding "And there's nothing anyone can do about it, unless you want to set up a centrally controlled system where everyone is allocated an equal amount of traffic, by an equal demographic cross-section of readers."

Hugh, haven't you just proved my point of an argument of extremes? Would you really ever say something like "There's nothing one can do about capitalism's inequality of wealth, unless you want to be a Communist"? (I know some people would, and it's an argument in some circles, so maybe that's not a good rhetorical question, though it seems illuminative of the unwillingness to engage with inequality).

You are probably correct though about "spending time and energy typing". After all, where would the blogosphere be without hordes of people wasting themselves on lost causes? :-)

If there is "no central, objective definition of what merit actually is", then statements about "who's doing really interesting stuff with blogs" have no meaning. So you must have some sort of definition in mind. Of course the topic is complex, just like "influence" or "power". That never seems to be used to dismiss favorable statements, only unfavorable ones.

Regarding "I find that ideas spread on the internet because they're inherently easy to spread, not because some A-Lister arbitrarily determines them to be worthy.", I'd say that's particularly ironically refuted by the way this iteration flowed because some A-lister determined it to be worthy of notice. That's just how it happened.

Kathy: I'm afraid I really don't follow what you're saying, as a chain of reasoning. I read it as a tautological argument, i.e. that people who have something popular to offer get popular, and if they don't get popular, they must not have something popular to offer. Again, I repeat, I think the power-level structure refutes this definitively and objectively. The system has a certain mathematical distribution. While it's true in some sense that who ends up where depends on the content, there seems to be a profound unwillingness to consider that there are other major social factors involved in who gets heard.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at February 13, 2006 9:19 PM

Hugh

On a matter of semantics, if the author of a blog determines merit on their blogs, that's a dictatorship not a meritocracy. Ergo the blogosphere is a universe of fiefdoms. Nothing wrong with that.

However, merit might be ascribed by the quantity of readers who feel the blog has value and while that assumes that all readers have good judgement which is patently not true it is probably the best solution we have.

Posted by: john at February 13, 2006 9:36 PM

Isn't everyone forgetting something fundamental here? Blogs are part of social networks. That implies there's a societal component. When I was studying the topic the definition of sociology was 'the study of inequality.'

Doesn't matter whether you're Marxist (where sociology usually starts), a post-modern deconstructionlist a la Foucault or any shade in between (for which see TAN for one interesting take) - inequality is a fact of life.

There's no answer to this. It's called the human condition. Greed and power are powerful motivators. Being in an electronic environment doesn't change that.

Blogging and social networks give ideas that have the potential of turning into something useful an opportunity to take root they might not otherwise get. That's largely because the A-listers appear interested in a different form of power. The spread of ideas that could make a difference.

It's a mathematical certainty that as the number of active bloggers expands that 'promise' diminishes. It's called first mover advantage in the lottery of life. Unless of course A-listers are prepared to give others oxygen. Think about successful (and plenty of unsuccessful) revolutions. Who rose to the top? The sycophants of the leader(s) - everyone else stayed put or was suppressed. Those who lost, lost more than their dignity.

At least Hugh is honest about it. He's in it for the money. But deep down, I suspect it's the power that really seduces. In fact I'm pretty certain. Because when I heard Scoble say "The world follows me" the genie got let out the bottle. As it does on Tech.me-me-orandum - with boring regularity.

Posted by: Dennis Howlett at February 13, 2006 11:16 PM

"The fact that you think I'm "dependant" on A-Lister linklove suggests to me that (A) you know very little about how my business works and (B) you know very little about how the blogosphere works."

Come on Hugh, you might not be 'dependant' on linklove from so-called A-Listers, but you do everything you can to encourage it. The posts you left on the 8th and 9th of last week could have just as easily simply listed the 'A-Listers', without linking to every single one of them. And such posts appear here often.

And there's nothing wrong with that. But to imply that you don't feel the need to link to 'A-Listers' rings a little hollow to those of us that have read this blog for more than a week.

Posted by: Mack Collier at February 14, 2006 2:05 AM

I disagree, someone can do something clever or find out interesting information and be featured on a site like slashdot or digg and skyrocket to blogstardom. This is not like any other media, and there are gatekeepers, but it's not the same because anyone can publish and anyone can access it. The technology, everything is different.

Posted by: Bjorn at February 14, 2006 2:42 AM

Interesting points, Dennis.

One thing I've never denied is my interest in the commercial applications of blogs. I've been writing about that pretty much since Day One, long before my daily readership exceeded a handful of people.

The thing that interests me the most about blogs is what I call "The Global Microbrand". From our conversations, I'd say the same is true with you.

Posted by: hugh macleod at February 14, 2006 8:32 AM

Very true Hugh...I'm working with several budding Global Microbrands...but as I'm an accountant I don't have the imagination to think much outside my own profession. It doesn't matter. Because what I'm doing is workig and well.

And as we both know Hugh, I don't hide behind jargonese BS. Even when it makes me look stupid. 'Cos then I learn - another defining characteristic of social networks - a place to learn and explore things that don't necessarily make sense at first pass.

I'm off this topic now but I think there's an encouraging question any aspiring blogger can reasonably put to anyone who has an idea they don't understand or who just wants a leg up in the game of life. Why? It's the first rule of journalism when you're stuck. It works just as well here.

Posted by: Dennis Howlett at February 14, 2006 9:44 AM

Hugh. In the addendum of the Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality post you refer to there is a link that David Sifry, had created the Technorati Interesting Newcomers List. However the link boes nowhere! Do you know if such a link still exists somewhere or any sites using the current wave of tags and link data to proactively highlight the thin end if the long tail?

Or is inequality just being met in the virtual space as it is in the physical world and accepted as a fait accompli?

dnw - David N Wallace - Dave the Lifekludger

Posted by: Dave the lifekludger at February 14, 2006 10:35 AM

What do you mean by "inequality", Dave?

Inequality of Opportunity?
Inequality of Outcome?
Inequality of Traffic?
Inequality of readership quality?
Inequality of writing quality?
Inequality of Technorati rankings?
Inequality of blogging ROI?
Inequality of attractive, sexually willing blog groupies?

Just curious.

Posted by: hugh macleod at February 14, 2006 11:15 AM

I’d rather the blogosphere resemble the world we’d like to create, without the geopolitical divisions that make the establishments of real life such carriers of BS. I like this blogosphere where ad agencies do not have a clue, where citizens communicate with each other and discover how mass media are lying, where borders are a thing of the past. If it can be a “draft plan” for the real world, then all the better.

Posted by: Jack Yan at February 14, 2006 2:34 PM

Hugh, re my comments around inequality. Sorry I didn't get back to you sooner- I'm not going on all cylinders at the moment - this is why http://dnwallace.com/blog/2006/02/07/no-metal-required/

I'm pleased to say your questions got me thinking more deeply about the issues around inequality in the blog world and with the help of a colleague will be starting a conversation about it. We will be tagging it 'longtailjewel' would love your involvement!

Suffice for now to say, to me, inequality is about 'separateness' or 'disconnection'.

Posted by: Dave the lifekludger at February 16, 2006 2:17 AM