Blogging And Power Laws

Dave Winer writes about the premise of Clay Shirky’s idea:

You know what’s always bothered me about Technorati? I don’t care about millions of blogs. I’m going for quality not quantity. Sifry must think weblogs are like television. Shirky sure does. What is it about people with two-syllable names that begin with S and end with Y. I think I’m going to publish a law about this and go on the speaker’s circuit.

Ben Hyde writes about Clay’s overview of how to change the shape of the power-law curve.

He provocatively introduces the idea that conservatives have a tolerance for inequality. I think that’s far too generous. I think that conservatives have an enthusiasm for inequality. That they believe that elite status is the rightous reward rather than a happen stance of system design. That a more severe slope to your power-law curve will drive people to increased striving and they are blind to the extent that a more egalitarian slope enables innovation, creation, diversity, and reduced social tension. Since what happens if you encourage diversity is the emergence of many many loosely joined power-law networks sorted out by different arts there is a deadly tendency of conservatives to encourage competititon between these arts that leads to a monotheistic world with a single dominate network and ranking.

That in turn brings me to the information issue. I wish Clay had mentioned that one way to reduce the slope of the curve is to improve the information available to the network members. That encourages members to link to things that are more diverse. I.e. the habit of linking to the “more popular blogs” is less egalitarian than the habit of linking to the “most popular blogs that discuss my interests.” You can’t do the latter if you don’t have good information.

Joi Ito writes about inequality and the role of “fitness.”

Joi’s main premise is asking whether or not we should be trying to change the system of the power law. He doesn’t necessarily think it is a bad thing, he’s curious.

When Clay uses the word “inequality” he means “not the same” and indeed, in a fair system, the outcomes will usually be inequal. I won’t argue with that. What my question was was whether the rules were fair and whether we could counteract the current bias towards those in positions of privilege and amplify those opinions that are currently underrepresented.

I think the notion of trying to modify or influence the system to push it towards a particular outcome sounds like regulation and hits a negative chord with the free market libertarian types on the Net. I am also against unnecessary regulation. However, I do think that we can and should try to influence the architecture to push towards an outcome that we believe in. I think this is the nature of politics.

And regarding “fitness,” Joi proposes a new way of thinking about the power law idea, that would probably appeal to Dave Winer’s opposition to Blogging As Television.

If you think about the power law as themes or ideas instead of people and you think about fitness as the level in which an idea resonates with people, the power law could be viewed as an amplifier for ideas and memes that are sufficiently interesting. Because fitness so influences a nodes ability to climb the power law, I think the notion that I described in the Emergent Democracy paper, where the tail of the curve is where the creativity happens and the power law is how an idea whose time has come goes main stream still makes sense. I think the key to making the system “fair” is to make sure the tail is as inclusive as possible and to try to encourage technology and norms to value fitness over simply linking to those who are popular. As Ross shows in his three layers of creative, social and political, I think the power law is the final amplification part. In fact, the tail of the power law, the creative layer and the social layer where the initial deliberation occurs might be where we should be focusing our energies.

James Robertson doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with the power law system, and thus nothing is really in need of change.

It’s all about content. Post interesting stuff that people want to read, and you get noticed. Post boring stuff no one cares about, and you don’t get linked. It’s really that simple. The ‘top bloggers’ may have had a first mover advantage, but they only stay at the top by being interesting. The main limiting factor I see in coming into contact with new stuff is the sheer volume limitation – for me, there’s only so much stuff I can track, even using an aggregator. On the other hand, I have dropped stuff that has gotten stale, and added stuff that looked interesting as time has gone by. Meanwhile, Joi is worrying about how Technorati lists stuff. That is so not the problem. You want readers? Be interesting….

Marko Ahtisaari writes a lengthy post entitled, “Three Mistakes in the Moral Mathematics of Blogging.”

Derek Parfit — from whom I borrowed the title of this post — writes towards the end of his ambitious book Reason and Persons (1984): “[Our many false beliefs about justice and ethics] did not matter in the small communities in which, for most of history, most people lived. In these communities, we harm others only if there are people whom each of us significantly harms. Most of us now live in large communities. The bad effects of our acts can now be dispersed over thousands or even millions of people. Our false beliefs are now serious mistakes.”

I’d like to point out three mistakes that are common in the current debate about the justice of networked forms of organization. No doubt much hinges on how we spell out the concept of a just institutional scheme. But before we even go at that issue it’s good to clear some ground by avoiding these three mistakes in the moral mathematics of blogging.

The mistakes (summarized):

  • There seems to be a belief that there can be nothing wrong about the way things are because the current situation evolved naturally. Nature, then, has already decided on what justice will be and we must accept it. Marko says that we must agree on what justice will be and then look at the system and see if it is justice.
  • There also seems to be an assumption that when people link they have “full information about available options and fully formed values or preferences over those options.” So, this market is not perfectly competitive.
  • If the current system is found wanting, then to change it will also destroy it. You can’t “force” people to change their linking behaviour in a command-and-control way.

My take:

My opinion is the product of a delicate arithmetic of Dave’s, James’, and Joi’s.

I think that the idea that studying the power-curve and trying to change it as a way to get more links for you or someone else is kind of silly. As Dave says, blogs are not television. We are not necessarily interested in quantity, we are not necessarily all interested in the same thing. Some bloggers may be trying to construct their own media empires, but I’m not too interested in that in and of itself.

What I am interested in, is finding a high quality group of readers and writers to interact with. I seek this group so that my ideas and mind may grow through exposure to different ideas and a constant pull and push towards greater articulation of my ideas.

So, as James writes, the blogosphere, for me, is all about content. If you provide interesting content and discussion, then I am going to read you. If I read you and am interested, then I will likely link to you.

But, the power-law curve does exist. So how do we judge it and try to understand it? I think that Joi Ito’s method is most optimal.

If you think about the space of ideas and themes that exist inside the blogosphere, then you are likely to find a power curve system. But, it also seems to me that the system is very fluid and changes constantly. We all weren’t talking this much about the Power Law concept itself last month, and since it was big once this shows that ideas don’t necessarily die when they fall from number one. They just go on holiday.

With this view, I think you would find that the power-law curve is very fair as evidenced by the penetration and amplification of new ideas. On the idea-curve front, there’s nothing really wrong, but that’s not to say things couldn’t be better.

The way to improve the blogosphere, in my opinion, is to improve your own interaction with the blogosphere. I can’t tell you what that is for you, but here are some of my policies:

  • Give greater attention to bloggers who encourage discussion. This means linking to and responding to criticism and continuations of ideas. (Not necessarily just having a comment system.)
  • Actively seek out new sources of information. I try to subscribe to a new blogger every day so that my sphere constantly grows bigger and I don’t get to comfortable always looking towards X for news.
  • Triangulate ideas and build a picture based on multiple perspectives. If I read something particularly edgy, I will try and see what a few other people say–attempting to build a more accurate picture of the event or idea.
  • Leave breadcrumbs for the next person. Whenever I read things interesting or that make me think, I try to leave a breadcrumb trail for anyone else who may be interested. My goal is to blaze a path that may prove useful to a lost journeyer or curious explorer.
  • Attempt to contribute unique ideas. I see the value in being a trailblazer and guide, but I want to do more. I want to put new ideas and information into the network. I do this by giving my thoughts about various ideas (like right now,) by doing citizen journalism, and by blogging the books I read.

I think that if more people adopt this sort of philosophy, the blogosphere will become more interesting and helpful to me. I think that if each concerned person wrote up their vision of the blogosphere, and how they go about making it a reality, then we will find out what kind of world we all want to live in. And, have a dense and comprehensive guidebook to making it a reality.

“We must be the change that we envision.” – Mahatma Gandhi.