February 10, 2003

Inequality in the blogosphere…

Check out this article on power law distribution and weblogging. It attempts to explain why some blogs and bloggers become stars and others do not. I found this part interesting–countering the idea that bloggers selling out to the mainstream and dilution by newcomers leads to an inequality in readership, attention, and influence:

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.

Read it, but don’t weep.

Addition (12:15 p.m.): A student, who regularly reads this blog, stopped in to chat a little while ago. We talked about power law distribution. That got me thinking about why an open-choice system tends to create an uneven distribution. The article suggests:

that any blog chosen by one user is more likely, by even a fractional amount, to be chosen by another user, the system changes dramatically. Alice, the first user, chooses her blogs unaffected by anyone else, but Bob has a slightly higher chance of liking Alice’s blogs than the others. When Bob is done, any blog that both he and Alice like has a higher chance of being picked by Carmen, and so on, with a small number of blogs becoming increasingly likely to be chosen in the future because they were chosen in the past.

Think of this positive feedback as a preference premium. The system assumes that later users come into an environment shaped by earlier users; the thousand-and-first user will not be selecting blogs at random, but will rather be affected, even if unconsciously, by the preference premiums built up in the system previously.

Note that this model is absolutely mute as to why one blog might be preferred over another. Perhaps some writing is simply better than average (a preference for quality), perhaps people want the recommendations of others (a preference for marketing), perhaps there is value in reading the same blogs as your friends (a preference for “solidarity goods”, things best enjoyed by a group). It could be all three, or some other effect entirely, and it could be different for different readers and different writers. What matters is that any tendency towards agreement in diverse and free systems, however small and for whatever reason, can create power law distributions.

I want to add this suggestion to the list of reasons: We are culturally predisposed to make certain choices. I am not suggesting that we have no free will or no real choice. Rather, our cultural values and ideology play a large role in our choices. We are free to choose, but only to a certain extent.

If this is the case, then I would contend that the most polular blogs tap into deep cultural values of some sort. (One other caveat: The internet creates a culture of a certain kind, so we should not assume that the internet blogging culture accurately mirrors the corporal culture.) That means we might begin to make statements about who readers of blogs are by a deep rhetorical analysis of the most popular blogs.

That would be interesting to do…hmmmmm…

4 Responses

  1. Ben Gardner 

    Hey Andy,

    Loved that! I especially appreciated your comment that “most popular blogs tap into deep cultural values of some sort,” followed by your comment that “That means we might begin to make statements about who readers of blogs are by a deep rhetorical analysis of the most popular blogs.”

    Very insightful.

    Now, turn it around. Where are you on the power law distribution scale? What cultural values do you tap into? On a very basic level, what kind of person am I if I read your blog?

  2. Well, I think it’s obvious that Rhetorica readers are highly intelligent individuals with well-refined, discriminating tastes.

    🙂

    But seriously folks…

    The “of some sort” was a signal that I don’t know what these values are specifically. I can guess, of course. But, as I said, we’re talking cultural values as translated into the internet.

    Okay, so I’ll think about it and get back to you. It’ll make a good blog entry for later in the week.

  3. Rebecca 

    Count on a bunch of men to reduce something as visceral as preference to charts,graphs and “deep rhetorical analysis”. Yikes!! Your own Pirate Blog is an example. They are a diverse group except for age. I read their blog every day. They have only been blogging a short time, but already, I have my favorites. Interestingly, I don’t always agree with my preferred Pirate bloggers, but I am drawn by their personalities. I know it’s “girlie” to consider emotions into the mix – but it should be given it’s due – it’s not all about logic (logos to you Rhetoricheads!!).

  4. Since when is pathos not a part of “deep rhetorical analysis”? 🙂

    I’m very glad you’re enjoying Pirate Blog. I’m proud of my class. They have really taken off. Please give them comments as appropriate. And, you might send me e-mail telling me which ones you enjoy and why. I would really like to know how they’re coming across. Thanks!