Shirky on Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality

by Timothy Appnel

Clay Shirky has published Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality discussing the development of a power law distribution in weblogging and garnering extensive discussion and debate in blogging circles.

Shirky concludes:

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.

In between blogs-as-mainstream-media and blogs-as-dinner-conversation will be Blogging Classic, blogs published by one or a few people, for a moderately-sized audience, with whom the authors have a relatively engaged relationship. Because of the continuing growth of the weblog world, more blogs in the future will follow this pattern than today. However, these blogs will be in the minority for both traffic (dwarfed by the mainstream media blogs) and overall number of blogs (outnumbered by the conversational blogs.)

Not all are in agreement with Clay's assertions. Dave Winer writes The scaling equation for weblogs is, emphatically, not like BBSes, mail lists, not like the Well. (I certainly agree to Dave's call for Clay to setup a weblog.)

Shelley Powers has written an extensive rebuttal to Clay's points noting he has one failing in regards to his viewpoints as to social gatherings: he's an elitist. He believes there will always be an 'elite' grouping within any society, something I don't necessarily discount; however, from his writing and actions, he also tends to facilitate the mistaken belief that social groupings must follow fixed statistical patterns that support a static elite, and that we must all behave as the statistics dictate. And I say, what a load of hooie. An active conversation follows in the comments to the Shelley's post. Clay joins the discussion and says shame on me for using... old data, but his assertions on the power law curve still stands. Clay notes that was just published with similar views and more updated and statically relevant data. The numbers taken from the Blogging Ecosystem support Clay's assertions. (Clay has since updated his essay to use the same data.)

Despite the evidence of a weblogging following a power curve, Sam Ruby makes one of the most interesting observations thus far when he writes:

I'm listed in the Technorati top 100. By looking at the statistics there, 98.93% of the weblogs it tracks do NOT link to mine. 99.90% of the weblogs tracked have less inbound links than me.

I see no mountains here, only molehills.

The conversation continues.