Power laws and the blogospheres
Monday, February 10th, 2003
Clay Shirky continues to attract attention with his argument that blogs are a scale-free network; in rough terms this means that a few blogs get most of the traffic and will accelerate away from their peers to become mainstream media. Clay floated this idea on the NowEurope list many months ago and has made it several times recently, most fully here. Here’s my take:
Clay’s argument that ‘the blogosphere is naturally elitist and will soon generate its own strata of mainstream media’ contains two generalizations that should be untangled.
a) Yes, Clay is probably right that 5% of the blogs will always account for 50% of blog traffic. But it is wrong to talk about “The” blogosphere. We’ll certainly have hundreds of blogospheres, each with its own elite and power law distribution. And we don’t need to worry about stasis any time soon. These new spheres will be emerging for a long time. Glenn Reynolds obviously won’t be the hub for French bloggers, and BoingBoing won’t be the hub for evangelical Christians. New bloggers will invent and serve new spheres.
b) Clay suggests that because mainstream media is elitist (ie governed by the power law), all elitest media is mainstream media. “As we get used to weblogs, they will become mainstream media too, and will take on the trappings of mainstream media,” he says.
Sure the blogospheres may each display elitist traffic distrubutions and may not be able to link to everyone. But Clay’s equation of blogs and mainstream media elides the many traits — links, chronology, personality, blogrolls, 95% lower overheads, Google-friendliness, trackbacks — that make blogs different from (and subversive of) today’s dominant media, aka “mainstream media.” Lumping the two classes of media together is like declaring, 1.5 million years ago, that “homo erectus shares traits with the ape, so we can safely ignore their differences.”
What makes blogs unique? I’ll advance the argument that a key difference between blogs and today’s media is corporate structure. As media organisms, blogs have shorter life-cycles, smaller metabolisms and are run by flexible egos. Up against the old, thick-shell, high-burn, multi-cell media organisms, the blog is an ideal candidate to evolve and exploit new media challenges. Weird, subversive, new things will come to pass.
If you’re still reading this post, you might enjoy Albert-László Barabási’sLinked: The New Science of Networks, or at least my review of it.