This somewhat academic and very interesting piece from Clay Shirky [via Phil] on (in part) the eternal A-list debate is heavy with meaty bits just begging for a good gnawing.
Some bones I plan to worry at a little more, when I’m in a gnawing mood :

  • Like Phil, I’m not so sure about “As beloved as [some well-known bloggers] are, they would disappear if they stopped writing, or even cut back significantly. Blogs are not a good place to rest on your laurels.” My recent experience of taking more than a month away from the site seemed to indicate otherwise, at least going by the crudest of measurements, hit counts.
  • “Finally, there is no real A-list, because there is no discontinuity.” I’m not sure this entirely makes sense to me, either, even understanding as I do the math underlying his point. I tend to think there is an A-list – a secret document, signed in blood, locked deep in the vaults under Stately Kottke Manor – mostly because folks deny existence of it! No, I’m not serious; I’ve always taken it as an in-joke of sorts that escaped into the wild and took on a life of its own, because it had a kernel of truth to it. Regardless, I would have thought that the Power Law distribution that Clay discusses, including the constellation of ‘stars’, would argue that there is an A-list of sorts, but not one that is entirely self-selected. Although in many cases those who sit at the extreme left of the graph (amongst the ‘stars’) may show no greater objective merit than some who do not, the other factors he mentions (early adoption, agreement-reinforcement, ‘solidarity’ and so on) combine to keep many who are there there, once they reach that level of recognition.
  • “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 first answer is most assuredly correct, but I’m not so certain of the second. Although the network model that Clay uses is, I’m sure, unassailable, I’d like to think that the problem of talent going unrecognized will not get worse. Do I have any evidence to back myself up? Naw. Based on my traffic and recognition factor and all of that, I think I’m probably creeping up into the grey area between Conversation and Broadcast with this site (see below), but the truth is that I’ve been at it for almost two years, and although I’ve never actively sought out blog stardom, I do rock, and I’d’ve figured by now that I’d be, like, Master of Time, Space and Dimension or something.
    This, though, was the part that really interested me :

    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.)

    To a certain degree, although I’m inclined to want to push back against the tendency to put things into two or three simple slots – in Clay’s piece they’d be Broadcast Blogging, Conversational Blogging, and Blogging Classic – I think he’s nailed it to the door pretty well, here, as long as one acknowledges the continuities between the styles, and that some sites in each bucket will break the mold.
    I think that one thing Clay misses in his description of the hockey stick head, the mythical A-list, the region of stardom, and the long, somewhat unsuccessful tail of conversationalists and classic link-and-a-haircut blogs, is the assumption that possessing ‘merit’ or ‘quality’ (Zen and the Art of, anyone?) automatically push a blog into the stardom stratum, through the processes he accurately describes. Many of those who have an online presence have no desire for ‘upward mobility’, I think, and are perfectly happy to continue what they do online with no sense that it is less worthy than anything else. Moreover, for every seeker after fame, there will be at least one who has no interest in assuming the pressures that hundreds (or thousands) of daily readers can bring. Of course, as I’ve rambled on about before, there are those who desire nothing less than fame and recognition, and cultivate it carefully, and measure it in links and hits.

  • “There is no A-list that is qualitatively different from their nearest neighbors, so any line separating more and less trafficked blogs is arbitrary.” Comparing two groups of blogs (ie those who get an average of say 500 hits a day and those who get an average of 50) this is true, certainly. Is it also true, as a generalization, when we compare two individual blogs? Which makes we wonder, too, what we mean when we talk about ‘qualitatively different.’ Dangerous and emotionally charged territory, this, perhaps, in the sense that for many people their personal web sites are an avatar of themselves, and the person they perceive themselves to be and the ways they want the world at large to perceive them are deeply wrapped up in what they say and how they say it.
    This is, one assumes, why (like on this very page) many people (especially those new to the game, before they get jaded and throw up their hands in disgust and disavow ever looking at their traffic figures) add hit counters to their page – they are looking as much for feedback on their own sense of self-worth as anything else. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. It comes part and parcel with the self-regarding Dark Side of the whole personal publishing world.
  • Anyway, I ramble, as usual. Although it may seem as if I’m arguing against some of Clay’s points, that’s not really the case. There’s a lot to chew on there, and I found it both illuminating and instructive, and thought I’d try and note down some of my reactions before the coffee wears off.
    Me, I like me some conversation, but as moderate fame is thrust upon me, I find it not unpleasant. What do you reckon?


    Join the conversation! 6 Comments

    1. Load of Hooie isn’t in the guide book

      I’m sorry, I used a term like “a load of hooie” in my last posting rather than using some more learned discussion. I didn’t treat Clay’s article with the serious reverence due to it, and didn’t use enough words from the “How to impress people when you …

    2. Clay Shirky has a lot of people talking.

      A lot of my regular reads and a few off the beaten path have something to say about Clay Shirky’s article Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality. Me, I’m still chewing on it. And contributing to the phenomenon with the links above. And wondering why peopl…

    3. i’m only famous in my own mind, and that’s quite enough for me. 😉

    4. Sociology of weblogs

      This time the blogging world (or at least the part of it that I read) is afire about an article

    5. I dunno, I think I hit the “moderate fame” thing sometime last year, at least within our reduced terms, and I’m coming to understand what it might mean.
      From my perspective, I’d say Joshua Davis and Jeffrey Zeldman are probably the most recognizable figures to be offered up by this extended conversation we’ve been having on the Web the last few years – neither strictly a blogger, true, and Joshua not at all – and yet no “civilian” I’ve ever met has heard of them.
      It’s kind of humbling. Joshua says that even some students arriving for his Flash classes at SVA – i.e. those most likely and most motivated to hav heard of him – have no idea who he is.
      Hell, even some mid-career Web designers I know have to be told the URL when I say, “Go take a look at Zeldman’s site today.”
      This is not to take anything away from them, or you, or Jason, or mathowie, or any of us. It’s just to suggest that we are, at most, stars strewn along a far spiral arm. And like I note on v-2 today, apropos of the same subject, I kinda like it this way.

    6. Agreed, definitely. I was (and perhaps still am) well known in my hometown – a tiny northern BC lumber industry pawn – but at best something like 0.0001% of the people on earth have even heard of the place. Blogaritaville is larger in population, perhaps, and in its globe-spanning immediacy makes it feel important somehow, but it’s not really that much different.
      Which, as you say, is just fine.

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