The Long Tail

I know I should probably get off this topic already, but with the progressive blogging report coming out around the same time as Dave Sifry’s "State of the Blogosphere" posts, I feel rather awash in blogging related statistics. Maybe that’s because these days I work with blogging stats, and have learned a bit about them. Maybe it’s because blogging has changed for me since I began; since I started working in it.  Anyway, Sifry’s most recent post, leaves some unanswered questions hanging out there; one in particular has been lurking in the back of my mind this week.

I was drawn in by the title of Sifry’s latest post, "The A-List and the Long Tail," but disappointed that he set the stage with a bar graph comparing top bloggers with major media outlets in terms of links and influence, and then never got to the long tail mentioned in the title. (He promises further updates and underlying data.) I’ve seen graphs like that before, and I already know who’s on the A-List (which I’m no longer putting in quotations, by the way). What I’m interested in is the alleged long tail of the blogosphere, because — let’s face it — that’s where most of us are. What I’m wondering is how the tail interacts with the rest of the beast, and what influence it has. In other words, who wags who? If there’s any wagging being done.

I only started getting the concept of the long tail back in March, when I wrote an initial post about blogging statistics in which I linked to this post by David Pollard, which suggested that the long tail might have more influence than anyone suspected. This passage in particular stood out to me.

I confirmed the statistic I had read elsewhere, that the average reader hangs around for under 90 seconds per page view. But a quick look at some A-list bloggers showed their average readers hang around for only 40 seconds per page view. So last night I dug into the SiteMeter data in a little more detail. I discovered that the attention deficit I had noted for A-listers is even worse than I thought: There is an inverse relationship among A-listers between number of page views and average time spent per page view. Example: readers of Daily Kos, Little Green Footballs, Gawker and Atrios averaged only 3-6 seconds per page view. Multiply the average stay per page read times the number of page reads per day and you get a maximum of 400 hours per day (Daily Kos). That’s a long way short of the 1700 hours I’d computed using the 40 second average, and a long way short of the 8300 hours of reader attention the average US daily paper commands.

Pattion also mentions Clay Shirky’s often referenced article (also reference by a commenter on Battlepanda’s post about my post about Kos’s complaint), which he says tends to exaggerate the importance of the A-List. Towards the end of his essay, Shirky sums up the long tail as follows:

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.)

If I had to guess, I’d put my blog somewhere near the higher end of the long tail, where it joins with the rest of the beast. Not a bad position to be in, but frustrating because you can see the top from there yet can’t quite reach it yet. Shirky lays out the reasons for that pretty well, and they hold together often enough that they seem pretty valid. They range from not starting earlier — when there were fewer blogs for readers to choose from — to just the nature of preference in the linking/ranking system. Well, at least I know where I stand in the grand scheme of things. So, now what?

Patton suggests that the real significance in the statistics lies less in the number of eyes looking at any particular blog than in the length of time those eyes linger on their chosen blogs, and he claims that long tail blogs command more reader attention than the A-list blogs.

It also suggests that Shirky’s Power Law tends to exaggerate the importance and influence of the A-listers, whose aggregate reader attention is only 25,000 hours per day compared to the 120,000 hours per day of B-listers and 230,000 hours per day of C-listers. In fact, the attention curve above isn’t a Power curve at all — just a simple logarithmic curve with — you guessed it — a long and unexpectedly powerful tail. If I’d plotted the whole 5 million active blogs on the chart above it would be 620 feet (200 metres) wide.

Patton puts the  the average reader attention for A-list blogs at around 40 seconds per session, and some a little as 3 to 6 seconds per session. A quick glance at my own stats puts the session length average for my blog at 2 minutes and 4 seconds since I started tracking stats, and at 4 minutes and 50 seconds since July 2005. The average page views on this blog since I started tracking stats is generally twice the average of unique visits; the same holds true from July 2005 to date, except that sometimes page views are 3 or 4 times the number of visits. Combined with the information on average session lengths, it all suggests that a significant number of visitors to my blog tend to read deeply, spending  time checking out more than one post.

So, what Patton says about long tail blogs and their readers seems to hold true, but does that translate — particularly in the arena of progressive political blogs — into influence? I find myself returning to the passage from the progressive blog report that’s stuck with me since I read it.

Clearly, blogging is a world with a handful of haves, and a nearly uncountable number of have‐nots. There are likely a few hundred thousand blogs in this country that talk about politics, but less than one‐tenth of one percent of them account for more than 99% of all political blogging traffic. [emphasis added]

Bowers and Stoller tracked page views for their study, but there’s no mention of reader attention or the average session length for the blogs they listed in the top 100 progressive blogs. Do readers of the top progressive blogs tend to linger and read more than one post, or drop in for a quick glance before surfing on to the next thing? There hasn’t been a study of that, and I’m certainly not the guy to do it, but it would interesting if someone did, and someone should. Because, as Shirky said in his article "audience size can’t be the only metric for success." 

Patton says that for some of top progressive blogs he named in his post session length averaged 3 to 6 seconds, and suggests an inverse relationship between traffic and session length that leaves blogs further down the curve with fewer readers, but readers that also spend more time with those blogs. The first thing that comes to mind for me is whether there’s a relationship between blogging style, traffic, and session length; and how they each migth affect each other. Shirky offers a description of an A-List blogger’s plight that suggests some relationship between the three.

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.

I can name some bloggers, in the top 10 or so, whose posts often consist of a title a sentence and link to the source they’re commenting on. Sometimes the sentence and the link are both a single word. In fact, mosts posts in the course of the day might follow this model. What I’m saying is anecdotal, but might suggest that traffic affects blogging style to some extent, with more of a tendency to aggregation than writing or commentary. That style of blogging doesn’t take long to read before clicking on the link and leaving the blog behind; maybe even seconds.

This is where a bit of bitterness creeps into my understanding, because I realize that in previous posts I left out one factor. People are lazy. They’re also sheep. The former occurs to me because it’s far easier to read a short, one setence post than, say,  a post like this one. It’s easier, also, to start with the blogs that most other people read. (Shirky notes this when he says that ever new blog reader is influenced by the choices of those who came before him or her.)

So, does influence lie with traffic and with broadcasting information to a large number of people, or participating in an ongoing conversation with committed readers? I’m not sure. However, if the blogger-turned-broadcaster isn’t participating in the conversation, does he/she really influence it? If the long tail blogger, free from the demands of high traffic, can still manage to take part in a conversation with readers, does he/she have more influence than the blogger-broadcaster?

When it comes to metrics of success, I don’t have a definite answer. I can only go back to what made me start blogging; that, after my first year of fatherhood, I missed writing and hoped that blogging might prove a good outlet.

Well, it has. So maybe that all the measure of success I need.

About Terrance

Black. Gay. Father. Buddhist. Vegetarian. Liberal.
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6 Responses to The Long Tail

  1. Pingback: connecting•the•dots

  2. Greg Burton says:

    Your model of blogospheres seems close to a post John Evan’s did at syntagma last week – he divides it 3 ways.

    So, it’s true – attention links traffic and most especially influence. It’s the last one I want to look at most carefully. If you, a mainstream media A-lister (like, say, Jeff Jarvis, with 3000 links in) make a pronouncement about “Bloggers should do X” you’ll get a lot of back and forth discussion, but I doubt many bloggers wind up doing X unless they were already planning to.

    On the other hand, if you get a writer like Amy Gaharn saying “our survey of business bloggers believe that you should do X” you’re likely to see a larger uptake and effect. Why? Because Amy’s audience is targeted and people pay attention to group norms. And the people Amy reaches consult to others on blogging, and will make their expert recommendations.

    I’m sure Jeff has well over 10 times the links Amy does, but it doesn’t matter.

  3. lorin11 says:

    Terrence: It’s been interesting watching your attitude shift. I detect more jealousy about A-listers than I used to detect. Having said that, I am only a blog-reader, not a blogger. And I can tell you that the pattern of blog-reading talked about in the entry mirrors mine. I “check in” on Daily Kos, AmericaBlog and Eschaton. Most of the entries, especially the open entries, are useless to me. I rarely do more than scan the material.
    You, who are one of my favorite reads, get much more time. And, when you get your teeth into a story, like Zach, you help bring it to prominence. Not to mention that you view the story from a human angle, not a political angle, as shown in your advice for folks to back off Zach when he got out.
    The fact is that the most prominent blogs are explicitly political. Yours is not. Politics are a prominent subject, but not the only subject you are interested in. If I want to raise money or profile, like Paul Hackett, I’m not coming to you.
    Kos’s rant about campaigns strikes me as disingenuous, if clever. It dovetails to his agenda, which is to build a local network for political change. It is the right agenda, so I am willing to forgive his dishonesty. That’s how the religious right took over the country, one PTA, one local Republican organization, at a time. Took 25-30 years of hard work. And Eschaton has organized weekly meetings here in Philadelphia, to meet and encourage local progressive bloggers.
    But Kos or Eschaton will be there when they want to be there, whether or not a local network has sprung up. So, if I am running a campaign, I’m going to them, whether they like it or not.
    You may not have the numbers, but you do have influence. Some of it is related to having an audience which pays closer attention to you. Some is related to talking about things in a personal way. Numbers don’t always tell the tale.

  4. Silph says:

    This is only distantly related to your post, but it’s something I’ve always wondered about.

    Why is it that such professional bloggers, like, yourself and Trey and the author of flagrantdisregard.com, reply to maybe 5% of the comments left?
    ` Now, I don’t say this in bitterness. I’ve come to accept the fact that there must be a reason, and I leave it at that. But I’ve always wondered about it, and it definitely diminishes my willingness to leave any response on your blogs if I know I’m going to be (what feels like) speaking into a well-carpetted room: there is no echo of a response, no signal that you have been engaged or heard. It’s a little disheartening, because often you know you’d love a response, since you look up to the blogger and respects his thoughts on the topic you comment about. But at the same time, it’s like emailing a celebrity: perhaps you have no /right/ to wish for a response from someone so famous.

    One of the quotations you put in made me wonder: did you once get so much response that you were forced to not be able to respond to your blog’s comments, and thus force you into being a “broadcast outlet”? Or perhaps there’s some other reason you prefer not to reply to comments on your blog?

    I’m sincerely curious. Maybe you could make this one of the small percentage of comments you give a response to?

  5. Terrance says:

    Jealousy? There’s definitely some envy involved. There are probably a couple of reasons for that, the main one being that I sort of straddle two different blogging worlds; the personal and the political. I’m not sure that things would change much or that I’d get more traffic if I went more in one direction or the other.

    Part of it is also that blogging has changed for me since I started. I’ve ended up in a position I never expected when I started this blog. To some degree I feel like I’ve probably gone further than a guy like me — with no credentials or bona fides, and no real qualifications except for being fairy well-read , a pretty good writer, and passionate about certain issues — could probably have a right to expect.

    There’s one other factor at play. It that blogging is the first thing I’ve tried at which I’ve had a degree of success that warranted any acknowledgement or attention. So, while I’ve reached a comfortable niche, there’s this nagging desire to go to the “next level,” whatever that is.

  6. Terrance says:

    Actually, for a long time I didn’t comment on my blog, because it seemed like that would artificially bloat the number of comments. I only started commenting after a year or so because someone suggested it would go a long way towards engaging readers.

    At this point, the blog has over 5,000 comments. And while some of them are from me, most of them are from regular readers or people who have passed through at some point. So, I guess it’s kind of impossible for me to respond to all of them. I do respond to some, where they seem to ask for a response, or I’m inspired to respond by something in the comment. I’ve not yet reached a point where a post gets hundreds of comments, but enough that it’s a challenge to respond to many of them.

    As far as being any kind of blogging “celebrity,” I don’t think I’m there yet. If I am, I’m way, way down on the list.

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