Stuck in the Middle

Well, that didn’t take long. The afterglow of my “Stroking the Middle of the Blogosphere” had just worn off when a co-worker mentioned to me the New Yorker article about the A-List bloggers, “Blogs to Riches – The Haves and Have Nots of the Blogging Boom”. I kind of thought it might contain some “secrets to success,” that is if you define high traffic and thousands of incoming links as success. But it turned out to be more of the same, a fluff (or fluffer, depending on your outlook) piece on the A-Listers which explains how they got where they are and why they’re likely to stay there. Oh, and why most bloggers — no matter how talented — probably shouldn’t count on joining their ranks, unless invited.

It’s really revealing when juxtaposed against Sifry’s recent report about how important the “magic middle” bloggers are. In fact, it kind of feels like the other half of the message; the sound of the other shoe dropping.

After the obligatory salute to the current crop of big time bloggers, worthy of Horatio Alger, the story shifts to of Clay Shirky’s “power law” of blogging and the cold hard truth that “blogs to riches” is a nice story but not much more for most people.

When Shirky compiled his analysis of links, he saw that the smaller bloggers’ fears were perfectly correct: There is enormous inequity in the system. A very small number of blogs enjoy hundreds and hundreds of inbound links—the A-list, as it were. But almost all others have very few sites pointing to them. When Shirky sorted the 433 blogs from most linked to least linked and lined them up on a chart, the curve began up high, with the lucky few. But then it quickly fell into a steep dive, flattening off into the distance, where the vast majority of ignored blogs reside. The A-list is teensy, the B-list is bigger, and the C-list is simply massive. In the blogosphere, the biggest audiences—and the advertising revenue they bring—go to a small, elite few. Most bloggers toil in total obscurity.

Economists and network scientists have a name for Shirky’s curve: a “power-law distribution.” Power laws are not limited to the Web; in fact, they’re common to many social systems. If you chart the world’s wealth, it forms a power-law curve: A tiny number of rich people possess most of the world’s capital, while almost everyone else has little or none.

And then Shirky speaks.

The power law is dominant because of a quirk of human behavior: When we are asked to decide among a dizzying array of options, we do not act like dispassionate decision-makers, weighing each option on its own merits. Movie producers pick stars who have already been employed by other producers. Investors give money to entrepreneurs who are already loaded with cash. Popularity breeds popularity.

“It’s not about moral failings or any sort of psychological thing. People aren’t lazy—they just base their decisions on what other people are doing,” Shirky says. “It’s just social physics. It’s like gravity, one of those forces.”

And this, of course, is where I beg to differ. People are lazy, if you define lazy as doing what everyone else is doing because they’re doing it, so therefore it must be the thing to do. I know beause I did it. When I first started my blog I linked to several of the highly-traffiicked political blogs because I thoutraffickedwhat I was supposed to do. I thought better of it later, and pruned most of them from my blogroll, for what little it was worth. But it goes back to something I wrote earlier, about how most people start out picking the the blogs they link to or read.

They want to know who has the most or gets the most of whatever is used to rate overall popularity, like links or traffic. The ones at the top of that list will be the “A-list,” in terms of the media … because they’re the biggest with the most. Period.

It’s easier and safer to go along with the herd. Period. Maybe it’s human nature and maybe there’s nothing you can do to fight it. In a field like blogging, those who get there first (usually those with the most access to tools and time, which may be due to priviledge of race/class/gender, etc.) will get the most in terms of traffic and links. Like I’ve said before, in the blogosphere — particularly when blogging is connected to income and/or status — links are currency.

And like the economic system mentioned in the article, the tiny number who possess the most spend most of their time passing that currency back and forth amongst themselves. Occasionally, a lower tier blogger gets a link, and the value becomes even more evident.

If the star system rankles the C-listers, it is partly because they have such a weirdly submissive relationship with A-listers. They envy them, but they need them, too, because one of the quickest ways for an unknown blog to acquire traffic is to feed scoops to an A-lister, in the hopes that the editors there will use the tip and include a thank-you link pointing back to the tipster. Even better is becoming so well loved that an A-lister puts you on his “blogroll,” a permanent list of favorite sites—the blog equivalent of Best Friends Forever.

And thus another star rises. But despite claims of not being gatekeepers, that value becomes clear when those at the top say loud and clear that they simply will not link to you and to stop asking, as I’ve seen four top progressive bloggers do — Aravosis, Atrios, Kos, and Bowers. The message is clear: the club is basically closed, and you’re invitation to join isn’t coming any time soon, not from us.

Combine that with the stroking of the “magic middle” who will never get much in the way of links from above, and it the clarity goes up a notch. When you have a fairly static system, again like the economic model mentioned above, where it’s in the interest of those at the top to keep things the way they are, you have to find a way to keep the unrest of the “have nots” down to a managable level. One of the ways you do that is to (a) convince them that the peak is reachable by almost anyone and (b) make them feel better about where they are. Make the middle sound better, look better, and reward them a little bit and you’ve created a “middle class” that’s satisfied enough to act as a buffer between the top and the bottom. Do it will enough and they’ll continue to admire those at the top, and probably even link to them.

And of course, the entire system itself must never be spoken of and it’s existance should be denied. The articles states that “[t]he very subject of the A-list is so toxic” that none of the big-timers mentioned in the article would agree to be interviewed for it.

But then the mask slips a bit. In the second part of his report, Sifry spends a few paragraphs asserting that the A-List really isn’t all that static. “Look, see? New people get in all the time!” But when it came to the interview with the New Yorker, the example Sifry comes up with isn’t exactly the most effective: the rise of Arriana Huffington and the Huffington Post.

Huffington showed that it was still possible to quickly move up to the top of the charts. “You think the A-list is the A-list is the A-list,” says David Sifry, the CEO of Technorati. “But I’m telling you, boy, does it shift—and does it shift fast.”

Need it be pointed out that Huffington, who was already famous as a columnist/author/comentator before she started her blog, is hardly a “rags to riches”commentatorcelebrity starting a blog is an event in and of itself, sure to attract a great deal of traffic and get a great many links? Hell, even I linked to it, in a post about not being on the blogroll . The article points out that Huffington used linking to her advantage with a a blogroll full of A-Listers, many of whom returned the favor. In the world of Sifry’s Technorati, that’s instant “authority.” Huffington was also able to leverage her celebrity status to attract a wide range of famous people from various fields (includng blogging) to share her platform. That’s a long way from Joe or Jane Blow starting a political blog and quickly rising to Technorati’s top 100, as Clay Shirky points out.

Yet the rapid rise of the Huffington Post represents a sort of death knell for the traditional blogger. The Post wasn’t some site thrown up by a smart, bored Williamsburg hipster who just happened to hit a cultural nerve. It was the product of a corporation—carefully planned, launched, and promoted. This is now the model for success: Of Technorati’s top ten blogs, nearly half were created in the same corporate fashion, part of the twin blog empires of Jason Calacanis and Nick Denton.

“The good news is that it’s still possible to create a top-ranked blog,” says Shirky. “The bad news is, the way to get into the top ten now seems to be public relations.” Just posting witty entries and hoping for traffic won’t do it. You have to actively seek out attention from the press. “That’s how they’re jump-starting the links structure. It’s not organic.”

Shirky might as well have closed with his earlier advice to beginning bloggers with big dreams.

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.

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.)

In other words, don’t bother. Leave it to the big kids, and maybe blog for your friends about what you did over the weekend.

Of course, most of this is probably “organic,” to borrow a word from Shirky; more due more to chance and human nature than to any nefarious design. As Shirky’s law asserts, it’s probably just the ugly truth about any human system and there’s little anyone, expecitally those at the bottom of the curve, can or will do about it. And it probably only matters to people who’d like to blog about something other than Saturday night’s dinner or their last vacation. Perhaps if I weren’t in Washington and blogging about politics, I wouldn’t think much about it either. But I am, and I do, every once in a while anyway. “Classic” blogger (according to Shirky’s terms) that I am, it’s probably always going to be a point of frustration to some degree or another.

And maybe Shirky has a point. In an area like politics, where numbers matter, how much can a blogger with modest traffic really hope to accomplish? Well, I have the weekend to think about it, and maybe something worth blogging about actually will happen on Saturday night.

Anybody up for a post on the latest potty-training news?

About Terrance

Black. Gay. Father. Buddhist. Vegetarian. Liberal.
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3 Responses to Stuck in the Middle

  1. Maybe, you’re wondering how come I landed on your blog.  If so, you might want to apportion some of the blame to Evan Schaeffer’s, which by the bye has a rather neat blogroll.
    Anyway, upon visiting your little nook in the vast galaxy of the Internet, I surmised you’d welcome some insight concerning President William Jefferson Clinton. 
    I, for one, can be easily persuaded that President Clinton introduced  …  ah, maybe not in so many words …  "evolutionary economics".  Acting within the constraints, imposed by this new economic discipline, the man made possible the hope that the nation’s national debt could be discharged.
    For more details, regarding this insight of mine, one needs only click on the hyperlink below:
    .he who is known as sefton 
    darn ol’paranoid me  …  before depositing a comment here on your  blog, I sent an e.mail to some 63 law school professors about the article, found at the other end of the above hyperlink.

  2. Mark says:

    Another beautiful post about the blogosphere. Wasn’t sure what I was going to write tonight, but have now been inspired.BTW, love the new look!

  3. Pingback: Thou Shall Not Suck

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