Liz and Thomas Burg’s weblog alerted me to an article by Clay Shirky, and responses by Pilgrim and Delacour. Shirky provides an indication that a blog connections follow a power law, and that this is the natural progression of networked systems.
Sorry, but really, so what? Folks seem to forget that the observation that networked systems often follow a power law distribution (and, by the way, that large networks often lead to “small worlds” as a result) are not news; these are decades-old ideas. The surprise would be if the web or blogosphere weren’t distributed according to a power law. Otherwise, this is yet another interesting case to throw into the bin of observed power law distributions. Does this help us to predict anything? Explain these networks? Yes, a little, but only a little. So far, there is no indication that we will reap the same rewards from this observation as we did from observing normal distributions.
The problem Shirky runs into, as does Pilgrim in his response, is that they read too much into this. Does this mean that there will always be winners and losers in terms of connections? Well, probably. Both hint at the more interesting question: the microbehaviors that lead to this large-scale distribution. But those microbehaviors lead to much more interesting and complex structures as well. Those who write about power laws and often small world phenomena are too often trying to fit networks into the statistical structures (at the macro level) that they are more comfortable with. In so doing, they miss the point: the interesting fact about networks is that they are networks. When you abstract this and look only at local connections (instead of connections to connections to connections, as Google does, for example), you go from big and interesting questions to “hey look, another 80/20 curve!”
Delacour brings some sense to this:
My instinct is that the real innovations in blogging will be made those of us in limbo: without the pressures of producing for mainstream tastes but with the ambition to do more than chat amongst a tiny number of friends. The conversations we’re already having—about politics, relationships, geek stuff, and a lot more—go infinitely deeper than Shirkey’s “account of a Saturday night” and yet we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible. How that will transform the ways individuals and organizations interrelate remains to be seen but I strongly believe that this is one of those rare occasions where the excitement and potential exists in the middle rather than at the edges.
Investigating the “blogosphere” is interesting, but not nearly as interesting as recognizing that there are blogospheres. And these spheres are neither wholly seperate nor wholly integrated with the rest of the network. What constitutes a border for such a sphere? What does this differentiation mean to the structure of the whole.
A former Singaporean media minister described the internet in Singapore as a cell: allowing some things to cross its outer shell, but not others. I think his observation was more useful than he intended. This question of “things” within the biological or physical element is fundamentally a networking question. Where does your liver end? How do you know that is the edge. Is it even a liver any more after it leaves your body? Where do you end and where does your “environment” begin?
These fundamental ontological questions are also fundamental networking questions. When power laws are shelved next to pet rocks in the collective memory, perhaps we will be able to do more work on the evolution of the complex structures found within blogospheres and similar networked structures.
Finally, the fundamental mistake here is that all links are alike. Nonesense. If I am linked by five people, and they are the five right people (say, memepool, slashdot, mf, k5, and Sullivan–fat chance!), it matters a lot more than if fifty of my closest personal friends link to me. Five links: way down in the tail of that distribution. Which leads to the question: what do these links really mean?