Stars and Friends (pt. 2.5)

Jeremy Hunsinger proposes a paper:

In this paper, i will argue why what many people argue are power law models of social networks on the internet are usually not really that at all…

I think Jeremy has something here. I have been a bit dubious about the overhyping of power laws in the blogosphere, and think that the focus may not be productive.

It’s important to note that certain simple measurements *do* conform to a power law. The problem is when this is then used to define a systematic teleology, as Shirky does in a later essay. His claim is that since blogs conform to a power rule, it is not true that the internet is more diverse than broadcast media.

He’s making the argument for a good reason, given the current direction of the FCC. But he goes further than “networked media do not necessitate distributive communication.” He even goes further than McChesney, who suggested that the internet was doomed to broadcast models if not controlled. He seems to imply that the broadcast model is somehow inevitable, and that, I think, is wrong.

I think, perhaps a bit along the lines of McChesney, that winner-take-all is (perhaps obviously) not inherent to the technology, and moreover is not inherent to the socio-technical system. If people actively made use of trackbacks, or if there was (as I believe there may soon be) a widely held epistemic break between the “journalist bloggers” and the “everyday bloggers,” I think it would be possible to have a sustaining equal, diverse, and free communication system.

(“But,” you say, “that’s just parcelling out the part of the blogosphere governed by the power law to remove it via definition.” Just so. But it is also true that it then only exists within a particular definition of what a blog is.)

Bey starts out the TAZ by suggesting that anarchy can never be sustained, someone always comes in and takes over. Shirky seems to be willing to say “thus it is and shall be.” Bey says “I believe that by extrapolating from past and future stories about ‘islands in the net’ we may collect evidence to suggest that a certain kind of ‘free enclave’ is not only possible in our time but also existent.”

If you look for power laws, you will find them. If you look for normal distributions, you will find them. Neither means that they exist in any sense other than the analytical shortcut that they provide. Where does your shortcut take you?

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3 Comments

  1. Posted 8/22/2003 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    When I was down at SXSW I heard many journalists crying over both the infringement of Blogs on their domain, and how no one ever wanted to hear the stories of an average individual just sharing how they make sense of the world.

    Strangely enough, I’ve noticed that while everyone decries the A list of blogging, they actively support and promote it, for the most part. Lots of the blogs you have rolled are, to me, A listers… Textism, Kuro5hin, Joi, Jason Kottke and the like. With few exceptions (Sawyer, Weiner and some newsblogs), I only roll people I know outside of blogging (even if it is only via email). That’s only because I’m finding people I have some sort of extra-Blog social relationship as, or more, interesting than the pros and A-listers. And if someone’s not reading me, I don’t see why I should bother reading them, even if it leaves me out of the loop.

    But I feel I’m in a major minority here, and that it is the prior experience with broadcast media that causes people to gravitate towards the ‘official word’ of the big names. I prefer TV and online newpapers for that sort of communication. But that’s just me.

  2. Posted 8/22/2003 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    I tend to link people I read. I’ve never met Kevin Kelly, and probably never will, but I find his blog interesting. I don’t think he’s “A list” but he may be. Ditto for Maggie Berry. Don’t know her, but like to read her blog and think others might to.

    Blogrolls, of various stripes, play an interesting role. They not only say “I’m reading these people” but also “I think these people are worth reading.” There is also something there of a self-presentation: “If you like reading these people, you’ll probably like my blog.”

    I continue to note that I am not exactly “decrying” the A-listers. I am merely suggesting that there is more to blogging than being on the A list or attempting to get there. This is probably a really obvious point for most people, but it seems that for some it is not. I do, personally, think that it is important to maintain a strong element of diversity. At the same time, I recognize that structure is probably inevitable.

    I think that wanting to get rid of the A-list is the equivalent of wanting to get rid of broadcast media. Not likely, and not really advisable (IMHO). I am merely trying to carve out a description of alternative spaces for social engagement.

  3. Bram
    Posted 8/25/2003 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to think of Clay Shirky’s as the even darker version of the alternative future Bob McChesney is railing against: not thus it is and always shall be, but thus it might well be, and be ye warned. Run network analysis through Latour et cie and you wind up with the banality that networks develop rigidities; they are hardened over time as their materiality is reified by various collective efforts, etc. Probably McChesney and, I think, Shirky too want to understand the blogosphere, or Web audiencehood, or something, in that sense.

    McChesney’s historic work looks at early broadcast history and its relative unformedness, trying to trace how the unformedness developed into today’s uniformedness. So Shirky meets up with McC in, if anything, nudging us towards a programme of analysis of same: what do we like about Web media? What’s happening to those things? What initiatives can steer them in the direction we want? Not that a broadcast model for the Internet is inevitable, but that there’s a future in which it is.

One Trackback

  1. By too many topics, too little time on 1/26/2004 at 8:23 am

    power laws again
    several people are coming here for the powerlaws abstract.

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