Dan's Metablog
Writing about blogging, identity, and narrative

Shirky's "Power Laws"   Sunday, February 26   1:44 PM

Clay Shirky's article "Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality," while indispensable for anyone concerned with website popularity, is at best only tangentially related to my area of study, but it took about five minutes to annotate, so I figured I'd put it here. Shirky relies on studies in the field of "network theory" and graphs showing a power-law distribution in order to explain blog popularity.

The most relevant bit (for me):

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. [...] 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.

This was somewhat troubling, as it seems to imply that bloggers fall back on the conversational mode when, consciously or unconsciously, they realize that link-popularity is out of their reach.

Other good pull quotes:

Diversity plus freedom of choice creates inequality, and the greater the diversity, the more extreme the inequality.

In systems where many people are free to choose between many options, a small subset of the whole will get a disproportionate amount of traffic (or attention, or income), even if no members of the system actively work towards such an outcome. This has nothing to do with moral weakness, selling out, or any other psychological explanation. The very act of choosing, spread widely enough and freely enough, creates a power law distribution.

Given the ubiquity of power law distributions, asking whether there is inequality in the weblog world (or indeed almost any social system) is the wrong question, since the answer will always be yes. The question to ask is "Is the inequality fair?

There is no A-list that is qualitatively different from their nearest neighbors, so any line separating more and less trafficked blogs is arbitrary.

Once a power law distribution exists, it can take on a certain amount of homeostasis, the tendency of a system to retain its form even against external pressures.

Cite for this article:

Shirky, Clay. "Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality." Shirky.com. 10 February 2003. 23 October 2005.

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