Weblogs on the borderline of control and chaos

By Juha Haataja

Towards a centralized weblogging community

Currently there are three classes of bloggers: A, B and C class. The 'A-class' gathers most of the page-reads and referrals. There are perhaps 10-50 bloggers in this class. The 'B-class' consist of bloggers who once in a while get wider notice, perhaps thanks to the attention of an 'A-class' blogger. There may be 100-1000 bloggers in this category. And the 'C-class' contains therefore about 999000 bloggers (if the estimate of a million bloggers is correct).

This seems to be a distribution similar to the current page-reads of web sites. On most countries MSN and related sites get most of the traffic, Yahoo getting also some attention. But rest of the sites receive a small fraction of the total traffic. This means that currently the web is an extremely centralized medium, even though the original design was aimed at a decentralized system.

The centralized structure of the weblogging community can be dangerous for two reasons. Firstly, there is narrow scope for new ideas to emerge, mature, and develop. This means that new half-baked ideas have to compete with polished and widely propagated ideas, and they may not get a chance to show their potential before disappearing from view. You could say that currently weblogging has "short and narrow attention span". Secondly, taking control of the system is easier in a monoculture than in a heterogenious culture.

Will the weblogging community evolve towards a centralized service? It may not take long until the commercial interests raise their head. When MSN or a similar site decides that weblogs are an interesting medium, they can hire a dozen skilled writers to gather traffic to their weblog channels. After this, the weblogs are a part of the existing dominions of the corporations.

Too much similarity in views and topics is not an ideal situation. I hope the weblogging community can remain true to the spirit of open conversations. However, in the light of the development of the www system, the most probable destiny of weblogs is a community dominated by a handful of sites.

I have noticed a sad feature of my blogroll: most of the RSS feed which I subscribe to contain material so close to my thinking that often I feel that I could have written similar postings myself.

How to be familiar and different: the key to inventions which create diversity

The diversity (or the lack of it) in weblog communities will be an essential factor in the success of weblogs. Too much winnowing caused by, e.g., dominance by a few weblogs will kill the community. Thus measuring the referrals and making it easy to find out the "popular" weblogs may ultimately cause the whole system to collapse. It would be more useful to have tools for finding original thoughts and viewpoints on the interesting current subjects.

The weblog toolmakers should develop new search tools, which don't put too much emphasis on the popularity of a site. This would help the weblog ecosystem to survive: most of the weblog views and referrals would not be concentrated only on a few dozen weblogs, and new original thinking could have a chance to emerge.

The use of weblogs and other similar tools is currently developing rapidly. This is of course promising, and at least points towards a more open society and more democratic forum for discussions. Or course, pure chaos is not ideal either. There should be a framework for organizing thoughts and discussions so that you can browse and search topics in a intelligent way.

The RSS Search Engine Feedster is an example of the current state-of-the art in weblogging tools. This search service is indexing the RSS feeds of weblogs, and will probably become quite popular.

But Feedster can be another step on the way to a monocultural weblogging community, where there are only a few voices audible, and all else is buried under. I fear that the current weblogging toolset is serving a nonexisting (?) need for unity of purpose and world view. Perhaps there should become available new tools to suggest different choices than what your current local community of webloggers can provide. Or perhaps the widening of horizon is up to the bloggers themselves. They should actively try to spread their net of contacts wider.

Similar things happen with music. For example, hiphop started about 25 years ago. At first, this music was something nobody knew to want, so it took some time to find new listeners. Nowadays hiphop is mainstream. There is still creativity in hiphop but perhaps the real inventions in music happen elsewhere.

But how to discover the new developments? How should a tool to "search for new interesting music" work?

To make weblogging sustainable, there should be tools for discovering new and active communities, mapping them, and telling others about them. These tools could function as a travel agency for deciding on what island to take a vacation, and on what island there is good food for thought. (Thanks for Michelle Legare for suggesting this idea in her comment.)

Dan Gillmor wrote about Social Software's Emerging Norms: "The last time there was this much foment around the idea of software to be used by groups was in the late 70s, when usenet, irc and MUDs were all invented in the space of 18 months. Now we've got blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, Trackback, XML-over-IM and all sorts of IM- and mail-bots. We've also got a network population that's large, heterogeneous, and still growing rapidly. The conversations we can have about social software can be advanced by asking ourselves the right questions about both the software and the political bargains between users and the group that software will encode or enforce."

Amazon.com as an example of a search tool

Good "suggest new music" (or "travel agency") tools are difficult to build. I'll use Amazon.com as an example, because Amazon managed to solve many usability issues quite well. Amazon offers a huge number of items, and it would be difficult to find new and interesting items if the tools were not well designed.

Amazon.com offers many kinds of search and decision tools:

Similar kind of tools are currently available for weblogs, but most of them are still quite crude. For example, the page-read or reference rankings are basically the same as the "sales rank" at Amazon.com.

Of course, even Amazon.com is not perfect. I have had several times bad experiences of the Amazon music rankings. The reviews can be fine, and the cd may have gotten 4 or 5 stars, but still that music does not suit me.

The search for originality is a big question also in the music business (or in music as an art form). Of course, the real genius in music is to making something new, so that it is a bit different from the current offerings, but familiar enought so that people will start to listen (and want more).

So, the question is: How to build tools which can judge how my current taste could be developed?

The dynamics of weblogs vs. the island model

Can genetic algorithms (GA) be used to describe the dynamics of weblogs?

(Warning: this section contains loose metaphorical hand-waving arguments.)

Genetic algorithms can be used to solve search, optimization, and control problems. Perhaps weblogs behave like "the island model" of GAs, converging to almost distinct populations containing similar individuals. This could be done to solve a search problem to answer question, or a control problem to find a reponse to a change in the outside world.

The concept of "the island model" means that you evolve several GA populations almost independently, and only occasionally exchange individuals (or genetic material) between the populations. The island model is used to parallelize GA computations, and sometimes also to speed up convergence.

What is an island in weblogging? An island could be created based on subject matter, the network for referrals and attributions, time spent weblogging, writing style, originality, location, language, etc. The following timeline was suggested by Private Ink:

  1. Island comes into being
  2. Migration of species (flora and fauna)
  3. Experimentation, invention and exploration (establishing what is needed to survive and thrive within ecosystem)
  4. Establishing settlements and filling needs (food, water, shelter)
  5. Establishing sociological culture (how best to survive and thrive in ecosystem)
  6. Population increase prompts the rough framework of laws to acknowledge ignorance of newer population.
  7. Experimentation and exploration (now that the needs are taken care of we return to learning more about the ecosystem)
  8. Invention and innovation (improving upon what has already been done and establishing new ways)
  9. Education (teaching what has been learned about the ecosystem via history, science and techniques learned)
  10. Culture
  11. Population increase prompts more exploration, including finding new islands
  12. Importation/Exportation with other islands 
This process reminds me of the process of generating knowledge. This is depicted in the following figure.

The convergence of weblogs towards similarity can be a good thing. However, I fear this is a bad thing for the sustainability of weblogs. When the outside world once again changes there is not enough diversity in an island of weblogs to generate new solutions which meet the requirements of a changed world.

I hope the weblog toolmakers invent mechanisms for transferring "individuals" or "genetic material" between populations. This may not be easy, because the island populations may have became so different that any outside influence is quickly rejected or extinguished. There is also the opposite danger of the outside influence wiping out any local originality. Thus, there should be some feedback mechanisms which encourage and reward those who move between islands, or from one island to another, at the same time protecting the island ecosystems.

One more point about the dynamics of weblogs vs. the island model: I didn't specify in what abstract space the evolution of the weblogs happens. In fact, my point falls apart if there is no such space. However, here is a first try: the space of worldview memes. (I suggest a name for an element of this space: "wovi". Or perhaps introducing the term wovi is unnecessary, could "human value set" be a good enough name?)

A wovi works as follows: input from the external world -> processing by a wovi in a human brain -> a response to the input. Of course, a wovi is never expressed explicitely, and thus never transferred in whole from a person to another. Rather, a weblog functions as a wovi-tuner, where you can observe the input-output behaviour of a wovi, and adjust your wovi accordingly.

About the current weblog search tools

There is a wide variety of tools to choose from:

The problem of general search tools is that they are world-size, and not useful for focusing on a single topic (or an island). The Myelin Blogging Ecosystem is an example of a tool focusing on a "continent" of bloggers, who refer to each other. The RSS feeds of weblogs offer interesting potential for searching, browsing, and tracking, but there is often not enough metadata about the viewpoint or topic to make intelligent searches possible.

How to choose links

Private Ink commented my speculation about the dynamics of weblogs vs. the island model: "The main similarity between my links was my personal taste in subject matter. Case in point, I am interested in literature, poetry and the arts but when looking through the links, the thrust of the subject or topic is usually not to my taste, however the way they say it is. Nothing wrong with opposing philosophies, as long as you are willing to listen and try to understand."

This is a good point. Perhaps the excessive similarity only applies to us who are focused on technology. Perhaps culture-oriented weblogs can bridge the gulf between the islands?

Who is in control: the technology or the users?

Project Paul commented my posting on the dynamics of weblogs vs. the island model: "I think that there are already devices that may serve the very cross-pollination function you describe. People actively seek new material using recently updated indexes like those available at weblogs.com, blogger.com, and movabletype.org. The ['A-class'] bloggers might also help drive this inter-island movement: for example, Jason Kottke probably has people reading his site with whome he shares little ideological common ground. Therefore, when he links to something, people might find themselves reading something 'other'. Lastly, the meta tools and network analyzers continue to provide churn, at least in terms of memes and breaking information. [...] So, despite the fact that blogrolls often fill with links of a similar type, they often include links to some indexes, some tools, and a few big hitters, and these few links tend to span ideologies and genres."

I think this is true. However, I hope these tools allow for the discovery of new voices. I'm not sure which is the driving force here: the technology, or the people using the technology. The technology should be such that it would support the people using it, not force them into a built-in pattern of the technology.

Version history:

0.1 / March 9, 2003 / First draft version
0.11 / March 11, 2003 / Edit for clarity
0.12 / March 11, 2003 / Add ideas taken from the search functionality of Amazon.com
0.2 / March 14, 2003 / Clarify the text flow, simplify explanations, add material about control, chaos, islands, and weblog search tools
0.21 / March 14, 2003 / Reorganized text, edited slightly