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Monday, February 10, 2003

Distribution of Choice

Readers and conversors of this weblog will find Clay Shirky's article Power-laws Weblogs and Inequality on topic and target.  It provides a good explanation of Power-laws and the preferential attatchment that drives them in blogspace.  But as posted last week in Repeal the Power-law -- 

  • not all links are created equal, and
  • conversational relationships are not scale-free.

If you weave these principles into the current Power-law thread it reveals a model for the Distribution of Choice.

Clay offers some qualitative insight into inequality:

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?" Four things suggest that the current inequality is mostly fair.

The first, of course, is the freedom in the weblog world in general. It costs nothing to launch a weblog, and there is no vetting process, so the threshold for having a weblog is only infinitesimally larger than the threshold for getting online in the first place.

The second is that blogging is a daily activity. As beloved as Josh Marshall ( or Mark Pilgrim ( are, they would disappear if they stopped writing, or even cut back significantly. Blogs are not a good place to rest on your laurels.

Third, the stars exist not because of some cliquish preference for one another, but because of the preference of hundreds of others pointing to them. Their popularity is a result of the kind of distributed approval it would be hard to fake.

Finally, there is no real A-list, because there is no discontinuity. Though explanations of power laws (including the ones here) often focus on numbers like "12% of blogs account for 50% of the links", these are arbitrary markers. The largest step function in a power law is between the #1 and #2 positions, by definition. There is no A-list that is qualitatively different from their nearest neighbors, so any line separating more and less trafficked blogs is arbitrary....

...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.)

Clay offers three segments of blogs which can be mapped to Malcom Gladwell's numbers of 12 and 150 (I gave away my copy of the Tipping Point this weekend, so Im paraphrasing, but also see Robert Patterson's outline of the Tipping Point):

(1) Blogs-as-mainstream-media: The Infinance of Syndication, a point to multi-point distribution of weak ties that realizes economies of scale. 

(2) Blogging Classic: The Magic Number 150, a multi-point to multi-point distribution of weak ties.

"The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us. Putting it another way, it's the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar." —Robin Dunbar

(3) Blogs-as-dinner-conversation: The Strength of 12, a point-to-point distribution of strong ties.  When most people are asked to list whom they would be deeply affected if they die, a measure of strong relationships, the average list is of 12 people.

Dave Winer reacts and says Clay should blogKevin Werbach interprets and rightly mediates the differences:

Clay uses data on the distribution of blog links to predict the future evolution of the medium:

The term 'blog' will fall into the middle distance, as 'home page' and 'portal' have, words that used to mean some concrete thing, but which were stretched by use past the point of meaning. This will happen when head and tail of the power law distribution become so different that we can't think of J. Random Blogger and Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit as doing the same thing.

I find that a pretty persuasive assessment.

Dave Winer thinks Clay is full of it, largely because he doesn't run a blog himself. None of Dave's criticisms, though, contradict Clay's piece. Clay, and the social network analysts, are considering blogs from above. To them, each site a data point. Those data points feed into graphs and link diagrams, producing insights. They are showing us the forest. Dave, on the other hand, is down among the trees. He's pointing out how quickly some pine trees grow, and the differences between maple and birch. He's the observer-as-participant, compared to Clay's observer-at-a-distance. The forest and the trees are both real, just not at the same time.

Jason Kottke graphs the Power-law distribution of Technorati's Top 100 (Dave Sifry just created a new index of Interesting Newcomers which may differ in distribution, which I hope Jason graphs next).  Jason also highlights the key constraint that governs attachment -- time:

But what are weblogs competing for? Matt Webb posits that power laws arise due to scarcity. Links themselves can't be scarce (a page can have as many links as it can hold without running out), but they are a measure of something that is: people...More specifically, the time that people have for visiting sites and linking to sites is limited.

Relationships take time.  A strong relationship requires a continuous investment in time to stay current.  Trust is built from this investment.  A weak relationship requires no continuity, an affinity where time costs are optional. 

A time investment is requirement for defining a relationship.  And according to Duncan Watts, as you start to ratchet up the requirements for what it means to know someone, connections diminish.  Which changes the distribution of the network.   The Distribution of Choice maps to three distinct networks, each optimized for a different time investment to realize relationships and each with a different distribution:

(1) Political Network

In a representative democracy, people are elected to carry the burden of political activities and decisions.  Our vote is our proxy of affinity.  A vote is not a strong tie and there is no personal relationship between the candidate and citizen.  The elected optimizes their activities to serve and appeal to a constituency.  Lots of babies get kissed, but few remembered aside from a generalized picture of how their future should be decided. 

So too in mass media.  A subscription is a vote and the media outlet serves an audience similar to a constituency.  Weak ties between the media hub and subscribing node allow the hub to scale.  So does the set of activities the hub engages in, by limiting the time committment to each subscriber through a more generalized service.  Hubs respond to changes in their subscription base, constantly polling trackbacked referrer log opinion, reframing their content to appeal to the ever-growing base.

The Political Network is based upon representative weak ties instantiated by a link.  A hub designs itself as an institution, optimizing the transaction costs of information flow for point-to-multipoint distribution and feedback.   This allows it to scale -- creating a Scale-Free Network, or Power-law distribution.

But within the Political Network each hub also has its own Social Network.  This Social Network of stronger ties has a lower transaction cost of passing information, and consequently, sways the activities and decisions of the hub with greater influence than the readership.

So why does this matter aside from graphing the egospace of blogging?   

The Network is the Market.  These distrubutions apply to commerce as network structure determines marketecture and have profound commercial implications. Tim Oren, a VC, points out how viable investments are "Diversity Businesses" that have a Political Network distribution:

...Now being bloody-minded by current vocation, I'd like to ask what kind of businesses result at various points on the curve. Particularly, can you get a venture style exit from them, that is, 'do they scale?'. It shouldn't take too much business insight to realize that the vast majority of positions on the curve, if viable at all, are the cyber equivalent of mom-and-pop shops. Cash flow positive, providing a decent living to the operators and some enjoyment to the customers. Their territory is defined by specialized interest rather than by geography. No exit for folks like me. At the top of the curve, you can get an exit, if you were one of the first comers and marketed like hell. This is where the type of accretion discussed in the research comes in. So maybe there was something to the 'first mover advantage' after all, but too few chairs when the music stopped. Game over...

(2) Social Network

The Social Network is based upon functional weak ties instantiated by an investment in time such as conversational inter-linked posts. An Social Nework is transactional by nature, with the means of establishing a relationship commoditized.  Close to the Law of 150 in scale, a time investment is made each node to be at least peripherally concious of the other nodes and the information flow between them.

One design challenge for social software is extending the capabilities of people to hold a higher number of meaningful conversations and cultivate relationships.  This is what Clay calls Blogging Classic, on steriods.  The capability to extend the time and space of relationships.

Similar to the network distribution of Photography e-commerce sites category in the NEC Paper, it deviates from the Power-law.

(3) Creative Network

The Creative Network is based upon functional strong ties with an active and continious time investment.  Instantiated by real world relationships with a firm foundation of trust with dense inter-linking.  This is the core of a person's network, serves as the basis for regular collaboration and production, leveraging the Strength of 12.  This Creative Network is an internal network, that feeds off of the external network (Social Network) for new ideas but is optimized to produce.

The requirements for a relationship of dense of interconnections are so high that what remains is a bell curve in distribution.

Next Steps

Taken together, the Political, Social and Creative Networks form an ecosystem in which people engage in the distribution of chosing relationships.  This is just a qualitative observation that needs to be tested with the Blogmap project, but hopefully it provides a useful framework.  But more than that, its a picture of blogspace that should help us value the different roles weblogs as communication tools play in our lives.

11:03:53 AM    comment []

Attended a great retreat this weekend.  Unfortunately the conversations were private without prior permission.    Amazing how stepping back from the world and socializing the issues refreshes you.  I came away with new friendships and a new frame of reference that will show in posts to come.
8:01:41 AM    comment []

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