Monday, June 02, 2003

Weblogs: dynamics and value

UPDATE - 17 June 2003

Just a link to an ur-document on the issue of blog popularity: Clay Shirky's Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality.


I've been reading in and around some postings by Tom Coates on Plasticbag, related how thematic weblog discussions develop, and how the theme (or "meme" as everyone appears to be using Dawkin's phrase nowadays) is transmitted across the complex network of inter-relations in the blog. Coates was commenting on the original piece Dynamics of a Blogosphere story, where it appeared that four types of posting occurred - opinion, vote, reaction and summation - at different times in the blog discourse - and highlighting the differences between blog stories and bulletin boards (among other things). Ross Mayfield had also picked up on this line, along with several others, but it sparked a few thoughts in my head about the value of a weblog discussion.

The value of the discussion as a whole strikes me as being formed of the two obvious strands - qualitative and quantitative. A highly linked discussion will have a high qualitative value owing to Reed's Law (that in a many-to-many community, where n is the number of nodes/groups in the network, the network's value is 2n). Likewise, links - whether inline, in blogrolls, or as trackbacks, can be seen as a commodity exchange - the greater the number of links into a blog posting, the greater its inherent "value" (in a quasi-financial sense) - as evidenced in the wider web by Google's linking algorithm and Amazon's book ratings system.

As always, however, quantity is not the only rule of thumb. The judgement of the quality of a particular posting will be made by each visitor him- or herself based on a number of tacit understandings: is this information of interest to me? have I come across this author before? what do I know of the author's experience or personality? what is his/her position in my particular "social network"? how well written/formatted is his/her copy? So trust and reputation evidently also have a sizable role to play in in a particular posting's valuation.

When postings are linked to one another, and commented upon, the valuation of a thematic discussion, as opposed to a single posting also comes into play. According to power laws, it is likely that 80% of interesting comments and postings are likely to be posted by 20% of authors (and that 80% of traffic and linking will also be to 20% of postings). As the discussion grows, the amount of "noise" in the discussion is likely to increase - and the emergent value of the the sum of the postings (i.e. a single thematic discussion) might out-weigh the value of a single contributor's viewpoint (which may be overlooked as it occurs on the fringe's of the discussion regardless of its validity). The question arises that the volume of "feedback" might make it difficult for a new reader to read the entirety of the discussion.

I don't really think, however that "reading the whole discussion" is where the value of blogging resides necessarily (unlike Wikis or bulletin boards, for instance). Blogs offer a number of points of access into a discussion, and the threads sometimes follow a linear course, but more often than not spread off in a number of directions. Blogging's value appears to lie in this multi-valency. A blog posting itself - as a singularity - is a monologue. The moment that someone posts a comment to the blog, it becomes a more-or-less linear dialogue. The moment that someone writes a new posting either based on the original blog, or linking to it, the discussion becomes two dialogues. These dialogies can split up and re-join at any number of points along the way, but seem to tend towards expansion rather than restriction, until the thread peters out.

I'll try and put some flesh on the bones of these ideas at some point, as its rather late in the evening and I haven't finished work yet.

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