Blogging Power Law Dynamics

Great article on blogs and power law dynamics that showed up on my desk this morning, from New York magazine.

“When [Clay] Shirky compiled his analysis of links, he saw that the smaller bloggers’ fears were perfectly correct: There is enormous inequity in the system. A very small number of blogs enjoy hundreds and hundreds of inbound links—the A-list, as it were. But almost all others have very few sites pointing to them. When Shirky sorted the 433 blogs from most linked to least linked and lined them up on a chart, the curve began up high, with the lucky few. But then it quickly fell into a steep dive, flattening off into the distance, where the vast majority of ignored blogs reside. The A-list is teensy, the B-list is bigger, and the C-list is simply massive. In the blogosphere, the biggest audiences—and the advertising revenue they bring—go to a small, elite few. Most bloggers toil in total obscurity.

Economists and network scientists have a name for Shirky’s curve: a “power-law distribution.” Power laws are not limited to the Web; in fact, they’re common to many social systems. If you chart the world’s wealth, it forms a power-law curve: A tiny number of rich people possess most of the world’s capital, while almost everyone else has little or none. The employment of movie actors follows the curve, too, because a small group appears in dozens of films while the rest are chronically underemployed. The pattern even emerges in studies of sexual activity in urban areas: A small minority bed-hop, while the rest of us are mostly monogamous.

The power law is dominant because of a quirk of human behavior: When we are asked to decide among a dizzying array of options, we do not act like dispassionate decision-makers, weighing each option on its own merits. Movie producers pick stars who have already been employed by other producers. Investors give money to entrepreneurs who are already loaded with cash. Popularity breeds popularity.”

That being said, there are a couple of implications.

If being an A-lister matters to you, you need to write quality, and write it often. And then, make sure that others can find it. As inequitable as it is, the best way to do that is get the notice of the A-listers by linking. It’s an artifact of the way PageRank, etc. works. As I’ve said before, a link is a blunt instrument and the crudest of social gestures. But it’s what we have for right now.

If writing for and serving a particular focused market is the thing that matters, just write, write often, and write on-topic. The search engines will find you.

On the other hand, notice from the above that while the “short head” gets the big traffic, the real numbers are in the long tail. Providing a way to connect those individuals en masse opens up another route to success. More on this soon.

Update: Hugh weighs in as well.

5 Replies to “Blogging Power Law Dynamics”

  1. I feel a pet peeve attack coming on. Sure, we bloggers want visibility. And, I’m right up front that I’m doing it to develop my business (make money in my bathrobe as it were.) But, here’s the thing. Who is our audience? And why are we writing? I love reading blogs such as yours and Hugh’s. But, ultimately who the hell who we writing for? Each other? To get links? What? What? Personally, I try to write for the folks who need some real world help now – and are still not even sure what a blog is (including my lovable Mom & Pop clients)! Sure, I’d love to be an “A-lister” as it would lead (one would think) to more money. But, I gotta say, I’ve looked at most of the top blogs and it all too often is way too elitist “aren’t we cool, ‘cuz we’re bloggin” And, so?

  2. Podcasts will make you a better cook, and other topics…

    So… congratulations to Corante’s very own Marc Babej and Tim Pollak of Being Reasonable for their gold medal of sorts! (No, blogging isn’t an Olympic event… yet.) They won the Best Marketing Blog category in the recent Battle of the…

  3. Mary, I agree with pretty much all of your points, and you leave with the hard question: “And, so?”

    And, so…I think that if one is blogging as part of a “business” endeavor and part of the goal is visibility of one’s experience, organization or self, one needs to at least recognize that (whether we like it or not) the points the Clay Shirky makes are relevant and that these sorts of “power law” patterns exist.

    That being said…how we choose to respond to them is a personal choice.

  4. Agreed that we have to deal with the realities of power, and popularity. However, we also have to deliver value if we are to have any longevity. But, this is really nothing new – it’s always been a challenge to sell the sizzle and consistently deliver a good steak!

  5. The same thing happened with Web 1·0, and those that eventually broke in did so via very strong differentiation. I would imagine blogs will become more and more subject to using other media to publicize themselves, if that is what their owners want.

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