Our own Kevin Marks has a complex and fascinating look – with charts, graphs and other pretty pictures – at Power laws and blogs. Being really bad at higher math and averse to long strings of numbers connected by symbols, this is what I gather from the data: the best-known blogs get more traffic and links than the least-known blogs. Um – duh. Nothing succeeds like success. This is also called momentum
Clay Shirky, whose work inspired Kevin, puts it thusly:
- A persistent theme among people writing about the social aspects of weblogging is to note (and usually lament) the rise of an A-list, a small set of webloggers who account for a majority of the traffic in the weblog world. This complaint follows a common pattern we’ve seen with MUDs, BBSes, and online communities like Echo and the WELL. A new social system starts, and seems delightfully free of the elitism and cliquishness of the existing systems. Then, as the new system grows, problems of scale set in. Not everyone can participate in every conversation. Not everyone gets to be heard. Some core group seems more connected than the rest of us, and so on.
Prior to recent theoretical work on social networks, the usual explanations invoked individual behaviors: some members of the community had sold out, the spirit of the early days was being diluted by the newcomers, et cetera. We now know that these explanations are wrong, or at least beside the point. What matters is this: 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.
Here’s another reason for the imbalance: the very most popular exemplars of a given format are the ones the media focuses on in their reports on the greater phenomenon: ie, you would be hard-pressed to find a story on blogging that doesn’t mention InstaPundit or Andrew Sullivan.
Therefore, these very most popular bloggers (or whatever the medium in question is) are going to get a large amount of traffic from OUTSIDE the system, greatly inflating their own numbers and skewing them against the rest of the system. By way of comparison: we get more traffic than 99.9% of blogs but InstaPundit still gets TWENTY-TIMES more traffic than we do on a given day.