Thursday, August 17, 2006

Nick Carr's bogus criticism of the blogosphere

Nick Carr writes of the blogosphere:
What we tell ourselves about the blogosphere - that it's open and democratic and egalitarian, that it stands in contrast and in opposition to the controlled and controlling mass media - is an innocent fraud.
What's the fraud? Carr claims that the top-ranked blogs have established a hierarchy of control over the entire blogosphere:
The best way, by far, to get a link from an A List blogger is to provide a link to the A List blogger. As the blogophere has become more rigidly hierarchical, not by design but as a natural consequence of hyperlinking patterns, filtering algorithms, aggregation engines, and subscription and syndication technologies, not to mention human nature, it has turned into a grand system of patronage operated - with the best of intentions, mind you - by a tiny, self-perpetuating elite.
But Carr is not only ignoring the facts of a comparison between the blogosphere and the mass media (the point of his initial comparison), he's ignoring mobility of rank and the specifics of the audiences of lower-ranked blogs. I've seen my blog get visits from all sorts of interesting places, by people I would not ordinarily be able to speak to.

John Koetsier at bizhack (who I've only come across because of this topic) says it very well when he points out the role of luck in getting a mass audience:

This is real life
This isn’t the movies. And this isn’t the crazy-stupid-brilliant flash-in-the-pan that you hear about from time to time, and wonder why you didn’t think of.

Anything worth doing is hard. Doing anything well is hard. It takes time. It takes effort. It takes talent. It takes skill.

But sorry, that’s not enough.

The L factor
Here’s the hardest part for any of us to accept: It takes luck.

We’d have it a lot easier if there was a clear-cut algorithm for success. Do X amount of work for Y number of days with Z degree of skill, and you’ll be successful.

Sorry. I wish it was true. But it’s not.

Some weird magic happens in the world.

  • Some wacked-out left-field idea like Snakes on a Plane just comes out of nowhere and hits a home run.
  • Some odd idea like getting people to write secrets on postcards and send them to you so you can post them on a website results in a top ten blog and a successful book.
  • Some 18-year-old kid creates a piece of software that others start contributing to that turns out to be really good and amazingly popular.
  • Some slightly-shady entrepreneurs take an old idea and a lousy site and sell it for over half a billion.
  • Some crazy geniuses create the best hardware/software combination the market has ever seen and spend decades struggling to get to 5% market share.
  • Some other crazy geniuses with duct-taped glasses buy a piece of junk software, land a distribution deal with a clueless giant, and become the most profitable company in the world.

He goes on to point out some numbers:

The reality is, the blogosphere is a big place. Lots happens. Conversations abound. Blogs proliferate. Attention is limited. Blogs shoot up, blogs tumble down. Enough churn occurs to make me believe that success is still possible.

But you are already more successful thank you know. Think about it: there are now 52 million blogs. 52 million!

Let’s say your blog is ranked 39,756 (coincidentally, just like the one you’re reading right now.) How lucky are you?

Let’s break it down:

  • If you’re in the top 5 million, you’re 1 out of 10
  • If in the top 500,000, you’re 1 out of 100
  • In the top 50,000, you’re 1 out of 1000
  • just for fun, let’s continue …
  • Top 5000? 1 out of 10,000
  • Top 500? 1 out of 100,000
  • And top 50? 1 out of 1,000,000

See the point? Even being in the top 100,000 is an accomplishment! (Of course, for all of us who are serious about this blogging journey, it may not be enough. It may not satisfy.)

He's spot on.

Tim Lee at the Technological Liberation Front makes some of the same points, first about rankings and quality of who you get to interact with:

Seth gives the impression that he toils in obscurity, with maybe 20 or 30 people reading what he writes on a good day. Yet Alexa ranks Seth’s site #84,819 among all web sites, with a “reach” of 24 readers per million web users. In contrast, TLF is ranked #295,434, and we have a “reach” of 4 per million. Technorati tells a similar story: TLF is ranked #7076 among all blogs with inbound links from 294 sites. Seth’s blog is ranked #5443, with inbound links from 365 blogs.

Now, TLF obviously isn’t an “A List” blog. We’re probably not even a “B List” blog. But if our traffic stats are to be believed, about 1500 unique individuals visit our site (or at least download our content to their RSS aggregators) each day. Extrapolating, I think it’s safe to say that Seth gets at least a few hundred, and probably several thousand, daily readers. Even if we assume that many of those are people who never actually read the sites their aggregators download, it’s safe to say that Seth gets more than “a few dozen” daily readers.

Personally, I think TLF’s readership—even if it’s only a couple hundred people—is fantastic. I feel extraordinarily fortunate that I get to write about whatever strikes my fancy and have several hundred people read it and give me feedback. A decade ago, it would have been extraordinarily difficult to achieve that without getting a job as a full-time journalist.


The far more important motivation is that I enjoy discussing ideas. I think it’s fantastic that I sometimes get to interact with prominent tech policy experts like Ed Felten and Randy Picker. I love the fact that I can post half-baked policy arguments and get virtually instantaneous feedback from people who possess much deeper technical knowledge than me. And most fundamentally, I enjoy the process of writing itself, when it’s about a subject I’m currently interested in. I think the intellectual questions related to technology policy are fascinating, and I find writing to be a form of intellectual exploration: sometimes I’ll finish a post (or series of them) in a different place than I expected to be when I started.

And about mobility within the rankings:
Carr is equally wrong to portray the elites of the blogosphere as some kind of closed, self-perpetuating club. The blogosphere is only about 5 years old. Even if it were true that the same bloggers have dominated the elite ranks since the blogosphere’s inception, that wouldn’t prove very much—the elite newspapers have dominated the national debate for decades. But Carr’s caricature isn’t even accurate. As just one exampleompare Instapundit, which ruled the blogospheric roost in 2002-04 to Daily Kos, a site that was obscure at the start of 2003, surpassed Instapundit in mid-2004, and today (according to Alexa) gets more than double the traffic. Sure doesn’t look like a closed elite to me.
So, good job to Carr for getting the attention of some new people through this topic--but perhaps he's done so with the strategy of saying something obviously false or outrageous designed to stir up the blogosphere and thereby increase his rank? It seems to be a relatively common and effective tactic--we could call it the Ann Coulter method. When pro-life blogger Pete wrote a post about an article in The Onion as though it were factual, he not only got hundreds of blog comments, links, and trackbacks, he got written about in a feature story on!


Ron Chusid said...

Sure, many of us are smaller than the A list blogs, but we're all smaller than Time Magazine or virtually any network television show. That doesn't mean that our blogs don't let us get our writing out to a meaningful degree.

I've been quoted in the web sites of publications ranging from the National Journal to CBS News. Often readers of articles or editorials in the New York Times or the Washington Post will also see a link to my blog comments. Sites like Memeorandum and the Daou Report frequently link to myself and other B and C list bloggers.

There's so much to say about this that it is turning into a full blog post of my own. As it is getting late (and I have to finish up on my Sci Fi Friday feature for the Liberal Values Blog for this week) I'll have to delay it until tomorrow or Saturday.

gloria said...


check out what Nicholas G. Carr has to say on Cloud in the New Normal; Efficiency to Innovation...