January 21, 2004

Amplification and Stratification, tracing the linkflow in blog space

Joi Ito has an interesting post where he raises the concept of blogs acting of amplifiers. It's a good metaphor, and better yet it might actually function as an actual abstract machine. Worth exploring and fortunately an excellent example just flowed through this blog.

Back in 2000 one Linton Freeman published an article, "Visualizing Social Networks" in the Journal of Social Structure.

On Thursday I stumbled across a several day old link to Freeman's article on an excellent but relatively unknown (2 inbound links according to Technorati) blog, Social Fiction. In Social Fiction's post it was noted that they found the site via the web page for an application called Social Circles. I had actually visited that site, but never noticed the link to Freeman's article, which was buried in the footnotes.

The Social Circles link to the article is notable because instead of linking to the main page for the article, it linked to a page meant to be contained inside a frameset, that contained the full article, but no information about the journal that published it. This seemingly minor error will turn out to be quite important

After following the link from Social Fiction I realized I didn't have time to read the full article. But I posted it on my site mainly as a way to find it later, and also because it had beautiful graphs, one of which I displayed. Within an hour or so, Blackbelt Jones a significantly more popular website then mine (with 151 inbound blogs according to Technorati) posted the link, indicating that the link was found via my site. During this process the link also showed up in the "social bookmark management" system, del.icio.us and the link was duplicated on an even more popular (381 inbound blogs) site Many 2 Many.

So there we have it, an excellent tracing of how blogs (with the help of their symbiotic cousins like del.icio.us) can rapidly amplify quality information filtering it out of the general information noise.


Except its not that simple. While the blog network did do an excellent job amplifying attention to Freeman's article it also brought in an new element, distortion.

When the Social Circles site linked to the frameset subpage rather then the full page, a significant amount of context was stripped away. As the attention payed to the link amplified up the blogsphere, this mistake never got corrected. Important information, like where and when the article was published never circulated, and the article was never rendered in its proper context. Nor did the Journal of Social Structure receive any credit for publishing the article. And that brings us to another more complex issue which we'll touch on only briefly.

While the original article, and the distortion of omission both amplified rapidly up the blogsphere popularity charts, the credit for amplifying the article did not. By the time the link had hit blogs with sizable readerships all references to the two sites, Social Circles and Social Fiction, that did the most to uncover the article were gone. While information itself amplified well, the credit for filtering and discovering information did not. And in the attention based economy of blogs, credit for discovering and filtering information is potent currency.

Many blogs when posting links, will also include a link to the site that lead them to the link. This practice, bordering on a custom, creates a relatively smooth, fluid information space. While some sites may receive more attention then others, sites that continuously receive credit for finding new quality will slowly gain an audience and reputation.

For instance its possible to view the link to Freeman's article on Blackbelt Jones and then following the "via" links wind up in the footnotes of the Social Circles site where the link first entered into the blog space.

Unfortunately there is flip side to this fluidity. When the link credit "custom" is not upheld, a stratification occurs, where the most popular sites are able to dominate the flow of information, mining information off less known sites, and then hiding the existence of their "source sites" from the readership. This makes it harder for smaller sites to grow, and increases the value of the large sites that have knowledge of a broad array of "sources".

As blogs begin to emerge as economic entities, both as revenue sources and as means for people to build personal reputations and brands, the danger of stratification increases. When competition enters the picture, sources are no longer necessarily something to be shared, as they begin to take on real value. A medium size site represents a potential competitor to a larger site covering the same topic. A small site that provides quality focused information becomes a privileged source, a means for a site to gain information that distinguishes it from competitors.

These are the early days of the politics of mass information. The behaviors and patterns of the blog as a media are still in formation and largely undocumented. History warns us that this new medium will likely stratify into its own system of power, but perhaps we can do a better job then history...

update: corrected the mistaken presumption that the link appeared on Many2Many because of seeing it directly on a blog, in fact Many2Many's Clay Shirky found the link on del.ico.us an alternative link propagation and filtering system that at first glance appears to have quite a symbiotic relationship with blog space.

update2: this Wired article discusses a study that echoes and and confirms some of the ideas in this piece.

Posted by Abe at January 21, 2004 12:33 AM


Thanks for your thoughtful post and introducing the ideas of distortion and other thoughts that address the facts of the blogging world rather than the utopian vision of blogging. I'm hoping we can achieve many of the visions of blogging but the only way to get there is by addressing where we are not on track with that vision. What I like about this is that the competition you mention can operate subconsciously. The well-meaning blogger may just *forget* to put in a link to the original and immediate sources or *not have time*. There are tons of low-end, relatively newbie bloggers on the relative bottom of the heap who would like the democratic vision of blogging as participatory journalism to be true because, if nothing else, they would like to be discovered. So they/we would be the ones most motivated to set a good example that will help further the utopian vision and thus our own visibility and ability to contribute. As long as people like you keep us honest. Thanks again.

_but perhaps we can do a better job then history..._

You do not mention the potential for parasites to take the whole system down. In many ways the blogsphere is similar to Usenet News, which is now relegated to an obscure corner of the Internet because posting on it is an invitation to be drown in SPAM.

Your comment below the comment entry field testifies to the fact that parasites are attempting to infiltrate the blogsphere. It's possible that rather than evolving into something interesting/significant, it will collapse.

good points Janet, I should mention I'm just as guilty as the next blogger when it comes to neglecting to credit. For the main posts I make a major effort to state where I found links, but sometime I mess up. Sometimes I don't even know. And I certainly don't include the whole chain of links.

Then there is the issue of my sidebar "linkage", for that I made a conscious decision not to include "discovery credit". Why? Because quite simply I wouldn't be able to maintain it if I did. Its purely architectual, in order to throw lots of links up like that it can't take much time.

Mark, very good points as well. good to bring up the Usenet. I'd like to think that the blogsphere is a couple stages of evolution beyond the usenet, in that the architecture is more flexible and ready to deal with spam. But that's not necessarily true, and certainly not proven. Interesting thing about parasites though, is that often they become essential parts of an ecosystem, wonder if spam ever will?

"It's purely architectural": precisely. Code is law. It's why I vastly prefer the more typical blog-entry format, with its room for attribution.

Janet, how familiar are you with the various proposals to semantically tag links, so that an attribution link could also include metadata like "friend" or "archnemesis"? Would that help bring newer, lesser-known voices into play?

now there is the internet. and i really appreciate people like you who take their chance in such an excellent way to give an impression on certain topics. thanks for having me here.

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