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.
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