There are those that want to believe that in life, skill and good works are all it should take. That if you are the most kick ass guitarist in the world, that playing in your bedroom should be enough to alert the world to your talent.
Well we know the world doesn’t work that way. We wish it weren’t so, but it’s just the way it is. But that doesn’t stop some from perpetuating a belief that the web is different. That the web is “flat”. That every link is worth the same as the next. You get a taste of this whenever someone says that good content alone is the way to web super-stardom. If you are a great writer, and know your subject matter, that’s all that counts, they say.
A basic understanding Google’s PageRank algorithm lays this fallacy bare: “Google looks at more than the sheer volume of votes, or links a page receives; it also analyzes the page that casts the vote. Votes cast by pages that are themselves “important” weigh more heavily and help to make other pages “important.”. All links are not equal according to Google.
Worst, and kinda ironic, you hear these sets of belief by some who profess to believe in the the mathematics of The Long Tail of the web. That really makes me do a double take, because a key tenet of it is that those in “head” have more attention giving influence then those in the “tail”. That attention flows in certain directions that can be be observed as behaving along a power law.
Clay Shirky nailed this a long time ago in a piece that was once oft quoted, yet you never see his essay mentioned by these folks since.. well it hurts. If you believe that the web changes human nature for the better in any shape fashion or form, Shirky’s piece can shake you a bit. Hugh MacLeod summarized it as Shirky’s Law: Equality. Fairness. Opportunity. Pick Two”.
That’s the web. That’s everyday human existence for that matter. It’s always a struggle amongst the three.
But do not despair – the Long Tail suggests power laws, on the web, are actually okay and present opportunities. The web, instead of representing one channel of attention, is a mass of niches. That there is no A-List, but multiple A-Lists. That’s something Jeff Jarvis is fond of saying. Working a niche begins to make sense since attention – the real currency of the web – has zero shelving space needs and services exist which make it easy for those seeking out their passions and concerns, no matter how out of the *current* mainstream. Chris Anderson, author of “The Long Tail” put it like this: “The Long Tail is a powerlaw that isn’t cruelly cut off by bottlenecks in distribution such as limited shelf space and available channels.”.
Our attention isn’t an inexhaustible resource. We have only so much to give. So we naturally seek filters for it since so much in our world demands to have it. One of those ways is by trusting the word of mouth of friends, family, co-workers, and those we perceive as experts.
Dave Rogers ran some searches and shed some light on Seth Finkelstein, and his chosen niche subject, censorship, of which he is an expert in research, and how much influence he’s been assigned by Doc Searls. If you are a follower of Doc Searls, you would know little of Seth Finkelstein’s knowledge and work in researching censorship.
I would like to see a search on the word “censorship” and an account of how many times Seth and Doc get inbound links for it. And by whom. Because if the community that concerns itself with censorship, links to Seth as an expert on the subject more often then Doc, the Long Tail theory, that power laws are okay on the web – is true. That Seth is the A-Lister in *that* community. I believe this to be the case, but am too lazy to do the work. Anyone up for the challenge? Update: See further down this post for more.
In either case, I really wish folks that sling the bullshit that the web is “flat” would stop. Especially by those that trumpet The Long Tail theory. Sure no one is stopping anyone from writing anything. That’s not the point. The point is that it’s a fallacy to believe that being an expert in your space and writing good content *alone* is enough to be seen or heard on the web.
Following are some opinions from fellow realists:
Seth Finkelstein: Bogospheric Calvinism, or Unread != Unworthy:
Frankly, I don’t know how to reform society, even the bogosphere, to make it more egalitarian. And my own activism efforts have ended pretty badly overall for me. But (not singling out any individual person here, but making a general statement) the standard A-list reactions of denying the mathematics and attacking the critics, are not a solution.
Dave Rogers: What Can’t Be Fixed:
The point is, some amount of the attention and trust resources of the blogosphere at large are distributed arbitrarily or randomly, whimsically even, through the reading and linking habits of high attention-earning bloggers.
It’s not equal, it’s not flat, and it’s not fair. In other words, it’s just like the world at large, and technology does not change that. Whether I like it or not, my product consumption habits support companies that perhaps don’t treat their employees the way we believe they ought to be treated. Short of taking a vow of asceticism, or investing significant amounts of time in investigating the origins of all the competing products I might have use for, I can’t change that.
Whether Doc likes it or not, his reading and linking habits help to distribute the attention and trust resources of the blogosphere at large in an unequal and unfair way, and short of investing significant amounts of time into finding, reading and evaluating somehow, the relative merits of unknown bloggers, he can’t change that.
Doesn’t make either of us bad persons, just people existing in an imperfect and unfair world.
Shelley Powers: Eat the Red Couch:
I could respond in depth, like Iï¿½ve responded elsewhere this week, hopefully with something learned sounding and impressive but then I thought: why waste my time? Why not just have some fun, and say whatever the hell I want and weï¿½ll all have a giggle, which is probably a lot better use of our time anyway.
And finally, last word to Kent Newsome, who kicked off this latest discussion about the A-List: Of Shel and Chip and Seth and Nick:
I’m not so much interested in having the blogosphere operate differently as I am in calling bullshit when people try to say it operates differently than it actually does.
What gets my dander up is when someone like Mike (and Shel for that matter) who got to the top of the hill, in part, due to relationships with the Scobles and Winers of the world, tries to say the blogosphere is an equal opportunity place.
It ain’t. Life ain’t either. It’s OK that they ain’t, as long as you don’t try to pretend they are.
Update: Seth replies in my comments (paraphrasing, read the whole thing):
The problem is that THE POWER LAW APPLIES PER-TOPIC!
Repeat: THE POWER LAW APPLIES PER-TOPIC!
The logical fallacy runs like this:
Hype: The web is flat.
Refute: No, the web is exponentially distributed in terms of attention.
Fallacious Rebuttal: That exponential distribution of attention is a first approximation of overall attention. But even though the first approximation refutes the first evangelism sales-pitch, I’m going to try to pretend that the first approximation shouldn’t be taken to be meaningful because of the very fact that it is a first approximation, and the full structure is more complicated. By saying attention is finely divided, I’m going to imply to you that the exponential distribution law of attention is inapplicable, because that may be able to delude you into believing you can get some attention when the fact is the exact same law of exponential distribution applies. I’ll repeat endlessly that there’s niches, and hope you won’t notice that I’m implying those niches are *flat*, which is the same sales-pitch which worked on you before.
So, to apply this to myself, I *KNOW* I’m in a niche. I’ve never had realistic ambitions for more. But it’s the same issue *within* that niche. My problem is specially the gatekeepers within that niche, and for reasons well-explored elsewhere, quite a few of them are very clear I’m disfavored to pass through the gates (Slashdot being the more infamous example of this, as well as, later, Berkman). And blogging doesn’t help, arguably it hurts in several ways (depressing, wastes time and energy, makes more detractors than supporters, etc).
You don’t need to do any experiment. IT’S BEEN DONE!
Paraphrasing my reply:
Yeah, I wouldn’t buy that any one particular niche is “flat” either. That would be more bullshit.
What a terrific post Seth. It justifies Dave Rogers when he talks about human nature and technology.
When you get into a niche, into a real conversation/argument, it gets down to personalities and relationships – who is willing to reciprocate, listen, and give credit to whom.
…So, here goes a net-centric argument. The “web routes around damage argument”. I don’t believe the web does on its own. It requires humans to make it so. The web is made of people as I am fond of saying.
Slashdot was one route to do this back in 2003. Today there is Digg, Newsvine, del.ico.us, Yahoo MyWeb, and other services where your work could have been shared – right past the gatekeepers of your niche’s community.
I think tools like these are at their best when used to spread word of items the mainstream – and the gatekeepers of the smallest niche are what I would call the ‘mainstream’ in this case – misses – or actively wants to suppress.
Then there are other blogs of course.
I don’t have time to spread word of Philly Future, and know jack shit about marketing. Our service suffers because of it. I know – I KNOW – that we will be overtaken by a competitor, if I don’t find a way to make up for the lack of effort on these counts. Not only that, but our story will be forgotten.
You never hear about Philly Future and ‘hyperlocal’ blogging do you? Yet I started the site back in December 1999!
I partially blame myself, as I know you do on this score. What it comes down to this requiring a precious resource and skill that few have.
Time and marketing.
Time to interact with your niche’s community. Be present. Be visible. Be vocal. I know you’re already doing this. But you don’t usually write content not only to satisfy needs, but become a linkable resources (lists, howtos, etc). Even if you recognize most of these pieces are trash, worthless the moment it is posted, they encourage discussion and linkage. Wasn’t it your guest poster’s Google list that got all that attention a few months back?
And marketing, because, on the web, the most successful, are marketers or those with marketing resources. On the web there is a whole lot of noise. You need some skill here, to be heard over the din, in even the smallest niche. Hence the demand for SEO expertise.
I need to follow my own advice. But I need time, knowledge, and resources.
Just checked: Seth is a top five search result in Google for “censorware”. But that is a sub-niche of censorship. Doubtful many use that search term. Where does he land for “censorship”?