Spam can be a trailing indicator of voicelessness, a sign that alternative avenues of speech on the Internet are so far foreclosed that speakers choose instead to accept the opprobrium and legal liability risks that will attach to their generally unwanted and unread messages. Given the points I have made on this blog and elsewhere, though, there seems to be far less political spam on the Internet, and particularly on the Web and in the blogosphere, than one might expect.
First, the numbers. Brightmail, a leading anti-spam software vendor, used to publish a monthly report on the prevalence of spam emails, including a detailed breakdown by category of the emails' content. Brightmail apparently discontinued the report in July 2004, around the time they were acquired by anti-virus software vendor Symantec, but their reports live on, thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. The table below summarizes a few representative months:
The developers of blogging software, mostly men, didn't make it easy for newcomers to break into the tightknit network of popular bloggers at first. "They built the technology for themselves and linked to each other," [Blogher.com co-founder Jory] des Jardins said.
If the upper echelon of the blogosphere has a measuring stick, it's the Technorati Top 100. The San Francisco-based blog search engine tracks the number of incoming links to a blog and ranks it accordingly. The BlogHer site itself has been linked to by 1,856 different blogs, placing it at 301 in the rankings.
Currently, the Top 100 includes only 12 blogs with a woman as the primary author. BlogHer panelist Arianna Huffington's site, which posts entries on political topics written by dozens of bloggers, ranks eighth, while conservative commentator Michelle Malkin comes in 13th.
Men occupy about two-thirds of the Top 100.
But if the blogosphere is supposed to be a meritocracy, where the most interesting people gain influence and popularity on their way to the top, then why has it been especially difficult for women to get their fair share of attention?
"I think a lot of the people who got in early are traditional early adopters — white men interested in technology," said Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist for the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
As I've previously noted, the purpose of this blog is very different from what Chris Anderson's book The Long Tail takes to be the payoff of the "long tail" insight. Instead of asking how businesses of the future can exploit a long-tail market by "selling less of more," this blog focuses on the plight of speakers and communities that find themselves in the long tail and involuntarily voiceless. It also searches for knowledge lost in the structures that hide, confound and silence creative and informative voices. It argues that such voicelessness is not only unfair, but inefficient.
While the existence of the long tail is now common knowledge, displacing the "Web publishing will level the playing field" meme of 1996, it is rare to see commentators regard this inequality as problematic. Most reviews of The Long Tail focus on its marketing insights, completely ignoring the question of fairness. And in a widely-circulated February 2003 listserv posting, NYU adjunct professor Clay Shirky argues that the long-tail distribution of the blogosphere is actually fair:
The blogosphere has been abuzz with last week's results from the Pew Internet & American Life Project's survey on Americans who write and read blogs. It turns out we like to read studies about ourselves.
The survey's key findings, reported in "Bloggers: A Portrait of the Internet's New Storytellers":
- 54% of bloggers say that they have never published their writing or media creations anywhere else; 44% say they have published elsewhere.
- 54% of bloggers are under the age of 30.
- Women and men have statistical parity in the blogosphere, with women representing 46% of bloggers and men 54%.
- 76% of bloggers say a reason they blog is to document their personal experiences and share them with others.
- 64% of bloggers say a reason they blog is to share practical knowledge or skills with others.
- When asked to choose one main subject, 37% of bloggers say that the primary topic of their blog is "my life and experiences."
- Other topics ran distantly behind: 11% of bloggers focus on politics and government; 7% focus on entertainment; 6% focus on sports; 5% focus on general news and current events; 5% focus on business; 4% on technology; 2% on religion, spirituality or faith; and additional smaller groups who focus on a specific hobby, a health problem or illness, or other topics.
For my money, though, the most interesting aspect of the Pew survey is what it reveals about voicelessness in the blogosphere and on the Web -- not through the survey results, but through the elaborate yet archaic methodologies that the Pew researchers used to gather data on American blogging habits. As the accompanying press release explains:
The Truth Laid Bear is a well-trafficked clearinghouse of U.S. political blogs. One reason it is so well-trafficked is the TTLB Blogosphere Ecosystem, a real-time ranking of blogs based on numbers of incoming links. It turns out that bloggers care a great deal about where they stand in the blogosphere -- at least enough to go to the trouble of registering on the TTLB site and linking to the ecosystem page from their own blogs. It also turns out that the TTLB ecosystem exhibits a long-tail distribution, reminiscent of the same food chain that its fanciful rank names were designed to evoke:
I was pulling together my tenure file in the summer of 2004, so I wasn't able to attend what looked like a fascinating conference on "Preventing the Internet Meltdown" hosted by People for Internet Responsibility. I came across the conference announcement again today, which includes the following description of topics to be discussed:
An examination of the legal and technological structures that keep almost all of us voiceless, by Prof. Andrew Chin (who?) at the University of North Carolina School of Law and Prof. Jay Kesan at the University of Illinois College of Law
voiceless is a new blog. If you like what you've seen so far, please consider making voiceless a little less voiceless by adding a link to it from your blogroll!
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