Post details: Shirky on Fairness in Blogging

Shirky on Fairness in Blogging

Posted by Andrew on July 31st, 2006
Clay Shirky

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:

[More:]

Given the ubiquity of power law distributions, asking whether there is inequality in the weblog world (or indeed almost any social system) is the wrong question, since the answer will always be yes. The question to ask is "Is the inequality fair?" Four things suggest that the current inequality is mostly fair.

The first, of course, is the freedom in the weblog world in general. It costs nothing to launch a weblog, and there is no vetting process, so the threshold for having a weblog is only infinitesimally larger than the threshold for getting online in the first place.

The second is that blogging is a daily activity. As beloved as Josh Marshall (TalkingPointsMemo.com) or Mark Pilgrim (DiveIntoMark.org) are, they would disappear if they stopped writing, or even cut back significantly. Blogs are not a good place to rest on your laurels.

Third, the stars exist not because of some cliquish preference for one another, but because of the preference of hundreds of others pointing to them. Their popularity is a result of the kind of distributed approval it would be hard to fake.

Finally, there is no real A-list, because there is no discontinuity. Though explanations of power laws (including the ones here) often focus on numbers like "12% of blogs account for 50% of the links", these are arbitrary markers. The largest step function in a power law is between the #1 and #2 positions, by definition. There is no A-list that is qualitatively different from their nearest neighbors, so any line separating more and less trafficked blogs is arbitrary.

Of course, a list of fair characteristics of the blogosphere does not demonstrate the absence of unfair characteristics.  Moreover, even though Shirky uses the qualifiers "suggest" and "mostly," his "four things" don't seem to point in the direction of fairness:

  • In asserting that individual freedoms to launch and link are indicia of a fair outcome, Shirky's first and third points appeal to the extreme libertarian position that individual freedom inexorably leads to fairness.  That position would logically hold only after first going back through the history of the world and making everyone who ever stole something from someone else give it back.  Shirky might have a point if the activities of blog publishing and linking took place in the cultural context of a fair society.  Since the offline world isn't fair, all bets are off.
  • His fourth point seems even odder, as it would regard any distribution as "fair," no matter how unequal, so long as there was no bifurcation in the distribution.  I'm unaware of any theory of social justice that attaches significance to such a criterion.
  • His second point -- that popularity is largely earned by productivity -- has largely been overtaken by subsequent developments. Shirky himself notes that first-mover advantages are likely to swamp quality as determinants of blog traffic:

However, though the inequality is mostly fair now, the system is still young. Once a power law distribution exists, it can take on a certain amount of homeostasis, the tendency of a system to retain its form even against external pressures. Is the weblog world such a system? Are there people who are as talented or deserving as the current stars, but who are not getting anything like the traffic? Doubtless. Will this problem get worse in the future? Yes.

Though there are more new bloggers and more new readers every day, most of the new readers are adding to the traffic of the top few blogs, while most new blogs are getting below average traffic, a gap that will grow as the weblog world does. It's not impossible to launch a good new blog and become widely read, but it's harder than it was last year, and it will be harder still next year.

Shirky's predictions of homeostasis have come to pass, and as a result, voiceless, a latecomer to the blogosphere, faces an uphill challenge.  You might even call it unfair.  Brother, can you spare a link?

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