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346BloggerCon session: Shirky's Power Law

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  • Dave Winer
    Mar 24, 2004
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      Comments are welcome.


      In February 2003, Clay Shirky published an informal essay entitled "Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality." He posits that weblogs follow a familiar pattern as they evolve, similar to the "common pattern we've seen with MUDs, BBSes, and online communities like Echo and the WELL."

      The pattern is the Power Law -- where the distribution of attention is heavily skewed toward the top weblogs, known as the A-List. (Interestingly, a year later, there's been a lot of shifting in the top blogs, we should quantify this before the session.)

      Shirky's thesis reverberated through the blogosphere among the have-nots, the lower ranks of the power distribution, the bloggers who feel unheard. Shirky's complaint validated their point of view. They had been promised (or so they thought) that if they started a weblog, people would listen. Finding that this isn't true, they want their money back, in a figurative sense. Shirky's screed validates their frustration.

      But is the frustration really valid? Are blogs really like BBSes, mail lists, and other online communities? Where did the guarantee that all voices would be heard come from? Did they come from vendors of blogging software, or pundits, or news articles about blogging?

      What of the value of tiny communities, a class blog so parents can know about student's homework assignments, a hospital blog for a patient where the community is the immediate family and friends. One can certainly imagine circumstances where keeping a community small is necessary to the goal of a weblog. Perhaps some weblogs are more like a telephone than a megaphone?

      Nick Denton is discussion leader for this session.

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