There’s been lots of talk echoing around my personal blogosphere recently about the aftermath of the BlogHer conference. In particular, the initial BlogHer session involved discussion over how men tend to network widely but shallowly and women tend to link narrowly but deeply. Given a link-based economy, the former strategy tends to be rewarded more by being rated higher on things like the Technorati 100. This post by Liz Lawley captures some of the follow-up discussion that I’ve read.
I’ve been reading a bunch of these posts over the past few days, and I think there’s been some really interesting discussion over the different attitudes that people take towards linking (danah boyd had an interesting post on the biases of links, for instance). But, in the end, I’m not quite sure what the uproar is about. I guess it’s that tools like Technorati systematically underrate the contribution of women to the blogosphere, because it uses metrics that value things that women don’t care about. This is the principle behind Mary Hodder’s Paris Index.
I guess I have a different perspective than most. Note the title of this post – “my personal blogosphere”. I don’t make any assumptions that everybody’s blogosphere is the same as mine. In fact, one of my recent quixotic causes has been promoting recognition of the fact that we all live in different worlds. There is no one single blogosphere that everybody must subscribe to either in its entirety or not at all.
It may be inevitable that there’s an “A-list” of bloggers (Clay Shirky has a good analysis of the power law phenomenon). But the advantage of the blogosphere is that if I don’t like the A-list, I can ignore them entirely. If I don’t put them on my RSS feed, they might as well not exist. Unlike the world of movies or TV or advertising, where it’s almost impossible to avoid the dominant players, I can read blogs out in the long tail of the distribution and be blissfully ignorant unless something of actual interest goes over one of those dominant channels, and is linked to by one of my feeds
My point is that by creating our own personal blogosphere, we also need to take responsibility for how we create it. If we are subscribing to blogs based on the Technorati 100, it is not Technorati’s fault that our blogroll ends up with biases. We have to recognize that things like the Technorati 100 are merely tools with inherent biases, and it is up to us to use those tools appropriately, recognizing their limitations. I think there could be an argument made that if a certain tool has such an overwhelming presence that it dominates a field (e.g. Google), the creators of that tool have a responsibility to either be utterly transparent about their biases, or endeavor to make the tool as bias-free as possible. However, the former is a far more attainable goal than the latter.
The blogs I read (as seen on the left) have slowly accreted over time, mostly by following links from blogs that I already read or from recommendations from friends or mailing lists. Friend recommendations carry the most weight, obviously. As far as links go, when confronted with a new blog, I often will skim a few posts to see if it is written well and covers topics I find interesting. If so, I’ll generally pick it up for a bit and see where it goes.
I may also be unusual in that I don’t like high volume blogs like BoingBoing or Gizmodo or Slashdot. I am mostly looking for interesting people writing about interesting things: less frequent updates, more thought per post (danah boyd and Christopher Allen are good examples). I don’t want more random links to the rest of the web; I want analysis. And tools like Google and Technorati don’t do a good job of finding such blogs for me; I went and looked at the Technorati 100 for the first time while writing this post, and only 1 of the top 100 is a blog I read regularly. So I don’t use those tools, because they don’t do what I want.
Do I think they should change the tools so that they are useful to me? Not really. Maybe they’re useful for others – who am I to take away their tools? I think Mary Hodder is on the right path in creating her own way of ranking blogs that’s useful to her. We need to create a plethora of alternatives, a toolbox of blog-finding options, so that no matter what kind of content you’re looking for, you can find something appropriate. Perhaps the links-as-a-sign-of-prestige paradigm is so dominant right now that it seems like there are no other options. But with the self-awareness that the BlogHer discussion has enabled, it seems like it’s now up to us to specify the things we find important in blogs, and construct our own tools.
What would be truly ideal is a meta-blog-finder, a tool into which one could input one’s own biases, and it would spit out a personal top 100 blogs. Bloglines has a “Recommendations” page, but it’s way too much like the Technorati list to be of use. But something along those lines, where one inputs blogs that one finds interesting, and it goes and finds other similar blogs, based on the metrics that one specifies, could solve a lot of these disputes. Everybody would have their own top 100 list, and there would no longer be any questions over the biases inherent in the system, because you would be able to specify your biases up front. It’s a pipe dream, sure, but it would be interesting. I guess the next step would be to start reading up on some of the possible metrics for rating blogs, and seeing if there’s a good way to split them up into different axes, so we can construct an N-dimensional blog-characteristic space.
Mary Hodder’s post has some starting ideas for such metrics, but she seems to be more concerned with creating another One True List, whereas I feel that any such list should be personalized to be of interest just for me. I guess the question is, what is the point of creating a list? I want a list that helps me find new blogs. There is a well-defined customer/user (i.e. me) in this scenario that can be designed for. I’m not sure who the customer is for the One True List. Mary mentions in her post that advertisers and PR are trying to find “influential bloggers” – are they the customers? Is it meant to be a list for the BlogHer cohort? It’s very unclear who her target audience is from her post, and therefore it’s going to be hard to design to. As somebody who’s spent a lot of time recently arguing over software specifications, I feel that until you know your target user, it’s going to be hard to settle anything else. One of the advantages of the meta- approach is that the tool can then be tailored to all sorts of different possible target users. Of course, the downside is that creating a general-purpose tool is always harder.
Anyway. There’s clearly some work that can be done to develop some of these ideas. Which reminds me, yet again, that I need to get into the habit of writing more consistently. One of the things I need to remember is that even if I only have a vague idea when I sit down at the computer, it can often be developed into a post while writing. Like tonight, I had originally planned to just link to a bunch of the other posts I’ve been reading because they’re interesting. And yet I managed to extract a relatively coherent post out of it. Well, somewhat coherent. Not completely incoherent? Okay, it’s clearly time to stop. But I’ll pick it up tomorrow. Promise.