I've been trying to push against Clay's assertion that blogs exhibit a power law and that power laws cause inequality. You can't "fix" the system without breaking it. We've gone back and forth in different places and I THINK I've boiled it down to a few key points for me.
When Clay uses the word "inequality" he means "not the same" and indeed, in a fair system, the outcomes will usually be inequal. I won't argue with that. What my question was was whether the rules were fair and whether we could counteract the current bias towards those in positions of privilege and amplify those opinions that are currently underrepresented.
I think the notion of trying to modify or influence the system to push it towards a particular outcome sounds like regulation and hits a negative chord with the free market libertarian types on the Net. I am also against unnecessary regulation. However, I do think that we can and should try to influence the architecture to push towards an outcome that we believe in. I think this is the nature of politics.
Clay talks about the power law in his paper, Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality. As most of you are aware, power laws are a type of distribution exhibited by large networks that grow where people are allowed to link freely. Since new sites tend to link to sites that already exist or are famous, the links aggregate to the well known sites making the "rich richer". The power law shows that even with fair rules, the outcome will be very inequal.
We can and should talk about the type of inequality we want — right now, for example, most of the high-flow webloggers are men. We can ask why that is, whether we should do anything about it, and if so, what? We can’t ask how we can level out the difference between the high-flow end of the popularity curve and the rest of us, or at least we can’t ask that unless we are advocating the destruction of the blogosphere. The interesting and hard question is “Since there is to be inequality, how shall it be arranged?”So I'm glad Clay is willing to consider what we might do about the fact that the most influential blogs are by people in positions of privilege.
I think we are going to see an explosion in work designed to alter the construction and effects of this inevitable inequality (viz Sifry’s experiments on moving recent blogs up the Technorati list) and I am optimistic about this change, as I believe the concentration of real thought and energy on what is actually possible, as opposed to cycles wasted on utopian declations, will be tremendously productive.
In Linked Albert-Laszlo talks a lot about power laws and makes a few interesting points. First of all, power laws on the web make two assumptions, that the network is growing and that people tend to link to sites that have the most links. Laszlo cites work by Paul Krapivsky and Sid Redner from Boston University, working with Francois Leyvraz from Mexico,
generalized preferential attachment to account for the possibility that linking to a node would not be simply proportional to the number of links the node has but would follow some more complicated function. They found that such efforts can destroy the power law characterizing the network.He goes on to talk about Google coming in as a latecomer in the search game and how "fitness" or the likelihood that someone will link to you is not entirely determined by your existing position on the power law curve and that a site worthy of connecting to can quickly scale the power law curve if it exhibits exceptional fitness. All disruptive technologies and innovations break power law curves by exhibiting exceptional fitness.
If you think about the power law as themes or ideas instead of people and you think about fitness as the level in which an idea resonates with people, the power law could be viewed as an amplifier for ideas and memes that are sufficiently interesting. Because fitness so influences a nodes ability to climb the power law, I think the notion that I described in the Emergent Democracy paper, where the tail of the curve is where the creativity happens and the power law is how an idea whose time has come goes main stream still makes sense. I think the key to making the system "fair" is to make sure the tail is as inclusive as possible and to try to encourage technology and norms to value fitness over simply linking to those who are popular. As Ross shows in his three layers of creative, social and political, I think the power law is the final amplification part. In fact, the tail of the power law, the creative layer and the social layer where the initial deliberation occurs might be where we should be focusing our energies.
I have a feeling that the blog power law is like a real-time amplifier. I think it is key to note that nodes that lose the fitness that got them there in the first place retire very quickly and that fitness is amplified in scale-free networks. If we architect blogs to allow the amplifier to be sensitive to positive fitness and quickly retire irrelevant blogs, it will be a good amplifier. If the Technorati top 100 is the Marshall amp, maybe we should be talking about the guitar?