Cloud Street

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Authority you can respect

Or: on popularity, deference, knowledge domains and knowledge clouds.

Or: "if Pietro was right, and Dave was right (and I was right about how they fit together), does that mean Shelley was wrong to say that Technorati was wrong?"

I'm not sure I get Technorati. As far as I can understand, it does three things.
  1. Tagging. Using some standard HTML, bloggers can tag their own articles with keywords; Technorati then tracks and aggregates these tags, allowing users to find similarly-tagged entries in other blogs. I'm not sure I see the point of this. Compared with del.icio.us - which builds a public archive of tagged material by enabling users to tag other people's articles (and their own, if they so wish) - this seems underpowered at best, ego-driven at worst.
  2. Linking. Technorati tracks blog-to-blog links, enabling users to find out who's been linking to their articles. I've used this a few times, but I'm not convinced it's that great a feature. Firstly, Google purports to do the same thing with its 'link:' search option; it's only the fact that 'link:' is broken that makes me use Technorati. Secondly, after tracking them for a while, it's dawned on me that I don't really care about links: I care about people reading my articles (which my hit-counter can tell me about), and I care about getting into conversations, either through an exchange of posts or in Comments threads. If people aren't interested in talking to me, I'd just as soon they didn't advertise my blog. (What would it gain me, after all?) Which brings me to
  3. Popularity and Authority. This is the big one. From the name on down, Technorati is all about in-groups and out-groups. 'Authority' is one of the two sort orders which appear when you search for links to your blog (the other being 'date'). 'Authority' is measured by the number of in-bound links the sites linking to yours have in their own right. To put it another way, authority directly tracks popularity (although this is 'popularity' in that odd American high-school sense of the word: 'popular' sites aren't the ones with the most friends (most out-bound links, most distinct participants in Comments threads or even most traffic) but the ones with the most people envying them (hence: most in-bound links)).
The equation of authority with 'popularity' is, in one sense, neither inappropriate nor avoidable. In another sense it's both reprehensible and wrong. First, the argument in favour. As I wrote here, the distinction between the knowledge produced in academic discourse and the knowledge produced in conversation is ultimately artificial: in both cases, there's a cloud of competing and overlapping arguments and definitions; in both cases, each speaker - or each intervention - draws a line around a preferred constellation of concepts. At some level, all knowledge is 'cloudy'. Moreover, in both cases, the outcome of interactions depends in large part on the connections which speakers can make between their own arguments and those of other speakers, particularly those who speak with greater authority. (Hence controversy: your demonstration that an established writer is wrong about A, B and C will interest a lot more people - and do more for your reputation - than your utterly original exposition of X, Y and Z.) You may not like the internationally-renowned scholar who's agreed to look in on your workshop - you may resent his refusal to attend the whole thing and disapprove of his attitude to questioners; you may not even think his work's that great - but you still invite him: he's popular, which means he's authoritative, which means he reflects well on you. Domain by domain, authority does indeed track popularity.

But there's the rub - and here begins the argument against Technorati. Domain by domain, authority tracks popularity, but not globally: it makes a certain kind of sense to say that the Sun is more authoritative than the Star, but to say that it's more authoritative than the Guardian would be absurd. (Perverse rankings like this are precisely an indicator of when two distinct domains are being merged.) Similarly, it's easy to imagine somebody describing either the Daily Kos or Instapundit as the most 'authoritative' site on the Web; what's impossible to imagine is the mindset which would say that Kos was almost the most authoritative source, second only to Glenn Reynolds. But this is what drops out if we use Technorati's (global) equation of popularity with authority.

Some counter-propositions. Firstly, more is not (necessarily) better. The intrinsic appeal of different domains of knowledge varies enormously: in most academic specialities, if you've got a regular audience in three figures you're doing extraordinarily well. Conversely, if you want a mass audience, you'll need to write the kind of stuff that will get you a mass audience.

Secondly, broadcasting is not conversation; linking is not conversation. My only concern about readership is that I'm reaching enough people with similar interests to have a decent conversation. I'm particularly concerned that the people I'm responding to in this blog are reading it - but I've got no way of knowing that they are, unless they carry the conversation on, either in comments or on their own blogs (hi Adam, hi Dave). A blogroll link, while it would please my vanity, would tell me nothing at all about whether the words I write are actually being read.

Thirdly, domain by domain, popularity records itself: if you keep your eyes and ears open, you very rapidly discover the sources being cited, the authors you need to line up with (or against), the major arguments and their proponents. In this perspective, Technorati is of dubious merit at best, positively misleading at worst. A domain-by-domain popularity meter - like the information you can glean from del.icio.us link-shading, and to some extent from Technorati's tagging - could give you a condensed who's who, although the effort you could save by this kind of shortcut has to be set against the information you'd lose by not taking part in the arguments yourself. A global popularity meter - like Technorati's link-count - will tell you nothing you need to know and a lot that you don't. (This effect has been masked up to now by the prevalence of a single domain among Technorati tags (and, indeed, Technorati users): it's a design flaw which has been compensated by an implementation flaw.)

So I tend to agree with Shelley: the globally 'popular' blogs are quite popular enough already without their readers directing yet more traffic their way - and, for most of us, global 'popularity' is an irrelevant distraction. From which it follows that blogs don't need blogrolls. If we blogroll everyone whose posts we respond to, the blogroll's unnecessary. If, on the other hand, we blogroll everyone whose blogs we read - or, from the look of some blogrolls, every blogWeb site we've ever readheard of - the power law will kick in: links will inevitably tend to cluster around the 'top' five or ten or fifty blogs, the blogs Everybody Knows, the A List (ugh).

Some final brief thoughts. Blogging tends towards conversation. Conversation routes around gatekeepers (Technorati is, precisely, a gatekeeper - but an avoidable gatekeeper). Conversations happen within domains. People cross domains, but domains don't overlap. Every domain thinks it's the only one.

And there is no long tail. (That's not connected, it's just a trailer for my next post...)

3 Comments:

  • Agree about the problems with Techno popularity ranking. A small number of people use the web to pursue celebrity; many more pursue conversation with the people who matter to them. Popularity is only mildly relevant to conversation.

    Disagree about the value of Techno linking. I've continued conversations with people who linked to my blog, and I assume that Technorati enables people to find when I link to them. Given comment and trackback spam problems, Technorati is a useful third way to discover and continue conversations.

    Techno tagging seems less valuable than plain old keyword searching. A keyword search for blogher finds over 2000 entries, and the tag finds 400. Maybe it helps meme-finding at the larger, popularity level which I tend to ignore.

    By Blogger Adina, at 7/8/05 03:08  

  • Phil,

    Great post...

    In response:

    1. Tagging

    There is nothing wrong with Technorati Tags, it is just like subject field searching (subject terms are defined by the participants)...nothing wrong with some sort of context (obviously the ranking is still based on popularity)

    2. Linking

    You say you don't care about links, but you care about conversation...well these are the same thing, if you care about conversation you need to check your backlinks and backlinks of others to view the distributed conversation cloud (by using Technorati link search or even BlogPulse conversation tracker)

    3. Popularity and Authority

    Great quote: popularity is based on the most people envying you (I suppose it has to be this way, otherwise people would outbound link all over the place)

    I also came across a post at Data Mining, see here:
    http://datamining.typepad.com/data_mining/2005/08/rumour_mull_par.html

    Talks about the initiator of the post getting less incoming links than someone who referenced their post, why because the 2nd blog is more popular than the 1st (initiator), even though the initiator had the scoop.

    I like your newspaper example...popularity measure obviously doesn't make sense when the more popular thing is actually more crap over something else (just tells you something about our culture, junk floats to the top, and people aren't loooking deep enough, so they think the junk is the whole world...but the problem is now ingrained in that people aren't looking for themselves they are told what to like).

    Therefore popularity doesn't equal what's important, as what's important is in the eye of the beholder

    something similar...

    ...just because French cinema isn't as popular as US mainstream movies doesn't mean they aren't as valuable (we need valuability measures to uncover hidden content, Technorati Blog Finder is a start, although it's still ranked on popularity)...French movies don't bombard us with advertising unlike US cinema where we feel subconciously that we have to see the film - they need to do this anyway to recoup their big budgets.
    But French cinema has its own galaxy of people, they are much smaller and lesser known galaxy but it's still there waiting to be seen and discovered by more people.

    Concerning Blogrolls, check your feed in Bloglines, to get an idea of your subscribers (This is only one RSS reader out of the hundreds, but at least it's popular, otherwise there is Feedburner).

    By Anonymous John Tropea, at 21/9/05 02:27  

  • The URL I included in the above comment was cut off, here it is:

    http://datamining.typepad.com
    /data_mining/2005/08
    /rumour_mull_par.html

    By Anonymous John Tropea, at 21/9/05 02:28  

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