Blogocracy in America

by John Holbo on July 4, 2004

Americans, of all ages, of all stations in life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations. They are not only commercial or industrial associations in which they all take part but others of a thousand different types – religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very minute … Nothing, in my view, deserves more attention that the intellectual and moral associations in America.

– Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

I stumbled on that passage – appropriate unto the day, for what is declared independence if not a precondition for happier association? – while poking around regarding blogging and social networks and such, following up Henry’s interesting ‘blogosphere as 18th century coffee-house’ post, following up Laura at Apartment 11D’s ‘blogging polis’ post. (I’d tell you who posted that Tocqueville passage, but I’ve forgotten.)

One of the more interesting things I stumbled on was this post on “Weblogs and Authority” – and the associated full-length conference paper version (PDF) – on Cameron Marlow’s blog, Overstated. His conclusion is intuitive; anyway, it’s what I would have guessed. You could measure your authority in terms of the number of blogrolls you grace, or by the number of permalinks you garner; there is considerable divergence between the two measures. There’s folks that get blogrolled, but seldom linked, and vice versa. Which makes sense for a host of reasons that readily spring to mind. As Marlow points out, blogrolls naturally tend to lag behind the influence curve. They contain a lot of dead wood, basically. (Marlow is hereby attempting to chip away at Clay Shirky’s thesis that the blogging rich get richer, winner-take-all power law-wise.)

Bottom line: Marlow’s got some interesting data and charts, even if he is basically arguing something that seems intuitively right, hence unsurprising.

Here’s my question for the day: how many blogospheres are there? I mean: if you saw a stellar map of the blog universe it wouldn’t be one sphere. At a rough guess, we would gaze at two major galaxies – techblogging and US politics blogging. These would be loosely interpenetrating. Each galaxy would, uncoincidentally, be loosely centered on a core of A-list blogs. And there would be a huge number of systems and sub-systems and rings within the galaxies. For example, it would be interesting to see to what degree the right and left political blogospheres are mutually delinked. (And of course ‘right and left’ is far too simple.) There would obviously be a number of respectable formations gravitationally attracted neither to tech nor politics. And there would be the gargantuan quantity of dark matter that probably makes up 95% of total blogospheric mass: livejournals and dedicated catblogging, lunchblogging and all the truly personal, mostly unlinked stuff that probably even google can’t detect.

And then there is the question of historical development. The Big Bang – I guess it was 9/11 – and how it all exploded out from there.

Has any ambitious student of social networks attempted a comprehensive map of the bloggy heavens, plotting, say, the interlinks of the top 5,000 (from technorati or blogstreet or wherever seems best)? It would be monadology rather than astronomy: everything what and where it is in virtue of the collective perceptions/appetitions of everything else. As such, it would probably have to be rendered in more than three dimensions to do justice. What I would be most curious about would be the degree to which these social networks constitute subject indexs; or indexes of distinct perspectives.

Well, that’s a vague notion, but just suppose you have map in hand. You have ‘hotspots’, i.e. especially link-rich nodes. Popular single blogs or clusters of closely interlinked blogs that, added together, amount to something. What do such clusters mean? Obviously there is sociology to be done regarding a social network of blogs, as with any social network. But studying the relations between law blogs and philosophy blogs and lit blogs and web design blogs and libertarian blogs, etc., has an axis of potential interest plausibly missing from most social networks. The blogosphere really is an idea space AND a social space. The links mean personal ties – alliances and enmities – but also argumentative ties, or at least connections between ideas or subjects. It would be interesting to study relationships right on the line between relationships between social structures and idea clusters. Strange elective affinities might come to light. Do law profs blog about comic books more or less than philosophy profs, as measured by some index of proximity between the subsystems of philosophy and law blogs and the subsystem of comic book blogs? Idly inquiring minds would like to know, in an idle sort of holiday inquiring way.

And this question is just an example. I realize it’s not exactly burning, but it gets at the sorts of odd juxtapositions and connections I think might come to light, simply from an extremely ingenious and laborious study of link structures.

I gotta go eat two hamburgers and drink three beers. Happy 4th of July!



First reaction 07.04.04 at 7:50 pm



Adam Kotsko 07.04.04 at 8:17 pm

All of this data should of course be correlated with the Blogshares price of the various blogs being studied. My loving co-blogger, Robb Schuneman, has seen his net worth increase by over 600,000% in the last month on Blogshares. He claims it’s a good way to find out about up and coming blogs.

Perhaps some economics bloggers should take on this project.


Ophelia Benson 07.04.04 at 8:49 pm

Funny, I just posted several quotations from Tocqueville at B&W a couple of days ago. But it wasn’t that one, so I can’t claim the prize. Oh, no prize? Okay, I can’t claim the glory then.


Dan Goodman 07.04.04 at 9:26 pm

On LiveJournals: Please note that not all LiveJournals are personal. There are LiveJournal communities devoted to politics, synesthesia, etc.


Lance Boyle 07.04.04 at 10:01 pm

Nowhere is the metaphor of the blind wiziers and the elephant more accurate.
The meta-whatevers are a good place to begin maybe, of which CT is sort of one. But even that. It’s so big. It’s like generalizing about the American public – only possible in the broadest and simplest terms.
This may be the most truly egalitarian public space we’re capable of without telepathic mind-meld. It’s precisely the non-cataloged open-ness that makes it so.


Jason Kuznicki 07.04.04 at 10:29 pm

Blogshares is a rather poor way of judging a blog’s popularity. It’s not at all like the Iowa Electronic Markets or even like fantasy stock market games. In Blogshares, a single player can manipulate the value of a blog rather dramatically with just a few transactions, and the system barely corrects for it at all.

Something *like* Blogshares would be fascinating, but as it stands, the game just isn’t what it ought to be.


eszter 07.05.04 at 5:35 am

We’re using SNA (social network analysis) in the project I mentioned earlier. But we don’t have the kind of sample you’re talking about, ours is much smaller. Nonetheless, I think it will yield interesting results. We’ll keep you posted.


Martha Bridegam 07.05.04 at 7:29 am

DeLong started a conversation in the same place a few days ago.


David Tiley 07.05.04 at 9:32 am

The “dark matter” of personal blogging is a lovely metaphor.

To tangle the situation even more, I suggest the blogospheres behave differently in different cultures. Australian blogging has these strange indentations and mobius moments when staunch opponents cross over to sport, rock and roll or just tecchie stuff, and become endearingly co-operative.

I suspect your Canadian neighbours have a distintive blogosphere – certainly its members do rear back and identify themselves culturally.

The Brits remain a complete mystery to me. And why are there so many funny people in Seattle?


Ophelia Benson 07.05.04 at 9:25 pm

“And why are there so many funny people in Seattle?”

Are there? Who? Where? Can I have their phone numbers?


Matt McIrvin 07.06.04 at 12:41 am

The techblog explosion was in 1999. And many of the most popular post-Sept. 2001 politics blogs existed before then.


David Tiley 07.06.04 at 8:33 am

Damn Ms Ophelia, now you’ve set me a project..

And of course I can’t find any more. But I know they are out there!

ps – in my small self-justifying search, I surely did see a lot of baby snaps.


PZ Myers 07.06.04 at 2:36 pm

Hey, I’m a native of Seattle.

They kicked me out because I wasn’t funny enough.


Ophelia Benson 07.06.04 at 7:10 pm

Oh is that how it works! I’m not a native of Seattle, but I guess they must have lured me here because I am more than funny enough.

Thanks David. Two, eh? Poor ol’ Seattle…

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