Thursday, February 17, 2005

Organization vs. Self-Organization in the Blog Hemispheres

by Tom Bozzo

Some of you may have seen Ann Althouse's posts about her talk at the UW Chaos and Complex Systems seminar, which included a trip to the front page of the Capital Times, our more liberal and superior local newspaper.

This event, and a JustOneMinute post — linked by Max Sawicky on the left side and you-know-who on the right, among others — had me thinking about organization vs. self-organization in the blogiverse.

A Complexity 101 lesson is that intelligently organized and complex self-organized phenomena can be hard to distinguish. (Along that line, it's my view that advocates of "intelligent design" prey upon this confusion, in pushing the "design inference," to sow doubt with respect to the possibility of self-organized biological evolution.) Of course, this is not to say that organization and self-organization are equivalent.

Back to JustOneMinute, Ann's discussion focused on Tom Maguire's suggestion that major left bloggers pull their comments functions. Both TM and Ann argue (or agree) that the comments at a site like Daily Kos or Eschaton dissipate energy better spent out in the world, or at least the blogiverse. There's some merit to this for the biggest sites, where the comments are so numerous I seldom even bother to click through to them, let alone filter the tiny signal from the noise. That's not to say that vigorous and relatively on-topic comments aren't possible at larger blogs; DeLong and Crooked Timber immediately come to mind.

But I digress. For my money, TM's most interesting point concerns the role of Glenn Reynolds on the right side and the absence of an exactly comparable figure on the left. TM describes Reynolds as leader of "an almost totally disorganized pack of hungry bloggers." I'd characterize Reynolds in this context as less of a leader than an organizer, identifying content he thinks merits further attention and directing a lot of eyes there. How Reynolds got to that position is presumably the result of self-organization.

TM nominates Atrios for the left-blogsophere position (his traffic is such that an Eschaton link will generate a sizeable Eschalanche), though Atrios declines in the JustOneMinute comments on what amount to 'you-link-it, you-bought-it' grounds — a concern over being held responsible for non-linked idiocy on linked sites. That is not an irrational fear, though it's seemingly not a fear that seems to noticeably bother Reynolds.

Without an Instapundit of its own, the left — so I told Ann yesterday — is much more dependent on the comparatively inefficient internet tools and processes of self-organization. Trackbacks are irregularly used and incompletely available — requiring third-party involvement and minor HTML surgery for those of us using Blogger/Blogspot, for instance — and link-tracking services like Technorati only track small subsets of the link "cosmos" (hello, 64-bit computing!) and their effect depends critically on bloggers' interest in tracking down their incoming links to propagate potentially interesting information from far reaches of the blogiverse. As a result, it seems much tougher for a left-leaner with something to say to break out of 40-visit-a-day obscurity than it was for Ann (I am curious as to the precise triggering mechanism, if beyond Reynolds' 'hypercaffeination,' of her first Instapundit link).

So it would be nice if a lefty with sufficient traffic took the organizer's job. Given the source of the suggestion, Max ("[B]y suggesting it here, you [TM] have diabolically ensured that it won't happen") and Ann ("I don't think lefty bloggers are interested in advice from anyone they perceive to be on their right") end up weirdly aligned. So somebody prove them wrong!
Comments:
Perhaps another way to frame your argument is to think of it as a question of network centralization. You seem to think that the right-side of the blogosphere is more centralized. The central node of the righties would be Reynolds. While the lefties may have central nodes as well (Black, Kos, etc.), their degree of centralization is weaker.

This would be one way of empirically testing your hypothesis. Or am I reading your incorrectly?
 
I think that's a reasonable way of framing at least part of the argument.

I think Maguire's characterization at least passes the laugh test, and I would tend to view Instapundit as a stronger central node for the righties than are Eschaton and Kos for the lefties. Of course, I don't mean to imply by that think that any specific blog needs to be repurposed.

The statement about centralization of the right side as a whole versus the left is actually a little stronger than I'm meaning to argue w/o more data. Since I don't have much of a sense of what's going on in the Kos diaries, let alone most of the other heavily-linked (or linking) righties, I'd be curious as to how a formal test would come out.

The other, not unrelated, part of the argument concerns propagation of information over the network. If it ends up being true that the left side is less centralized, then the relatively inefficient 'self-organized' propagation mechanisms probably end up keeping some "good ideas" from the lefty hinterlands away from broad view. (Though there's possibly an offsetting benefit in that some crackpots don't get a broader stage.)
 
Clearly sites like Instapundit, Druge & NRO's Corner take advantage of the lack of commenting on their pages to more drastically shape the news. They can lie more easily without being called on it, they can simply not cover stories that don't suit their ideology, etc.

What the Left needs to do is not follow their lead but find a way to better harness the latent energy & signal in comments. Although such a system doesn't exist yet, a rating/weighting applet ala Slashdot or Kuro5hin would help "push" comments that need to be seen to the top, where they could be quickly skimmed off by those with less time on their hands. You might want to add in a reputation module like the one used by Advogato to avoid abuse by trolls.

Don't diss the masses. Figure out how to harness their energy. There's mojo power to be had in network effects.

For more on this kind of thing, take a look at Extreme Democracy.

Tim
 
Thanks for the comment, Tim. In Part 2, if you haven't seen that, I try to clarify that my issue is with the "noise" in the comments, and note that the Daily Kos community, which is the closest to having a working rating system, is potentially a quite efficient information processor. The issue is how best to extract the signal. Comment highlighting systems may well be part of that; another would be for productive commenters to start their own blogs (which has its own signal extraction issues).

Also over there, Brayden has set me on a network learning paper that I hope to have a chance to absorb soon.

I would note that editorial control is not a bad thing in the right circumstances -- it's abuses of editorial discretion that should be avoided.
 
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