Blogger Hacks, Categories, Tips & Tricks

Tuesday, September 26, 2006
The Challenge of Blog-Community Participation

Taking as a starting point the idea that there is undiscovered quality content out there, I've been doing a lot of thinking lately (hence the smell of burning) about the structure of the blogosphere, "microspheres philosophy", and the pluses and minuses thereof. I'm interested in three main issues:

  1. The reputation / authority economy in the blogosphere, & how that creates & encourages "microspheres" - communities of shared interest with similar authority levels.

  1. The challenge of developing your blog, when the above-mentioned structure can be hostile to competition.

  2. The limitations of the structure of the blogosphere, and the emergence of parallel / duplicate microspheres.

So what is a microsphere? Well... the notion of "the blogosphere" is no longer very helpful (if it ever was). There are now blogs about anything you can imagine, and many thousands of "microspheres" made up of sites that are both interconnected by links and shared by a community of readers. To my mind, the microsphere is a much more useful tool for thinking about the social & informational connections between blogs than is the concept of the monolithic "blogosphere." The microsphere (at least the microsphere defined by Freshblog's inbound links) is graphically represented by the new graphics at The Truth Laid Bear:

I imagine each blog as having multiple microspheres.... Inbound links, outbound links, readers, subscribers, sources.... These are the online communities in which either bloggers or their content participate. Significantly, these seem to coalesce around a couple of different factors. The first of these, similar content, is no great surprise. I want to read, be informed by, & respond to blogs that post about stuff that I'm interested in. Far more interesting to me is the notion of microspheres and authority.

1. The Reputation / Authority Economy

I have riffed previously on how useless rankings are for anything other than estimating the "weight" of incoming links or assessing the relative performance of your blog against the blogs you want to emulate. What else is the reputation / authority economy about?

  • Adding to the conversation with relevant, original and insightful material

  • Drawing attention to that material

  • Actively participating in discussions to support your positions / respond to challenges / integrate new material

What is the currency in this economy? Links. The relationship here is, of course, cyclical:

  • The more inbound links you have, the more people will see your stuff

  • The more people see your stuff, the more links you'll have

This is great, because it is self-reinforcing, & a single post can reverberate through the blogosphere for a good while and change the fortunes of your blog. It also means, though, that it is hard to get started. Authoritative bloggers are selective in their linking, and very authoritative bloggers are very selective. This suggests that Microspheres tend to include blogs of similar levels of authority, & that it is difficult to gain attention from blogs which are more authoritative than your own. The process of community formation amongst peers seems to be the strongest phase in the formation of a microsphere. These blogs then grow in reputation and authority together.

2. Niche Building: Becoming Reputable and Authoritative

The Squidoo folks invite the authors of complete lenses to "create your own recommendation economy and traffic network online." Well, isn't that just the thing of it. The work of years in 10 words or less.... Ultimately (and at multiple levels as your microsphere expands) your blog will gather momentum and come to be viewed as both reputable and authoritative by some percentage of your readers. How to get this done? Time is critical, of course, (you can't turn this around in a week!) as are links, and active participation in the conversation.

Steve Rubel encourages us to "be generous to be effective." To my mind that's the key and has always been. Link as you wish to be linked to! I noticed a significant percentage of the blogs that I read regularly because they linked here, or because they were "recommended" by a link from another regular read. Dialogue in comments and e-mail also raises the profile of your blog & enables you to sharpen opinions / clarify confusions in exchanges with individual readers. Ultimately, I think that reputation and authority in the virtual world are derived from the same sources as in the real world (however much we'd like to think otherwise).... Civility and relevance / interest. To grab a niche, write well about something that you know about, and add value to the debate.

While we're talking about niches, Amit links to Mike Rundle's plea to "go find your own niche" rather than trying to emulate the top 100. Agreed. Write what you know. The structure of blogging as a medium will allow you to choose any topic that sounds good to you. So let's say you find a niche... a half-dozen blogs that talk about the same good stuff that you do. How do you get a seat at the table?

3. Parallel Microspheres

Whether deliberately or coincidentally, the blog world is a place in which multiple communities address similar concerns, and are not always integrated effectively with one another. What is it about the structure and functions of blogs that fails to discourage duplication?

  • The structure of blogs encourages and places disproportionate value on "fresh" content, and so there is a pressure to produce.

  • Mechanisms for finding content are imperfect, & so existing quality content can't always be found - this encourages duplication.

  • Authors may not search for existing content before making their contribution.

  • The volume of content in the blogosphere is too great to navigate comprehensively, and so we define our own "microspheres" and navigate those.

  • Duplicate content can be rewarded if your post has the highest profile.

Is the duplication of information necessarily a bad thing? No. Content theft is, of course, but the offering of similar information in multiple locations spreads the wealth and maximizes the chance that a curious reader will find what they're looking for. There is, though, an inefficiency there. If you can find my "page titles optimization" hack, for example, your time might be better spent improving upon it, rather than re-creating it.

What about integration? Well, there's a counter-argument there too. Maybe your "page titles optimization" hack is your ticket to the big time (or at least to a bigger time?) & so not only do you want to present your hack to the world, but you want to obliterate mine in the process (bwahahahah!) Now sure, competition drives creativity to a degree, but collaboration (at least in my experience) has a significant role to play.

How might the blogosphere recognize and reward collaboration? Mary Hodder has argued persuasively for a "visible microsphere" of declared interconnections between authors:

We want to see where people link, what the relationships are between them, and make our own decisions as readers and conversants about what those author relationships mean, as we take in the work. It's the author who matters, and the author who must decide how and what to show about their own biases and relationships. Because otherwise the online communities will decide for that author. It's so much cleaner if authors and creators give it to us up front. Readers like it and we need it to evaluate trust because authors have become uncommodified.

Such a "declared microsphere" would also make it easier for authors to locate related content, & to identify online communities that they'd like to integrate with. This would also increase the level of “personal” interaction in the blogosphere and therefore require a certain standard of civility.

4. Over to You

As you can tell by now, I'm interested in Blogging as a social process, and as an opportunity for community building, collaboration and the sharing / refining of ideas so that they might reach their greatest potential. Nor am I alone. Confused of Calcutta explores a list of six unintended consequences of blogging. They all have to do with testing opinions, forming communities and opening up new avenues for collaboration. Meanwhile John at Beelerspace develops a great theory of blogs as tools for social networking and communication:

We have created blogs – and other technologies like it (email, for example) – so that we can maintain our village, so that we don’t have to create new meaningful relationships every 2-3 years. Technology hasn’t created a global village, it has enabled global villages. Blogs and email are a direct evolutionary reaction to the demanding mobility of modern society.

I'm curious to hear your ideas for consolidation and integration.... I'm not talking about censorship, exclusion, or steamrolling the spheres that operate in parallel to yours, but about ways to form stronger bonds between blogs that have similar content, & ways to present a single (expanding) topical microsphere that encompasses more voices. This might be a new third-party service for blogs, tighter search, more widespread use of search by bloggers, a consistent pattern of tagging, a declared community hub, or more personal activity (off site) between bloggers. What do you think? Write your own post & track back, or leave a comment here.

  • How do we tie this thing together more tightly?
  • How can we find related and relevant content more effectively?
  • How do we restructure the process so that there is a greater reward for collaboration / inclusion & a diminished incentive for excluding / marginalising “competing” blogs?
  • How might we encourage or achieve greater "vertical" interaction between blogs to complement the "horizontal" process of peer-to-peer microsphere formation?
Answers on a postcard please.....

Filed in:
Posted at 8:44 AM by John.
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Blogger Singpolyma said...
If/when I get time to finish work on the first release of Littl'uns, it will have, and I will increasingly try to build into it, microsphere information. Based on search and on tag.

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Blogger Richard Y Chappell said...
Less tech-oriented communities are less likely than you guys to use tags and such. But I think "carnivals" can play a positive role in reinforcing links (excuse the pun) within blog communities.

On the question of incentives for inclusion, do you think go-memes could help? They can generate some pretty impressive linkage, which provides incentives for people to participate in them. And especially if you start a go-meme that's topical for your community, I can see that potentially having some positive community-building effects.

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Blogger John said...
A comment that should perhaps be an update.... Andy Hagans on Performancing suggests an alternative framework for considering the same issue, and introduces the concept of traffic in opposition to the concept of authority. Rather than low / high end, I prefer to use long-tail terminology here & talk about the head & the tail....

"Writing for the low-end is going to have a much wider appeal and usually get you more traffic, simply because most people aren't experts. On the other hand, if you write for experts, you're more likely to get links, since other experts are more likely to have blogs in the niche; it's also usually better in terms of building your personal reputation and authority. Bloggers who try to do both (i.e., expert post today, n00b post tomorrow) will usually end up annoying both audience segments with the inconsistency."

So maybe "audience expertise" is a critical characteristic of a niche, and the outcomes are predetermined to some extent by those characteristics?

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Blogger Greg said...
I thought I'd scatter some random thoughts around this area ...

Richard, I like this go-meme concept, and related "extended hat-tipping" ideas. I wonder if there isn't some scope for tools to help with this, perhaps based on keyword highlighting, Dapper, tags and the like? Perhaps something to help publishers build the recursive structure, or even readers to help navigate it?

John, I agree wholeheartedly that audience interest/skill/competence is an important part of successful blogging, and that trying to appeal to all is doomed to fail. A countering view is that, as an avid blog reader, I don't think it's necessary for 100% of posts to be relevant to me for a particular subscription to be warranted. I also think that people's interests/skills/competence will grow over time and that not challenging or providing audience "headroom" means that you'll only ever hang on to readers fleetingly; they'll simply outgrow you too quickly to build a community.

An old (?) idea from the early days of the web (pre-Y2K!) was hubs versus authorities:

"Some pages, the most prominent sources of primary content, are the authorities on the topic; other pages, equally intrinsic to the structure, assemble high-quality guides and resource lists that act as focused hubs, directing users to recommended authorities."

While originally useful, I think this has broken down somewhat, especially in the blog-enthusiast scene.

For example, you could make a case that our microsphere has various types strung out along a spectrum from "hub" to "authority": "hack collators", "hack reviewers", "hack explainers", "hack enhancers" and "hack originators". These different content types can appear within the same blog, with the particular mix drifting over time too.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...
How do we tie this thing together more tightly?
By churning out cotent or post which are easier to understand and which make things simple.

How can we find related and relevant content more effectively?
This is a sticky issue, I believe knowing what u precisely want to search always helps.

How do we restructure the process so that there is a greater reward for collaboration / inclusion & a diminished incentive for excluding / marginalising “competing” blogs?
Competing blogs suck.There is a need to help each other out.I dont think people are looking for rewards.

How might we encourage or achieve greater "vertical" interaction between blogs to complement the "horizontal" process of peer-to-peer microsphere formation?
I think some platform like wikipedia where readers can add on to the content.

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