In this article I draft guidelines for a Fractal Blogosphere and suggest that it be used as a measure of scale in the weblogging world. The goal is to help bloggers, particularly new ones, easily fit into a suitable blogging pattern.
Joi Ito wrote an interesting post today in response to Clay Shirky's Inequality post. It's about the ever-contentious subject of the power law as applied to weblogging. Joi suggested that we apply a Darwinian concept of "fitness" to the power law:
"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."
This appealed to me, as it resonates with my own Web of Ideas outlook of the Web. Basically I believe that the Web should be organised around topics, not people. But I also subscribe to the 'weblog as avatar' concept that Tom Coates came up with, so it's not that I want to abstract humans out of the Web. Far from it. But I think Joi is correct to place ideas and memes at the centre of his 'power law fitness' equation. The problem with the power law as applied to blogging is that we have been placing all the emphasis on the 'who' and not the 'what' - why else is the blogosphere so obsessed about the A-List and Top 100's? A much more interesting way to measure the power law is to measure the 'A-List ideas', or the 'Top 100 memes'.
In my comment on Joi's website, I referred to my Fractal Web post from a few days ago. I'd like to expand on one part of that post: when I wrote that the Fractal Web could be viewed as an antidote to the power law. What I meant by that is that the power law is a very black and white method of measuring one's value in the blogosphere. Or to put it another way, it's a very binary method. You're either Popular, or you're Not Popular. On or off, 1 or 0, win or lose.
Now don't get me wrong, I agree that the power law is correct. I accept Clay Shirky's supposition that all "large, heterogenous and robust" network systems conform to the power law. I've read Linked by Albert-Laszlo, I'm convinced. What I'm saying is that the power law should not be used by bloggers as a way to define themselves. As Ian Bogost said in Joi's comments: "...we need to increase our sense of subtlety and scale". I believe the Fractal Web concept is a better guide to living on the blogosphere than the power law, because it gives bloggers (and new bloggers in particular) more options on where and how to focus their writing efforts.
My Fractal Web concept for the blogosphere outlines 5 levels of involvement. These 5 levels are defined by audience quantity, but you can also think of it as gradations of motivation. The aim when using this system is not to become popular, which is by definition the only way you'll succeed if you measure yourself by the power law. The aim of my proposed Fractal system, which I'll call the Fractal Blogosphere, is for bloggers to find the level of structure that they feel most comfortable in. So without further ado, here's my draft 5 Fractal levels for bloggers:
10 - Personal Blogger. Your blog is designed to communicate with a very small and highly targeted group of people. Examples: blogging to keep in touch with your family; friends blogging personal things amongst themselves; a project team. The word 'personal' isn't quite right - but I want to convey that the people at this level personally know their readers.
100 - Social Blogger. Your audience is 100 or less, you have a core group of readers who share your interests and who tend to blog about the same topics as you do. Your writing is personal and conversational and your group sometimes leave comments on your blog or trackback you. You may not know your readers in real life, but you share a an affinity of interests with them.
1000 - Community Blogger. There are a number of options at this level. Maybe you're a Citizen Blogger who is writing for a community of readers - e.g. a Howard Dean blogger. Or you could still be basically a social blogger, with an increased audience - but you don't converse with all of your readers because there are now too many of them. At this level, your writing output needs to be adjusted to take into account the less conversational nature of your relationship to your readers.
10,000 - Broadcast Blogger. I'm not sure 'broadcast' is the right term, but I'm using Clay Shirky's term for a blogger who has a large network of readers and who therefore cannot interact with them as on the 100 or 1000 levels. Typically this is what is currently known as an A-List blogger, who publishes their ideas knowing that a large audience will consume them.
100,000 - Celebrity Blogger. This is someone whose every single idea or meme will be picked up by their readers and analysed. I'm thinking here of (for want of a better word) famous people whose blog output will be subjected to a large amount of scrutiny - people such as Howard Dean, or Tim Berners-Lee, or David Bowie if he ever decided to blog (and wouldn't it be great if he did!).
I'd like to see this list of Fractal levels expand out to 10 to give it even more breadth and scale, but right now - at short notice - I can only think of 5 levels. Also the audience numbers may not match up entirely, but the point is each level is defined by quantity of readers.
So there you have it, my draft for a Fractal Blogosphere. The most important aspect of this is that each level has a different structure. For example the writing style differs at each scale - as Seb noted: "...discourse often has to become less idiosyncratic when it is intended to reach a large audience, because less common ground / shared language can be assumed."
What I hope a Fractal Blogosphere will enable is that new bloggers can immediately decide where on the scale they fit in. Currently I get the feeling that a lot of bloggers see the blogosphere as a 'dog eat dog' world - survival of the fittest, where Fittest = Popular. Maybe that is turning some potential bloggers off? But if we have a series of structural levels defined, then we broaden the scope of blogging so that people no longer compete - compare themselves - with people who are working at a different level.
For example: if I were to use the power law to rate myself as a blogger, then I'd have to mark myself as a complete failure compared to say Robert Scoble. He's obviously and deservedly way more popular than me. But if I use the Fractal Blogosphere to define myself as a blogger, then I simply don't compare myself to Robert - because he's on level 10,000 and I'm on level 100. My value system would be something like this instead: am I producing sufficient quality ideas and memes to please my small but focused group of readers?
In upcoming posts I will explore some of the technical theory behind the Fractal Web. I discovered tonight that the Wikipedia has an excellent definition of "fractal", plus Mark Pilgrim has written on a related topic in recent times: Cantor Sets (which are an example of a fractal). I'll keep thinking of improvements to the Fractal Blogosphere, but I'd also like it to be picked up by someone who has a formal background in social software. But then if it's a good idea, it'll no doubt be fit enough to be amplified!