Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Monday, February 13, 2006

Clive Thompson You Fool

So Clive Thompson wrote the cover piece for New York Magazine, called Blogs to Riches. It purports to explain the business of blogging. A few general comments, and then I'll rant for a bit.

The piece is about twice as long as it needs to be, and Thompson bizarrely repeats himself. He concentrates on the experiences of individual bloggers rather than the institutions that surround them - the mainstream publications, the blogads, the free blog publishers. Fine, I guess that's his choice, but the piece is pretty one-dimensional as a result.

Thompson consults a sociologist (good choice Clive!) to explain why there are a few blogs with lots of hits and lots of blogs with few hits. The sociologist's name is Shirky - I'm not making this up - and he thinks there is a "scientific explanation." His shocking conclusion: on average, the more links to your blog, the more hits you will get.

[A quick side note: Paul Krugman has written me a personal note assuring me that sociology does have merit. Bowing to his judgment, I can only tell you what Shirky said in this case and let you draw your own conclusions about this particular sociologist.]

Shirky invokes the concept of an information cascade, in which people gain information by observing the decisions of others. Since some blogs get lots of links, people think they're high quality, and so there's an element of self-perpetuating popularity. Interesting, and probably true to some extent, but Thompson comes tantalizingly close to a better explanation and then shies away. Here's Shirky:

"It’s not about moral failings or any sort of psychological thing. People aren’t lazy—they just base their decisions on what other people are doing. It’s just social physics. It’s like gravity, one of those forces."

Yeah, one of those forces. Except this doesn't explain the ability of new entrants to make rapid progress, as noted later in the piece. It doesn't explain why there have to be so few "winners," since links aren't inherently scarce.

What is scarce is time. People who read blogs can't read every blog they'd like to, there are simply too many. Meanwhile, apart from time spent, blogs are virtually costless to view. In this kind of market, economists aren't surprised when "superstars" emerge and dominate. This is because if you're 1% better than the next guy, there's no reason you can't steal all of his audience. This is true in mass media generally, because of the low cost of adding another viewer. The resulting "market for superstars" is characterized by fierce competition, a few very rich individuals, and many disappointed aspirants. Examples are Hollywood, music, and professional sports.

This is in contrast to, say, the market for surgeons (example from a paper by Schleifer). A surgeon who is 1% better might be able to charge higher prices, but he is limited in his output and can't dominate the whole market. In contrast, where output limitations are negligible, we can get a market for superstars. This is exactly what is going on with blogs.

If Thompson wants to write a good piece on blogging, I urge him to do what his parents did: get an economist, sir. Until then, stay out of the blogosphere, deadbeat.


Blogger Vincent van Goatse said...

Now this, on the other hand, is an example of a good post. Hear, hear!

7:11 PM  

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