Thursday 14 March 2002

The value, rather than the economics, of time

Mike Sanders posed a series of questions about time-economics, in the context of this excerpt from John Hiler’s essay, The Tipping Blog: How Weblogs Can Turn an Idea into an Epidemic:

…it’s a lot easier to blog a quick link than it is to come up with your own content! When you come across an interesting link during your surfing, just stick the link in a blog window, snippet out a quote, and (if you’re up for it) add a quick comment. It may only take you a minute… but if your visitors check out the article, then they could [get?] up to half an hour of reading out of it.

Compare this to a personal blog about your life - it can take half an hour to write, but your readers only get a minute of reading out of it. With such brutal time-economics working against personal blogs, the majority of blog posts are made up of the familiar link + quote + comment.

Mike then asked:

Time-economics, what exactly does this mean? Is it how we spend our time - productively, purposefully, meaningfully, wastefully? I have been thinking about the time issue, in terms of both blogging and reading blogs and the articles they point to. Has anybody else thought about how to define time-economics? What is wasted time? How does it fit into the bigger questions of meaning and purpose? How precious a commodity is time?

By “brutal time-economics” I understand that John Hiler has run a cost-benefit analysis of the news item (i.e. link + quote + comment) blog relative to that of the personal blog (i.e. long-form or story-oriented, like this one). I don’t actually believe the distinction between the two is as clear cut as it seems, but it is definitely useful—not just for discussing the time-economics of blogging, but also for discussing the relationship between weblogs and RSS.

If we compare a news item blog post that points to a long article on another site with a personal blog post that is read on the same site, John Hiler’s argument can be summarized thus:

Weblog TypeNews ItemPersonal
Blogging Time (min)130
Reading Time (min)301
Cost-Benefit Ratio30.0333
Relative Advantage9001

The brutality of the time-economics lies in the calculation that the reader is ultimately engaged for thirty times longer via a link that took one-thirtieth of the time to create.

You can jiggle the numbers so that the news item post takes two minutes to create and the article it links to can be read in 15 minutes. But a personal story will generally take much longer than 30 minutes to write (I allow two to three hours) and won’t provide more than two minutes of reading time. In that case, the relative advantage will be halved (to 450 to 1) but the brutality remains.

This morning, following two links from Arts & Letters Daily, I spent at least an hour reading about the controversy surrounding Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen, so John Hiler’s theory seemed superficially persuasive. On closer examination, however, it begins to fall apart.

Firstly, John ignores the time needed to find items that might be worth linking to. Secondly, he ignores the time needed to read an article and make an informed judgement that it is indeed worthy of a link. When the total process of locating an article and deciding it’s worth a link is added to the minute or two it takes to write the post, the time-economics become far less brutal. (Of course it is possible to link to an article one hasn’t read; but over the long term, such a strategy will inevitably lead to reduced credibility for the lazy linker.)

More importantly, as with many economic arguments, John Hiler focuses only on what can be calculated (or estimated): the time to perform certain quantifiable tasks. For example, he ignores the creative satisfaction of writing a long-form personal post. It requires differing degrees of skill (with corresponding amounts of personal satisfaction) to :

On the opposite side of the balance sheet, John Hiler also fails to factor in the social satisfaction of linking to an article on another site. We do this all the time in the offline world: suggesting restaurants, books, movies, concerts, wine, business contacts, candidates for a blind date… to mention just a few of the many recommendations that friends, colleagues, and even acquaintances make to each other. In doing this we are saying: “I liked this activity/object/person very much and I have a strong feeling that you will too.” It’s one of the key social lubricants of the offline world and it’s no different when practised on the Web.

John refers to the people who do this best using terms borrowed from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point: Connectors (people who know lots of people) and Mavens (people who know lots about things). The vital importance of his essay arises not from the concept of time-economics but from his imaginative revisioning of the Connector-Maven phenomenon as applied to the Web.

Firstly he articulates the process through which Link Mavens and Connectors cause ideas to spread. Secondly, he shows how on the Web—unlike in the “real” world—the distinction between Connectors and Mavens blurs, encouraging the emergence of people like Jorn Barger, “a Link Maven who has developed the audience of a Connector.”

John correctly suggests that “as weblogs continue to mature, this phenomena will become increasingly common.” But Connector-Mavens of Jorn Barger’s quality will remain statistically few, because Jorn’s art is precisely the same as any other art: to do it well requires a degree of natural ability combined with far greater quantities of dedication, enthusiasm, and persistence, plus the willingness to ruthlessly evaluate one’s work and continually strive to improve it. To bring it back to time-economics, at Jorn’s level there is no essential difference—in either commitment or end result—between news item and personal weblogs.

But blogging offers other disciplines and rewards. In an essay that is anything but rambling (to the contrary, the ideas are carefully organized and build logically to a persuasive conclusion), Sam Ruby explains why he devotes time to blogging. Sam blogs because it brings him into contact with potential colleagues, because blogging facilitates adhoc collaboration, because the process of sharing information and insights makes it easier to make progress, because blogging encourages manufactured serendipity (Jon Udell’s term), because via his blog he meets someone who lives 10 miles away in the offline world.

Sam says he blogs:

Because it works. It finds worthwhile things for me to read. It helps me refine and focus my thoughts and be more productive too. And most of all, creates the opportunity to interact with more interesting people. That’s what’s in it for me.

I’d put it differently (assuming he’ll allow me). I’d say Sam blogs not because it works but because he works. What shines through his essay is the most glorious sense of work as a means of engaging with and contributing to the world. Sam Ruby loves to learn, he loves to collaborate, and he loves to share. What a wonderful way to spend his time (actually, his life). He’s not alone.

I can’t be sure but I think I’m safe in assuming that Sam Ruby is a software engineer. I’m not. I’m a writer. But, like Sam, I’ve discovered that blogging allows me to learn, to collaborate, and to share. I’m about to revise the structure and appearance of my site and, as part of that process, I intend to add an About Page, to explain my reasons for blogging. At the moment I’m tempted to have on that page a single link to Loren Webster’s Why I Blog. Loren writes, in part:

Generally, I blog for myself. Writing my ideas down forces me to look at my life and my ideas more carefully than I would by simply randomly running them through my head. Good writing is good thinking, and writing helps me to expose fuzzy thoughts. If I can’t write my ideas down clearly, I haven’t thought them out.

Writing regularly also brings new ideas up, ideas I wouldn’t have thought of if I hadn’t written the day before. The more I write the easier it is for me to write and to think of new ideas to write about. Writing also inspires me to read more than I have done lately because reading introduces new ideas or forces me to rethink old ideas…

I like to think of blogging as something more than just writing a journal. I like to think I’m part of a writing community. The bloggers I read and link to may all be writing about something quite different, but we use each other for inspiration and motivation to continue on our journey of self-discovery.

Reading Loren’s statement in the context of Sam’s, it is amazing how closely their reasons for blogging align. I suspect it’s because they’re both committed to the joy of learning. (Godard made a film about just this subject, one of my favorites, called Le Gai Savoir. I hope to write about it soon.)

Mike asks: “How precious is time?” It’s precious indeed, as precious as life itself—since time calibrates the life we choose to lead. Blogging requires passion and commitment and, though the degree may vary from one weblog to another, I believe we all invest meaning and purpose in the time we devote to writing blogs, to reading blogs, and to the articles we point to. I can’t begin to imagine how anyone would regard that as wasted time.



JD stop this or you will go blind.

Posted by: Gerrit Fokkema on 14 March 2002 at 01:53 PM

Phew - I'm exhausted just scrolling through this...thank goodness for the closing para

Posted by: victor echo zulu on 14 March 2002 at 08:43 PM

trying to see how this works with a new beginner's article on hotlinking

Posted by: hotlinking on 19 May 2003 at 07:51 PM

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2002-2003 Jonathon Delacour