Tuesday 07 January 2003

Quality vs Popularity

Commenting on my previous post, Burningbird wrote:

My only hope is to allow voices to be heard other than those at the top of the charts. We say ‘Wow, weblogs allow everyone to have their say!” and then we all read the same list of 100 people. Or only the few on our blogrolls.

Mark Pilgrim replied:

I think that any community, left to its own devices, naturally creates celebrities, because people want celebrities. Given unlimited choices, many people apparently just want to do what everyone else is doing, read who everyone else is reading. Why not let them do it?

…Yeah, I read all the people on my blogroll, every day. I subscribe to all of their sites. It’s a small group, and I know all of them at *least* through repeated email, and several in person. One I’ve known for 10 years. I’m an introvert; I *like* small intimate groups, and I dislike crowds. So I section off a small part of the vast virtual world and say “this part is mine, these people are the ones I’m comfortable with, and the rest not so much”.

[Aside: it is so cool to be able to link to individual comments—as in http://weblog.delacour.net/archives/000804.html#comment1826—thanks to Burningbird’s “recent comments” code.]

Interesting that Mark and Burningbird appear to be on opposite sides of the fence on this, when all I can see is a shared commitment to tracking, collating, and publicizing the inter-relationships between weblog entries. Mark does it through (amongst other methods) his use of the cite tag (allowing him to list posts by citation) and his “further reading” script that “auto-generates quotes from referring pages.” Burningbird uses TrackBack and her promised replacement of her blogroll with a favorite posts feature.

When Mark writes, “I’m an introvert; I *like* small intimate groups, and I dislike crowds,” he also describing me. Exactly.

And when he points out that, even offered unlimited choices, “many people apparently just want to do what everyone else is doing, read who everyone else is reading,” I’m hard pressed to disagree.

Well, not exactly. I watch on average an hour of TV a day. In any given week, now that Survivor is finished, I’ll catch the English Premier League Highlights, The Sopranos, perhaps NYPD Blue. The rest of time I’ll watch movies I’ve taped on SBS or rented. My backlog includes Shopgirls 2 (Italy), The Legends of Rita (Germany), Not One Less (China), The Last Dance (Japan), Girl’s Night Out (South Korea).

But, despite my eclectic tastes in books, movies, music, and television programs , like everyone else, there are limits on my time and attention. So, actually, I do agree with Mark. I will watch pretty much any Chinese, Japanese, or Korean movie. Yet American movies hardly interest me, and I’m more likely to be struck by lightning than to watch a movie from India, Poland, Iran, Senegal, or Mongolia.

In other words, I’ve sectioned off a small part of the vast cinematic world and said “this part is mine, these movies are the ones I’m comfortable with, and the rest not so much.”

Burningbird, on the other hand, argues that this is regrettable. And she’s right. My life may have taken an entirely different (more rewarding and productive) direction had I seen that Iranian or Mongolian movie, which spoke so directly to my deepest concerns and interests. I didn’t. I’m the loser, because I restricted my viewing to films from the few countries on my “movieroll” (much as I restrict my weblog reading to “the same list of 100 people. Or only the few on my blogroll”).

I don’t know what the answer is. Well, that’s not true. I do know what the answer is. It’s to be more open, it’s to leave room for the unfamiliar, to make time for experiences other than those I’m comfortable with. How do I find out about these potential rewarding encounters? By paying attention.

In terms of weblogs, it means checking my referers regularly (it’s not just those who agree with me who link to me), following unfamiliar links from familiar sites, chasing up trackbacks, and even (gasp!) perusing blo.gs, Technorati, and blogging ecosystem. Therein lies a conundrum: are the weblogs on the top 10/20/100 lists popular because they’re worth reading or popular because they’re popular?

This is what I suspect Burningbird is getting at, that popularity only occasionally correlates with quality. She’s passionate about auto-discovering new, unheard voices. But then so is Mark Pilgrim. And although I could be completely mistaken, it seems to me that they’re employing different technical strategies to achieve a similar outcome: by analyzing inbound links and/or trackbacks, find other weblogs that represent a shared interest in the topic(s) under discussion. Kind of like establishing new friendships, or matchmaking, where the objective is to find someone who’s both comfortably familiar and intoxicatingly different. Except that you get to fish in a deeper pool.

I am curious about one thing, though. Since the entries on Mark Pilgrim’s further reading list don’t just come from the weblogs on his blogroll, I’m curious about how widely he casts his net. Oh, silly me. He’s following referrers then analyzing each referring post. For a moment there I imagined his ability to produce million dollar markup had enabled him to become a one-man Google.

As for me, I don’t have any programming smarts so TrackBack will do me fine, as long as I have Burningbird’s example to follow. Either way, it’s exhilarating to be building a web with sticky strands.

Permalink | TrackBack (3)


I think, in general, that we're more comfortable diving into new experiences if there is still at least some tenuous thread connecting it to what we already know. It's the difference between trying an unfamiliar dish at a favorite restaurant versus sampling an unrecognizable meal in a never-before-attempted cuisine. By the same token, I might happily make that leap to the new meal at the new restaurant if an old friend (but maybe not a new co-worker) recommends it first . There's still a connection, still something familiar about the unfamiliar.

So your blogroll (and, to a certain extent, your referrers) can be at once a comfort zone and a source of trusted advice. A launching pad, if you will, for things that aren't necessarily the most popular, but that aren't too far removed from what you already know.

Perhaps it's best solved by the lazyweb, but referrers and blogrolls alone aren't enough. Neighborhoods can be very large, and interests both wide-ranging and fleeting. Imagine a kind of shared referrer log, aggregated for a month or six months, that finds convergence between who is coming and where you are going. This thread, here, is stronger because you travelled it yourself many times over; next to it, however, cropping up only occassionally, is a new path, equally interesting, but completely new and foreign, that only appears through multiple friend-of-a-friend recommendations over time.

I don't know how to build the damn thing. But I do know that there are answers out there to questions I haven't even come close to considering yet. There should be much more to referrer logs than "how many hits did I get today?"

Posted by: RKB on 8 January 2003 at 04:58 AM

"a new path, equally interesting, but completely new and foreign, that only appears through multiple friend-of-a-friend recommendations over time..."

You've hit the nail right on the head, Robert. This is exactly what I'd like to see, and use.

Have you submitted it to http://www.lazyweb.org/?

Posted by: Jonathon on 9 January 2003 at 10:19 AM

Something different.

Posted by: John Tranter on 19 March 2003 at 08:42 PM

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

© Copyright 2002-2003 Jonathon Delacour