Last week, when I ran across Henry Farrell’s
Crooked Timber entry on flogrolling, I was also reading from Watts’
Six Degrees and Barabasi’s
Linked. Flogrolling, as I understand it from the
places I could find it in recent circulation, names the aggressive efforts
to publicize or promote links, thereby elevating the rate of emergence of newer
bloggers. From Farrell’s entry and the comments following it, the
discussion seems to center on the problem of spamming entries to
Technorati and the resulting skew altering an entry’s popularity or
"interestingness" (a term which Farrell acknowledges as "ugly").
Flogrolling potentially circumvents more authentic geneses of interest in
small-world networks, such as those networks constituting the blogosphere. It
assumes, with links as a basic unit of exchange, rank is sharable; it can be
passed from one high-ranking blog to another through simple linking, even if
such linking is profit-motivated. Consequently, the new weblog stands on
the shoulders and enjoys a fleeting, deceptive mobility. Yes?
Although Barabasi doesn’t write directly
about weblogs, a few principles from his research seem to apply. Foremost, Barabasi suggests that scale-free networks
(as distinguished from random networks) should be understood in terms of growth and preferential attachment. Their busy edges and volatile topologies present us with just a few defining premises–premises which, as I understand them, may or may not apply neatly to the blogosphere or, more specifically, the network(s) of politically-interested blogs and bloggers. In a scale-free network (which is a theoretical abstraction, Watts tells us…no network can be both an object of study and purely scale-free), we might guess that the earliest-established nodes (some turned hubs) occupy a privileged position, near the tall margin of the power law graph (in fairness, Farrell and Drezner speculate that the politically-interested blogosphere follows a
lognormal distribution, rather than a power law). But when we factor
in competitiveness–the ongoing "up-for-grabs" nature of links–network fitness intervenes, bucking the assumption that the first-comers hold a protected position of privilege in the network. Fitness addresses the consequence of newly adjoining nodes, latecomers who inject new energy to the network, often with the potential of cascading beyond the proximal nodes and, thereby, imparting other effects. Barabasi
discusses this phenomenon in terms of Einstein-Bose condensations and Bose
gases, and although my few notes here are mostly just a summary of Barabasi’s
middle chapters, some of his physics references are more scientific than I can
write through with confidence just yet.
I’d like to return to the idea of "authentic geneses of interest." How
do we find weblogs we’re interested in or, more specifically, entries we’re
interested in? If we accept that ordinary links (rather than trackbacks)
are the dominant currency unit in the blogosphere, then I suppose it follows
reasonably that futzing with the genuine link as a gesture of interest and
replacing it, instead, with the flogrolled link–a paid-for gesture meant to
by-pass the economic order, results in economic disturbance. And although this
quasi-counterfeiting might initially appear in the form of robust new
accelerations in traffic for newcomers exploiting such a system, I tend to think
that the net effect will be negligible. Maybe that’s too strong a way to put it.
But as I read it alongside Watts’ discussion of tulip economies (196)–the
high-hopes bubbles bursting over The Netherlands following the spark-fizzle of
bulb sales, I had the impression that flogrolling will settle out as one of the
lesser disturbances in the blogosphere. Just how great is the disturbance?
How long will it elevate low-interest (or artificially trafficked) sites into
lofty standing before those sites must self-sustain or before the network’s
fitness coefficient stabilizes again? It’s just a hypothesis, really, but
the selective paths of specific readers who follow links according to interest
or reputation will restore the regular patterns. Granted, much of this
does little to account for the different ways we trace paths of interest across
the various small-world networks of the blogosphere. Whether by RSS,
Technorati searches, trackbacks, chains of blogrolls, conventional links and so
on–distinctions in how our interestedness is enacted when reading across the
blogosphere most definitely bears on these tentative few ideas.