Tuesday, March 1, 2005

Tulip Economy and Fitness

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 few 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.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at March 1, 2005 10:31 PM to Networks