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June 29, 2006

kids, communities, and online popularity

I am concerned that we are setting kids up for disappointment when we tell them that the Internet gives everyone the equivalent of a broadcast studio with which one can reach many people and change the world. Even if some kids are highly successful, most will not draw a significant audience.

Yochai Benkler's excellent book the Strength of Networks (which is available free online with interactive features) is a useful starting point for considering this problem. In this post, I draw on Benkler's Chapter 7.

Some early enthusiasts for the Internet assumed (with the Supreme Court in Reno v. ACLU) that everyone with a computer could become a "pamphleteer," putting ideas into the public arena that would reach audiences simply in proportion to their relevance, value, or popularity. In that case, the popularity of websites would follow a bell curve, with more sites near the median than near the tails.

But Benkler rejects such "mid-1990s utopianism" (p. 260). A few sites are enormously more popular than the median, and there is a long tail in which sites show little evidence of an audience at all. For example, the median blog currently tracked by Truth Laid Bear (a popular ranking service) has two incoming links, whereas the top blog has 4,201.

Early papers that discovered this "power-law" (see graph, below) took a skeptical or critical line. The Internet was not a democracy or a meritocracy. Rather, people and search engines linked to sites that were already popular, thus making them more so. The rich got richer, regardless of merit.

But Benkler summarizes findings that are more optimistic than a pure power law-theory would imply. Mathematical models of the web suggest that unknown sites do rise in popularity and popular ones fall. There are many stories about innovations in tactics, techniques, or ideas that spread very rapidly. For instance, BoycottSBG--a response to the Sinclair Broadcasting Group's alleged Republican bias--obtained enormous participation within a week. As Benkler says, "it was providing a solution that resonated with the political beliefs of many people and was useful to them for their expression and mobilization" (p. 247).

Benkler observes a "self-organizing principle" on the World Wide Web. People with strong mutual affinities find one another and link their websites or leave comments on each others' pages. Within these affinity groups, some sites become more popular than others. But (a) there are many affinity groups, and (b) the popularity curve is not always steep within a group. "When the topically or organizationally related clusters become small enough--on the order of hundreds or even low thousands of Web pages--they no longer follow a pure power law distribution. Instead, they follow a distribution that still has a very long tail--these smaller clusters still have a few genuine 'superstars'--but the body of the distribution is substantially more moderate: beyond the few superstars, the shape of the link distribution looks a little more like a normal distribution." (p. 251)

Clusters of affinity groups then aggregate, often through sites that are or become "superstars." We thus see a highly skewed distribution of popularity on the Internet as whole, yet the Web remains plural and open because of all the smaller groups. As Benkler says, "There is a big difference between a situation where no one is looking at any of the sites on the low end of the distribution, because everyone is looking only at the superstars, and a situation where dozens or hundreds of sites at the low end are looking at each other, as well as at the superstars" (p. 251). On Benkler's model, "filtering for the network as a whole is done as a form of nested peer-review decisions, beginning with the speaker’s closest information affinity group" (p. 258). Lively dialogues begin "with communities of interest on smallish scales, practices of mutual pointing, and the fact that, with freedom to choose what to see and who to link to, with some codependence among the choices of individuals as to whom to link, highly connected points emerge even at small scales, and continue to be replicated with ever-larger visibility as the clusters grow" (p. 252).

Thus Benkler contends that the Internet is considerably more "democratic" (i.e., pluralist, open, and responsive to spontaneous popular opinion) than the traditional mass media, even if it is not utopian. I can share those views, yet I continue to worry about ordinary kids in ordinary settings who are asked to express themselves through the World Wide Web.

1. Most kids will not draw substantial audiences, because most websites remain in the tail of the distribution. If you have a less popular site, you get little feedback from your readers and viewers. Kids who create such sites may feel that they are failures, in a culture that prizes popularity.

2. Kids are unlikely to obtain a substantial audience through sheer talent or innovation or by "resonating" with public opinion. Some kids will, but the average won't.

3. Kids may not belong to tight affinity groups, differentiated from the mass youth population. Benkler mentions "communities of interest on smallish scales" that conduct peer-review and create audiences by linking to one another. But adolescents do not automatically have such communities. The typical US high school is a massive and anonymous institution to which students do not feel attached. Kids have common concerns, but they tend to share them with millions of others. Mass media culture is profoundly homogenizing.

I suspect that the solutions to these problems do not lie primarily online. For example, the current movement to create small, "themed" high schools to replace large comprehensives would put kids in cohesive communities. Many students would care about shared local issues. They would then be interested in one another's online products. But that change would begin with a "breaks-and-mortar" reform: building smaller schools. Likewise, when students throughout Hampton, VA, are recruited to sit on the city's various boards, kids develop a common interest in their geographical community. But that interest starts with a policy change.

Posted by peterlevine at June 29, 2006 10:43 AM


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