Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Blogging Politics: Network Effects and the Hierarchy of Success

Daniel Drezner and Henry Farrell have edited a special issue of Public Choice on the political power of the blogosphere.

In their introductory empirical article, "
The Power and Politics of Blogs," the authors hypothesize how network effects tend to push the most popular blogs to the top of the blogosphere:

We argue that bloggers and readers face an important coordination problem, which may be analyzed as a pure coordination game. The problem is as follows. Most bloggers wish to maximize their readership, but face very substantial difficulties in gaining new readers. Given the vast number of blogs even in the political subsection of the blogosphere, it is extraordinarily hard for them to attract readers, even when they have something interesting and unique to offer. Blog readers, for their part, want to find interesting blog posts—in terms of either new information or a compelling interpretation of old information. However, given search costs and limited time, it is nearly impossible for readers to sift through the vast amounts of available material in order to find the interesting posts.

Blogs with large numbers of incoming links offer both a means of filtering interesting blog posts from less interesting ones, and a focal point at which bloggers with interesting posts, and potential readers of these posts can coordinate. When less prominent bloggers have an interesting piece of information or point of view that is relevant to a political controversy, they will usually post this on their own blogs. However, they will also often have an incentive to contact one of the large “focal point” blogs, to publicize their post. The latter may post on the issue with a hyperlink back to the original blog, if the story or point of view is interesting enough, so that the originator of the piece of information receives more readers. In this manner, bloggers with fewer links function as “fire alarms” for focal point blogs, providing new information and links. This reduces the need for bloggers at the top of the link structure to engage in “police patrols” to gather information on their own....The skewed network structure of the blogosphere makes it less costly for outside observers to acquire information from blogs. The networked structure of the blogosphere allows interesting arguments to make their way to the top of the blogosphere. Because of the lognormal distribution of weblogs, the media only needs to look at the top blogs to obtain a “summary statistic” about the distribution of opinions on a given political issue. The mainstream political media—which some bloggers refer to as the “mediasphere”—can therefore act as a transmission belt between the blogosphere and politically powerful actors. Blogs therefore affect political debate by affecting the content of media reportage and commentary about politics. Just as the media can provide a collective interpretive frame for politicians, blogs can create a menu of interpretive frames for the media to appropriate.
That's a fairly academic discussion.

The bottom line is their main point about hyperlinking and and trackbacking: To be successful, lower level "
9th tier" bloggers need to keep busy signaling important new scoops and stories to those at the top of the blogging chain. Sweet hyperlinks back to the lower tier bloggers drive traffic, familiarity, and with luck, popularity.

But there's a lot more that goes into it, I would argue.

Some bloggers,
like Drezner himself, are academics who've built a name in scholarly research, and with that authority - and vigorous self-promotion - they're able to establish a reputation as a "focal point" blogger among fellow academics and the media establishment.

Other bloggers are part of the existing media establishment, like
Michael Medved and Michelle Malkin. Their success at blogging is a relative function of their success in radio and television, or perhaps even from the synergistic relationship of all three media (in Malkin's case, especially).

In both examples, academics and media personalities, there's a degree of exposure from related professional activities that helps drive traffic to their homepages.

Other cases are harder to figure out.

Some folks are just darn good bloggers, who write well and build a reputation and following in the online community.
Captain Ed is a good example. When he was at Captain's Quarters, he broke some big news stories, working essential as an online journalist. Talking Points Memo has followed a similar trajectory to the top of the left blogosphere.

Then there are those who are just incredibly hip, or something, who've built a large community of readers and linkers who feed off each other in the classic ideological echo chamber. There are too many to name here, but
Kos on the left and Power Line on the right seem to fit the classic focal point blogs which are often at the center of some of the top online political debates.

(I'd note that the guys at Power Line are closer to the Captain Ed model than is Kos, in that they've
been key in breaking open big media stories, cementing their influence as influential focal point blogs; in contrast, Kos just seems to chum the waters of the extremist, nihilist left, apparently envisioning himself as the center of the universe of the left's contemporary online media environment).

Other than that, some blogs just build popularity through community and
a strong message or focus (Screw Liberals comes to mind). These are folks who've got some kind of verve or schtick, and they're able to make a good go of it, largely as an aside to a regular career (or they've got a darn good set of values, like Gayle at Dragon Lady's Den, through which they become good and loyal friends to their readers).

So, is there any advice for the aspiring blogger, who hopes to leap up the rungs of the blogging hiarachy, perhaps at some future point working to bring down a network news anchor or some other feat of citizen's journalism?

Who knows? Most bloggers only generate a few readers, and then burn out after a period of futility of variable duration (that's just from my own observation).

I nevertheless thought Michelle Malkin offered some pretty good advice on how to be a successful blogger, over at
Right Wing News:
There are a couple of factors. The first is not to try to be somebody else. If you want to be a success...don't be another Michelle Malkin or Glenn Reynolds or a Drudge wannabe. The marketplace of ideas rewards original ideas and original thinkers and I think having a niche is very important. ...The blogosphere rewards fresh information and reporting, energy, initiative, and...I think a lot of the humor blogs do well, like Iowahawk, Ace of Spades HQ. There are so many people with something unique to add. Plus, it takes a work ethic. You're not going to be successful if you only post 2 or 3 times a day and if you don't have fun doing it, you shouldn't be in it.
That last part's key.

Last summer I had a months-long e-mail exchange with Titus (formerly Angevin13) over at the
Punch Die. (Titus has a solid reputation, and was very successful in garnering links, including a couple of "instalanches" from Glenn Reynolds). We were obssessing on how to increase our exposure in the conservative blogosphere, offering each other different tips to drive traffic and blog power.

To be honest, it's awfully hard to build up a regular readership, much less online media influence. But Malkin's last point seems most relevant here: Publish regularly, with lots of original analysis.

As some readers here have noticed, I've really picked up my own publishing volume this year. I didn't really plan it. Things just starting coming together as I was blogging John McCain's campaign for the GOP presidential nomination. I got extremely invested in his success, and with all of intensity of the race - and not to mention the outbreak of
McCain Derangement Syndrome - my blog started getting a lot of attention, links, and even solictations for advertising.

I'm still down on the lower rungs (the 9th tier, I imagine), but some days I get all kinds of links from high-traffic blogs like
Gateway Pundit, and from aggregation sites like Blog Report, Memeorandum, and RealClearPolitics.

But as I used to tell Titus: Blogging's not my career. I'm a father, a husband, and a professor of political science. Though I must admit, sometimes that order gets a bit discombobulated amid the considerable affliction I've got with my own citizen's journalism!