networks: October 2004 Archives

Head v. Tail

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Last night, as I watching the Sawx come one step closer, my mom asked me whether I thought that the Internet had made things better. I don't remember the context of the question, but I do recall my ambivalence in answering it. And later on last night, I came across the following story, collected concisely here by Jeff Jarvis:

S., who lives in San Francisco, sends an email to A., a political correspondent for the New York Times. That email contains a particularly injudicious remark wishing harm upon A.'s "kid." D., a colleague of A.'s, is offended, and writes a Sunday column (reg. required), publishing this remark (against the wishes of S.) and naming both S. and identifying his home. S.'s reward for this remark, as a result: hordes of nasty emails, hateful phone calls, and a lasting effect far out of proportion with a private statement, however originally hateful it was:

What won't go away for years, if ever, are the results of the Google search of my name every prospective employer, professional colleague, new friend or potential spouse is likely to conduct in the future. When you search my name now, you learn right away that the Public Editor of the New York Times called me a coward and a despicable person incapable of consideration of others.

That's from the "open letter" that S. has posted to his own site, where you can also find out the names of the principals here. As ugly as his original comment was, S. is right to note that, instead of taking the high road (ostensibly the point of D.'s column), D. has traumatized S.'s children and potentially damaged his reputation, job prospects, and life for a long time to come, a pretty steep price for a private email composed in the heat of anger. S.'s conclusion is worth reading:

Let me close by pledging that, henceforth, I shall write all of my e-mails as though they will be published in the New York Times. I shall write them with the care, consideration and respect for civil discourse that one would expect from the public editor of the nation's leading newspaper. I will write them as though I am writing a respected column that will be read by people around the world, and that will be captured in Google forever. My parting request to you, [D.], should you choose not to do the honorable thing and resign, is that you pledge to never again write a column for the New York Times as though you are writing a private, angry and hostile e-mail to an audience of one.

Jarvis has another post on this as well, one that deplores the fact that incivility simply breeds more incivility. Also of interest is Chris Nolan's reflection on the possibility that there's a marked difference between the ways that people on each coast have taken up communications and connectivity in the past few years. Nolan's conclusions are certainly overgeneralized, but her initial premise, that people in different geographic regions will take up technology in different ways, is a sound one, and one that will be a source of frequent misunderstandings and cautionary tales for years to come, I suspect. If even part of what she suggests is true, it's another example of how our social adoptions of technology trail well behind our ability to produce new technologies themselves.

And the original question? It's going to take any number of stories like S.'s or David Hailey's before the kind of civility that Jarvis asks for will emerge. It's kind of like having to touch the stove and burning a finger before one will really believe that it's hot. We're still very much in the finger-burning stage of development with respect to the Internet, I think, and that can be both good and bad.

The Long Tail, part 2

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One important exception to the dearth of commentary on Anderson's piece comes from Adina Levin, who builds on and speculates about the essay in important ways. She writes,

The Long Tail article reveals the limitations of the Clay Shirky power law model. Several years ago, Shirky explained how the top of the peer production curve segues into the mass market. The aggregation of interest raises popular bloggers like Andrew Sullivan, and popular open source software projects like Linux far above the tail, to join the ranks of mass market mainstream hits.

The Power Law essay amputates the long tail, and translates the head of the peer production curve into familiar mass market terms -- the creation and packaging of celebrities. By focusing at the top of the curve, where peer production segues into the mass market, the Power Law obscures the the economic and social principles that create profit and value from the Long Tail.

I'm not sure that I agree with the title that precedes this section ("The Power Law Red Herring") so much as I agree with the remark that closes it ("the relationship between the head and the tail is symbiotic instead."). I'm working from memory here, but it seems to me that Clay's essay is a necessary corrective to the idea that the blogosphere is automatically democratic or egalitarian--it's an explanation of the principles by which any network of a certain size will ultimately produce an A-list (whether we call the members of that list celebrities, the literary canon, etc.). The problem isn't so much that power laws themselves "obscure" the value to be found at the other end, though. Rather, I'd argue that this is one of the strategies deployed by the culture industry to protect itself. At its root, a power law is an assertion about the economy of attention. The A-list of bloggers may or may not be better than anyone else, but they receive the most attention. The conflation of "more" with "better" (50 million Britney fans can't be wrong?) is what obscures that value.

And there are mitigating forces as well. If we look at these curves ecologically or symbiotically, as Adina suggests, then we might start identifying various Slashdot effects. Anderson's essay opens with one, explaining how Touching the Void benefitted from Into Thin Air. I would never have read Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy had it not been for Harry Potter. And Oprah's practically made an industry out of Slashdotting various books, singers, etc. And every time this happens, it re-shuffles the distribution curve, sometimes more temporarily than others.

This suggests that power law curves get short-circuited every so often, but I'm not sure that this means anything other than exceptions that prove the general rule. Amazon, Netflix, and others may derive more profit from the long tail, but my guess is that this is because long-tailers find those services more to their liking. In other words, the fact that they seem to refute or disprove power laws may be a result of the fact that, in a larger ecology of sellers, they're simply more representative than the mass market outlets of a certain group of consumers.

I'm making more than I'd intended out of this single point. Suffice it to say that I'll be assigning all three of these pieces together next semester.

Belonging to the Long Tail

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Okay, so I may be the second- or third-to-last person to post about Chris Anderson's article in WIRED on "The Long Tail," but I'm mindful of what Mary Hodder was saying last week about the lack of blogospheric engagement with it (beyond quotes and points). At the tail end of her post, Mary asks a bunch of good questions that may never find answers, mainly because it would require these various companies to divulge more information than they're typically willing to offer.

She asks "what kinds of sellers exist further down the curve," and my gut answer is that just about all academic presses would qualify here. One of the crucial differences, though, between academic presses and more popular ones is that no one who publishes an academic book expects (or, given the general density of prose, tries) to achieve the kind of success implied by the power law distribution curve. That doesn't disprove Anderson or Pareto, but it does complicate the long tail a bit. There are portions of these industries where "micro-fame" is the goal (Gordon Gould had a post about this, about which I wrote, back in May.), and although an overall power law may still obtain, it flattens some crucial distinctions.

Before Amazon, it was really no more difficult to get a hold of academic press books--in many cases, Amazon still requires a 1-2 week wait for a lot of the titles I order, unless they're brand spanking new. The difference between ordering it there and ordering it at a bookstore, I'd argue, is that Amazon offers the illusion of immediacy that placing an order at a bookstore, waiting two weeks, and then going in to collect and pay for a book does not. Yes, it's marginally more convenient to have the book delivered, and yes, there's collaborative filtering (still secondary to scholarly networks for me, though, in usefulness). But the important difference is this: in a bookstore, I can either buy a book off the shelves or order it. There is a lived, experiential contrast between those two--one is immediately gratifying, the other delays gratification. At Amazon, we don't really experience the difference between one end of the power law curve and the other--in both cases, we order the product, and wait a couple of days to get it.

And because my experience of ordering an academic press book is the same for that of ordering a best-seller, Amazon doesn't make me feel obscure for doing so. Instead, I feel like I'm part of one big, happy market, even though I'm one of maybe a couple hundred (at most) who will buy that book there.

It may be different for other media, but I think that Amazon's success isn't simply a matter of providing access to the long tail of the book market--it's in minimizing the differences between those of us who practically live in the long tail and those who don't. At Amazon, I experience no less convenience than someone who only buys best-sellers. In other words, Amazon makes everyone feel as though they belong equally, and a lot of the "secondary" features of the site (if we assume that sales is the primary feature) are geared to enhancing that sense of belonging. And if I feel like Amazon meets my needs better than other options, that's where I'll spend my money.

I've got more to say, but I'm going to pause here, and come back in a bit.

evidence, part 2

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Continuing yesterday's thoughts, and following Cameron's addition of the VP debate to his data set, I wanted to talk a little bit about what I see as the significance of this kind of analysis.

This is important for me because one of the basic questions that I find myself asking about network studies is the degree to which this kind of study is merely descriptive. In other words, what benefits are there to having this sort of evidence? What kinds of claims and/or strategies can build on network analysis?

We tend to think of language as something over which we have complete control. But anyone who writes over a fair period of time knows that this isn't the case. In my case, I can no longer remember the specific language of articles that I myself have written any better than I can remember others'. And yet, there are certain features--of style, semantics, vocabulary, etc.--that remain relatively constant, and which I do recognize when I go back and read my writing. "Relatively" because we absorb all those things as we come into contact with others' language, and that contact nudges us in various directions. I may use a word more often because I like it, or avoid certain sentence constructions because I find them confusing. But the deeper the patterns, the slower the change, and the less conscious control we have over them. We may have immediate control over something that we are writing at the present moment, but we don't think about every single word to an equal degree. We take any variety of shortcuts--language use is at heart a vast network of shortcuts and connotations, and we use those shortcuts and patterns as a means of conserving our communicative energies.

And so the virtue of a doing large-scale, statistical analysis of a set of textual data is that it may reveal those shortcuts, those subconscious preoccupations that emerge over the long term in the language we use. As I think I already mentioned, this kind of analysis is limited by small samples, and it's likewise limited by textual performances that are as highly scripted as the debates undoubtedly are. In other words, both things allow for more conscious, deliberate control over text.

And yet, there are things that can be said here. When I see, for example, the prominence of the phrase "hard work," my sense is that W is basically asking for the political equivalent of an "A for effort." Given how quickly they've been to accuse the Dems of "demeaning the sacrifice" of our troops, I think that they realize that, in the face of a very limited amount of success, they have to argue not that we've been successful, but rather that we've tried really, really hard. Of course, my gut response is that they've made a big deal out of the bankruptcy of such a tactic when it comes to teachers that they have no right to rely on it themselves. If teachers are to be judged purely on the basis of their students' test scores (i.e., quantitative results) regardless of how hard teachers work, then they should not shy from the same sort of accountability themselves. If it's not enough for teachers to "work hard" and "fail," then it's hypocritical of them not to abide by the same standard.

Now, a healthy dose of this is partisan interpretation on my part, I know, but the patterns unearthed by analyses like Cameron's, I would argue, give us avenues for that kind of interpretation, avenues that do carry some quantitative justification behind them. This doesn't mean that all language use can simply be reduced to statistical patterns--far from it, in fact--but rather that it is a mix of conscious art and subconscious pattern, and that to date, we've (and that's a disciplinary "we") been less inclined to pursue the latter element. I would say that the work of Don Foster is a notable exception to this, and I'm sure that there are others whose work I have yet to encounter, particularly in linguistics.

currently reading

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Critical Mass by Philip Ball
I must admit that I'm a little surprised to have not heard more about this book, Philip Ball's Critical Mass. At Amazon, it's paired with Wisdom of Crowds, which I've seen all over the place (and finally bought, I might add). Anyhow, CM is not your typical network book. Ball is a science writer who's done a number of different things, and many of them come together to confront the subtitle of his book, "How One Thing Leads to Another." In other words, like The Tipping Point, Emergence, and others, this is a book about change.

It's not quite as accessible as Johnson or Gladwell, perhaps, but that's because Ball locates network studies in the context of about 400 years worth of science, social science, physics, thermodynamics, economics, statistics, and so on. I'm only about halfway through, so I'll reserve my reviewy comments for when I finally finish it. It's probably not going to be specific enough for me to use it in my course next semester, but if there were a way for me to guarantee that everyone had already read it, I would. It's thick, and as it's only in hardcover, it's a little pricey, but it's also one of those books that really lays out cross-disciplinary connections in a way that's compelling for me.

my spring course

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One of the things I was really looking forward to, as I embarked both on my leave this semester and my trip, was the chance to finally start working seriously on the course I'll be teaching next semester. I started a blog for it last spring, but it fell by the wayside as I worked on the book manuscript, read dissertations chapters, etc. I'm starting to pick the material up again now, working my way through some of the reading, starting to think about how I'll lay the class out, and so on.

I mention this because I've posted an extended course description now for what will be CCR 711: Network(ed) Rhetorics, and anyone who's interested is more than welcome to take a look. I'm hoping to conduct as much of the course online as possible, and likewise hoping that I can recruit some guest bloggers for the course site. I want to try and network the course as much as possible.

I always try and find angles into my courses, ways to make them fresh for myself as well as the students, but this will be a course rooted strongly in my immediate interests, and I'm hoping to share my own process of exploration as part of the course. I place a lot of emphasis on modeling the processes of reading and writing for students, even at the graduate level, and this course should be exemplary in that regard. I'll be asking students to join me at the beginning of a "research program" rather than positioning myself as the final arbiter, or the expert.

Can you tell I'm excited?



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This page is a archive of entries in the networks category from October 2004.

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