Small World of Bloggers

[via John Robb] Jim Moore answers a question we’ve probably thought of quite often: Why do blogs have such a large social influence, given that the total number of active bloggers is tiny relative to the number of human beings on the planet? The answer lies in the strength of weak ties. Writes Moore:

Blogs have a special social relevance because they allow their bloggers to create and maintain a network of weak social ties. The network of weak ties that a blogger can sustain is open to all comers, and is potentially vast and highly diverse (as diverse as the web itself–which of couse is not diverse enough, but is more diverse than, say, academic journals). Blogs are weak tie machines! Anyone (you!) can read my blog.

If my ideas seem relevant to you, you can take them and plant them within your local, strong-bonded social network. Of course, if you are a blogger, you can also spread them across your own blog-based weak ties–and thus diffuse the ideas even farther.

Blogging helps us expand and maintain a large number of loose ties. And loose ties, to go back to Granovetter’s point, are the vital links for social progress. Social progress may be (oversimply, of course) defined as the spread of good ideas across society, and the combination and recombination of people into new groups that can take collective action.

Finally, a good thing about weak social ties is that it appears to be difficult to exert conventional social pressure across such ties. It is hard to “pressure” someone into agreeing with an idea or an action. Loose ties are voluntary. Thus ideas and actions that grow across networks of weak ties can perhaps be presumed to be better vetted by each person–based on merit rather than coercion. Perhaps this process of individual discernment helps filter out bad ideas seeking to spread across the network of loose ties. Perhaps this filtering in turn contributes to collective wisdom being developed across the loose-tie long distance network as a whole, and thus also within the strong-tie local communities at the edges.

Finally, if we really want to understand the effect of blogging and bloggers, we need to study the conversion of ideas into face-to-face community organization. This is the move I think of as “from netroots to grassroots” and that is my present passion.

Adds John Robb: “This is precisely the glue that is linking up groups globally (think second superpower). Weblogs aren’t only alternative media sources, they link groups together in ways that promote coordinated action. There’s lots of great work going on right now analyzing online social networks in relation to small-world dynamics.”

Another post by John Robb discusses the Howard Dean campaign in this context:

The Dean campaign is reliant on small-world dynamics for its power. The cross connections of egalitarian weak links of Deanie weblogs and the aristocratic Dean hub weblog serve to amplify good or positive information moving through the system. Of course, this can cut the other way too. Bad or negative information can be amplified out of proportion in this type of network.

My guess is that the Dean network is composed of relatively isolated clusters of nodes that rely on high throughput conduit nodes for connectivity. If this is true, then the Dean hub and software strategy is correct. It is using the hub weblog to pump information to the high-throughput conduit weblogs using RSS (which strengthens them).

A third post analyses the role of the campaign hub weblog in an online campaign:

The simple answer is that it should serve as a source of reliable information on the campaign’s activities. The more important answer is that it should serve as a way for supporters find each other. In other words: it should be a system for making introductions that lead to weak links.

How is this done? Short, punchy posts that quote and link to high-quality supporter weblogs. Bots can help, but they shouldn’t serve as a substitute to editorial intelligence (case in point: the Clark campaign weblog points inward with its posts and relies on bots to help people find each other). Also, don’t rely on an inside team for analysis of breaking stories in the general media. Use the community to do the analysis for you. They will almost always do a better job. Find it, quote it, and point to it. The more you drive readers to other community weblogs the better. Don’t hoard your readers (all the campaign weblogs could do better with this!!).

Create synthetic weblogs that address specific issues. Draw on the analysis done by the community to populate these synthetic weblogs. Use editorial judgement on what is included (don’t rely on a bot!). A Wiki-like categorization system like that on Scripting News is a good way to do this. Perhaps a simple trackback ping system could provide the raw material to populate these synthetic weblogs (or the reverse, categorized RSS feeds from supporter weblogs that are combined into a single weblog flow). Get a Google pizza box and create a search system with community-centric PageRank for supporter weblogs. Build a Blogdex or Daypop top 40 for community weblogs.

Build a system for supporters to easily subscribe to each other. Aggregate the RSS links of community weblogs into one easy to find place. Work with aggregator vendors to offer tools configured for the campaign (don’t rely on an internal effort to build the tool — it probably won’t be best of breed and difficult to maintain).

Similar ideas could be used for launching products and ideas also.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.