To analyze the disparities in the blogosphere, Shirky took a sample of 433 blogs. Then he counted an interesting metric: the number of links that pointed toward each site (“inbound” links, as they’re called). Why links? Because they are the most important and visible measure of a site’s popularity. Links are the chief way that visitors find new blogs in the first place. Bloggers almost never advertise their sites; they don’t post billboards or run blinking trailers on top of cabs. No, they rely purely on word of mouth. Readers find a link to Gawker or Andrew Sullivan on a friend’s site, and they follow it. A link is, in essence, a vote of confidence that a fan leaves inscribed in cyberspace: Check this site out! It’s cool! What’s more, Internet studies have found that inbound links are an 80 percent–accurate predictor of traffic. The more links point to you, the more readers you have. (Well, almost. But the exceptions tend to prove the rule: Fleshbot, for example. The sex blog has 300,000 page views per day but relatively few inbound links. Not many readers are willing to proclaim their porn habits with links, understandably.)
When Shirky compiled his analysis of links, he saw that the smaller bloggers’ fears were perfectly correct: There is enormous inequity in the system. A very small number of blogs enjoy hundreds and hundreds of inbound links—the A-list, as it were. But almost all others have very few sites pointing to them. When Shirky sorted the 433 blogs from most linked to least linked and lined them up on a chart, the curve began up high, with the lucky few. But then it quickly fell into a steep dive, flattening off into the distance, where the vast majority of ignored blogs reside. The A-list is teensy, the B-list is bigger, and the C-list is simply massive. In the blogosphere, the biggest audiences—and the advertising revenue they bring—go to a small, elite few. Most bloggers toil in total obscurity.
Economists and network scientists have a name for Shirky’s curve: a “power-law distribution.” Power laws are not limited to the Web; in fact, they’re common to many social systems. If you chart the world’s wealth, it forms a power-law curve: A tiny number of rich people possess most of the world’s capital, while almost everyone else has little or none. The employment of movie actors follows the curve, too, because a small group appears in dozens of films while the rest are chronically underemployed. The pattern even emerges in studies of sexual activity in urban areas: A small minority bed-hop, while the rest of us are mostly monogamous.
The power law is dominant because of a quirk of human behavior: When we are asked to decide among a dizzying array of options, we do not act like dispassionate decision-makers, weighing each option on its own merits. Movie producers pick stars who have already been employed by other producers. Investors give money to entrepreneurs who are already loaded with cash. Popularity breeds popularity.
“It’s not about moral failings or any sort of psychological thing. People aren’t lazy—they just base their decisions on what other people are doing,” Shirky says. “It’s just social physics. It’s like gravity, one of those forces.”
Power laws are arguably part of the very nature of links. To explain why, Shirky poses a thought experiment: Imagine that 1,000 people were all picking their favorite ten blogs and posting lists of those links. Alice, the first person, would read a few, pick some favorites, and put up a list of links pointing to them. The next person, Bob, is thus incrementally more likely to pick Alice’s favorites and include some of them on his own list. The third person, Carmen, is affected by the choices of the first two, and so on. This repeats until a feedback loop emerges. Those few sites lucky enough to acquire the first linkages grow rapidly off their early success, acquiring more and more visitors in a cascade of popularity. So even if the content among competitors is basically equal, there will still be a tiny few that rise up to form an elite.
First-movers get a crucial leg up in this kind of power-law system. This is certainly true of the blogosphere. If you look at the list of the most-linked-to blogs on the top 100 as ranked by Technorati—a company that scans the blogosphere every day—many of those at the top were first-movers, the pioneers in their fields. With 19,764 inbound links, the No. 1 site is Boing Boing, a tech blog devoted to geek news and nerd trivia; it has been online for five years, making it a grandfather in the field. In the gossip- blog arena, Gawker is the graybeard, having launched in 2002. With 4,790 sites now linking to it, Gawker towers above the more-recent entrants such as PerezHilton.com (with 1,549 links) and Jossip (with 814). In politics, the highest is Daily Kos, one of the first liberal blogs—with 11,182 links—followed closely by Instapundit, an early right-wing blog, with 6,513. Uncountable teensy political blogs lie in their shadows.