Jeff Jarvis: His Blog and the Street Choir

You know I just can’t see you now
In my new world crystal ball
You know I just can’t free you now
That’s not my job at all
– Van Morrison

Before we get started, please recall my position statement from the other day: “I’m not so much interested in having the blogosphere operate differently as I am in calling bullshit when people try to say it operates differently than it actually does.”

As the dust settles over our most recent gatekeeper debate, with a lot of good and bad points having been made by bloggers on both ends of blogger’s hill, Jeff Jarvis decides to add his two cents.

He talks a little about Metcalfe’s Law, which holds that the value of a communications network is proportional to the square of the number of users of the system (in other words, the value grows geometrically with the number of users). I’m not very interested in the topic in its natural state, but Jeff makes a logical connection between Metcalfe’s Law, Moore’s Law and the longtail blogosphere. He argues that the true value of a network lies not a the center, but at the edge. Although I think he glosses over part of the trip, I can see a logical connection between these concepts- and I can see a correlation between them and the evolution of the internet and the little corner of it we call the blogosphere.

Next he talks about open networks- and the benefits and burdens of perhaps being too open (that is called foreshadowing, for you literary types). As he says, email may be too open, because it permits spam. More interestingly, he makes the point about MySpace possibly evolving into another too open network: “when everyone is your friend, you have no friends.” I don’t know if I completely agree with that, but the logic is reasonable.

All of this leads Jeff to conclude, in a borrowed cliche, that “small is the new big.” Why? Because of the value of niches and the oft-ignored x-factor in valuing a network- affinity. Songs are written around hooks and posts are sometimes written around the quotable excerpt, but at a minimum I agree that affinity is a prime mover in both social networks and the blogosphere. Just to be sure we’re all on the same page, the American Heritage Dictionary defines affinity as “a natural attraction, liking, or feeling of kinship.”

This leads Jeff to propose a new formula for valuing networks: Network value = the sum of the value each member of the network places in it. He then admits, thankfully, that this is not calculable, since you can’t easily value love. So where does that lead us?

To a new piece of cake of course. This cake made of affinity and control.

Jeff then turns to the gatekeeper business. Somehow all of that math leads Jeff to make two points. One that is perfectly logical, followed by a conclusion that I find oddly clever and completely hilarious in its transparency.

Logical: “One should value a network as the sum of its networks.”

Transparent: “This is why I continue to think it is absurd and wrongheaded to analyze the blogosphere on its supposed A-list.”

What Jeff is saying is that if the people he and his pals like and feel a kinship towards are having a million units of fun while the people they politely (in Jeff’s case at least) ignore have ten units of fun, the value of the blogosphere is a million and ten. That’s like saying there’s no world hunger because many Americans have full pantries.

And of course that completely begs the very important question of what to do when none of the people you have affinity for ever gets a word in either. As I said the other day, the blogosphere is a small room at the end of the internet. It’s not like we can go out and create some alternate blogosphere where Klingons are good and Richard Querin is Steve Gillmor.

For those who want to hear it in non-mathematical terms, here’s something Jeff says that makes the same point another way:

This is about the value of being the right size: I value the Continental President’s Club because everyone in the airport does not belong; if everyone did, its value would fall to nil. This isn’t about snottiness. It is about control.

Thank goodness all the poor people have to sit out there at the gate. The horror. I don’t think he meant it that way, and I am not trying to imply any improper intent. But (and this is a big but) control over who drinks at the bar next to you and control over who gets to participate in the blogosphere conversations is the very same thing.

And about that niches theory…

As as far as niches go- the entire blogosphere is a niche. The tech blogosphere, where most of us hang out, would be a sub niche. A niche inside a sub-niche is not a niche. It’s a clique. That’s a quotable excerpt that will almost certainly not make its way up the mountain.

One more point of logic, if I may…

Jeff goes on to create a law, name it after himself (That’s cool with me- I agree that everyone needs one- I have a rule and that’s almost as good), and conclude:

The Law of Open Networks: The more open a network is, the more control there is at the edges, the more the edges value the network, the more the network is worth.

Which I think means that the more people who have access to the blogosphere, the more control will flow down blogger’s hill, which will make the disenfranchised bloggers happier, which will be good for the blogosphere as a whole. There is certainly mathematical truth to the first two parts of that statement and it sounds like the words of a valiant, if idealistic, social reformer. But it is also self-evident that merely being included in a population, be it bloggers or citizens, does not end the struggle for equal opportunity. Sure, power shifts naturally as water flows naturally. But there’s more to it than that. The efforts of those upstream, be they the ruling class or the dam builders, can impair and corrupt the process. To say that the natural effects of inclusion will solve the problem without further effort is to abandon a battle half won.

And a battle half won is a battle lost, because we all know that a tie goes to the incumbent.

I also have to admit that I found it interesting that with all the talk around the blogosphere this week about this issue, Jeff quoted only the following people: Nick Carr (but only to call him absurd and wrongheaded), Doc Searls (everyone knows I like Doc), himself many times (no problem, I do that too), Tom Evslin, Fred Wilson, and Hugh MacLeod (via Hugh’s visual summation).

Other than Nick, who while somewhat of an outcast, has a huge readership, not one single dissenting voice. Not one person who isn’t sitting next to him in the blogosphere equivalent of the Continental President’s Club.

Lots of people made lots of good points on both sides of this debate this week. To dismiss all of them as absurd and wrongheaded and to quote so many others who share his general viewpoint on the issue seems like a convenient shortcut.

It seems a little, I don’t know, like singing to the choir.

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