May 31, 2007

My _Guardian_ column on the difficulties of making a difference,,2091220,00.html

"If you want to change the world, a blog may not be the place to start"

Seth Finkelstein: Getting ideas into the system can be more difficult than writing web pages and hoping somebody reads them.

Yeah, yeah, I know, obvious objection - It's a column, so it's self-refuting, right, huh, huh, huh? No. To a good approximation, there's an exponential curve of influence (per-topic), and you can draw an arrow labeled "You Are Here" pointing to your spot on it. The more you want to do, the higher up on the curve you have to be, and it's a very hard climb. Of course, if you don't want to do anything, you won't care where you are along it. But that's sort of a trivial answer.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in activism | on May 31, 2007 09:24 AM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Ah the Mensheviks vs the Bolsheviks.

Given that most people have only heard of the 2nd group you can guess who won.

A small tightly organised group who wielded power fearlesslty and ruthlessly.

But remember it was the Mensheviks who initially filled the power vacuum left by the fall of Tsar.

A large and well supported group of well educated people taking a moderate approach - most leaders ended up in the Gulags if they were lucky (mind you so did a lot of the early Bolsheviks later on).

The moral ( if there is one):

Even if a large broad based well intentioned group sieze the day and transform the internet for "good" - that doesn't mean a ruthless group can't sieze the power right back. A load squeaky wheel can move a lot more quickly than a diffuse "nice" group.

And if you don't think that is possible in todays world - ask why the Chinese leadership so scared of student rebellions. Maybe because they have read the history of the Chinese Communist Party and know how a group of students overthrew the power of the emperor?

Posted by: tqft at June 1, 2007 04:14 AM

tqtf: Sadly, you're confusing being paranoid with having a weak hold on power. That is, it's a real tough job trying to rule the world - you may have to treat every threat as significant, because there's plenty of other would-be dictators who might be able to, e.g. use the student rebellions as cannon-fodder for their own plans. It doesn't mean the students have a lot of power themselves. Perhaps they are potential pawns of factions within the ruling coalition who wants to use them in internal warfare against other factions.

Sort of puts a different face on it - one much less myth-friendly.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at June 4, 2007 02:04 AM

"But they typically don't want to grant that it's also quite reasonable to be unhappy at not getting beyond that level."

I have to disagree with that. I think it's human nature to want more readers, but that's not necessarily "reasonable". Depends on who's doing the writing, depends on what's being written. And that's a subjective call.

If you start with the premise, "Everybody is entitled to be 'heard'"... although you won't state by how many people qualifies as 'heard', which I find odd, to be honest... then you have to argue that everybody is entitled to a certain number of other people's attention, whether the other people wants to give it or not.

Posted by: hugh macleod at June 7, 2007 01:06 PM

Hugh, you are demonstrating my point, not disagreeing with it. That is: "But they typically don't want to grant that it's also quite reasonable to be unhappy at not getting beyond that level."

What do you do? Not grant that it's also quite reasonable to be unhappy at not getting beyond that level.

The point is not that anyone is "entitled" to anything, which is a trivial straw man to knock-down. Rather, the promises of blog-evangelism are false. People (in general) don't get heard. And a common reaction of blog-evangelists is not to admit the falsity, but to try to change the subject to personal attacks on those who were taken in by the dream-selling.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at June 7, 2007 01:26 PM

Heh. You refuse to give a definition of what "Heard" means, Seth. Which is why I reject your argument [Even if I can relate to the sentiment behind it].

Rock on.

Posted by: hugh macleod at June 7, 2007 08:02 PM

That's a stock argument I call: You Can't Be Heard By Everyone, So You Might As Well Be Happy Being Heard By Noone.

One definition I frequently give, is: Can I reply to a *comparable* audience? (not maybe, possibly, in theory, etc - what will happen in *practice*?)

It's not hard stuff: How many people are interested in a topic, how many are reached by certain venues, how does an *ordinary* (i.e. not A-lister) blog compare? And that's objectively pretty poor, per the power-law distribution.

The indictment, the moral bankruptcy, of blog-evangelism, is how much energy it puts into denial of this mathematics (and even worse, portraying the failure as the fault of the sucker who was taken in).

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at June 8, 2007 02:57 AM

To the victor go the spoils. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be...

Posted by: hugh macleod at June 8, 2007 06:20 AM

Though in all seriousness...

1. Blogs are like any other media.... some are better suited to it than others. And the battle for other people's attention is as real as it ever was.

2. I find you a real paradox. For somebody who doesn't seem to like the blogosphere too much, you spend a lot of time in there. Is it just me, or is that kind of curious?

Posted by: hugh macleod at June 8, 2007 06:41 AM

"spoils" - thus, my column reflects the truth about the (non)influence of blogging. You seemed to be disputing that.

1. The point is that the system is such that (per topic) there are a very few BigHeads, and then everyone else down at the bottom of the attention-heap. That reality is the opposite of the story which is commonly evangelized, hence the value of the column.

2. No, it's not curious, not if you understand human foibles. Some people smoke even though they know they shouldn't. Some people have a drinking problem. Some people gamble themselves into poverty. Those aren't my flaws. But I waste far too much time chasing an illusion of intellectual influence, due to not being perfect myself in terms of dealing with unachievable goals. Nobody likes to admit they can be scammed in a confidence game, yet those swindles survive.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at June 8, 2007 08:39 AM

Scammers? Or Enablers?

Posted by: hugh macleod at June 8, 2007 10:33 AM

Scammers. It's their business. It's how they make a living.

Pre-emptive rebuttal: Responsibility is not necessarily unitary. But the classic self-justifying defense of the confidence hustler is to claim you can't cheat an honest man.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at June 8, 2007 11:25 AM

I've met sooooo many successful bloggers, that to call them "scammers" is a position I find very hard to take seriously.

The key to understanding blogging is it's something people do in the real world. Not in the imaginary "Kingdom of The A-Listers".

Posted by: hugh macleod at June 8, 2007 01:55 PM

...although I should add, yeah, I wouldn't say it's a vocation I would recommend to everybody.

Posted by: hugh macleod at June 8, 2007 02:01 PM

Hugh, did I say, anywhere, all successful bloggers, every single one, without exception, are scammers? No, I did not. It's a silly strawman so you can knock it down to avoid dealing with the argument - that blog-evangelism is very much like a con game, run by people who profit from preying on the frustrated ambitions of the rubes.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at June 8, 2007 02:08 PM

The better the blogger, the more unlikely it would be to hear me describe him or her as running a con game.

I don't think you're a rube, btw. I know we disagree on certain things but I do appreciate your fresh thinking on these matters.

Posted by: hugh macleod at June 8, 2007 03:11 PM

Alt Headline: "Getting ideas into the system can be more difficult if you're Seth Finklestein".

You have issues with traction. But you seem determined to ascertain that your lack of traction [and the lack of traction of the people that you claim to represent, which I'm not convinced that you do] is due to the actions of other people, namely, Blog Evangelists.

The A-List does not excite me. Having a media that is cheap, easy, global and that I control excites me a great deal.

In ten years, the A-Liat will be forgotten [and your objections to them, ditto]. But "cheap, easy & global" will still be with us.

I find that far more exciting. Don't you?

PS. I like you, Seth. I just don't always agree with you. That being said, I appreciate the thought you bring to the argument.

Posted by: hugh macleod at June 8, 2007 07:12 PM

Hugh, to be charitable, you've garbled my points again.

Mathematical fact: In the bogosphere, only a very few people (per topic) will be widely heard. There's only so many A-list niches available. We all can't have a million readers. If someone - DON'T MAKE IT A PERSONAL ATTACK! - anyone, wants to be heard, their odds are very, very, low just from the exponential nature of the attention distribution.

Blog-evanglists don't say this. They don't say "You can work and work and work, but it's almost certainly all going to be shouting to the wind. You can have the best information, but you'll be almost completely ignored if the topic's gatekeepers don't echo you". Instead, they sell a dream of power and influence, for their own benefit.

Thanks for the compliment anyway.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at June 8, 2007 09:20 PM

Actually, being "heard" is relatively easy. All you have to do is write better stuff than say, Engadget. Or Techcrunch. Or boingboing. Oh, and do it before anybody else gets there.

Of course, if your stuff isn't particularly interesting or original, I agree with you, the game is a lot more difficult.

Posted by: hugh macleod at June 9, 2007 09:14 AM

"if your stuff isn't particularly interesting or original"

If you claim to "like" me, why are so many replies of yours filled with personal attack? Isn't it getting to the point of absurdity, doing this time after time after time?
Especially when I point it out repeatedly, and how trivial it is?
I don't rationalize my weakness in dream-chasing - why do you feel you must sneer and belittle others?

[pre-emptive rebuttal #1 - that's an objective description of your behavior here]

[pre-remptive rebuttal #2 - this is not to claim you have to agree with me. But making the same unfalsiable supercilious argument over and over is just tedious.]

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at June 9, 2007 11:10 AM

I apologise, Seth, I meant "if ONE'S stuff isn't that thoughtful or original". It wasn't intentionally directed at you, I promise. I should have been clearer. Sorry. Thanks for pointing it out.

I tend to use "one" and "you" interchangeably. A bad writing habit that I really should outgrow. So again, I apologize, without reservation.

Posted by: hugh macleod at June 9, 2007 07:34 PM