Comments: A-List Example

for what it's worth, jay and I had no connection at all before last week. I've never met him, had never corresponded with him, and had never linked to him. (and to my knowledge he's only ever linked to me once, in passing, in his What's conservative about the weblog form in journalism essay.) but I emailed him after I read his initial pre-bloggercon essay, and that was the start of a very interesting conversation. so there's the secret of making "friends" on the Web: email them.

people have been complaining about the A-list since 2000, when it consisted of all of the blogger kids and the people they were dating. these days there are so many weblogs and so many weblog clusters that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of A-lists. I often find references to A-list bloggers I've never heard of, but who are the centers of their particular groups.

Posted by rebecca blood at April 18, 2004 12:02 PM

It's not that every A-lister is a close personal friend of every other A-lister. I suppose someone might believe such a thing, but that would be a toy version of the phenomena. Bill Gates might never have met Martha Stewart, but there's a certain sense at which they're both at a social level not shared by almost everyone else, even if they've never come in contact with each other.

What I found so interesting was the stratified view of roughly the same set of interactions.

And everyone can't make friends with Martha Stewart, even if she gives that impression (general comment, no specific personal reference intended).

Yes, "A-list" is like "famous" - some people are famous to the general culture, and some just within a subculture. But that's not a refutation of the concept. It only means the concept has degrees and localization - which I'd say makes it more meaningful, not less.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at April 18, 2004 01:50 PM

I agree that the a-list phenomenon exists, but I would argue that jay responded to my note because he was interested in what I had to say, not who I was. knowing who I was *might* have guaranteed me a polite response, but if he wasn't particularly interested in my point of view, not a conversation. I can tell you that my emails to various A-listers are often completely ignored. it would be silly for me to take offense at that--everyone is very busy--though it is sometimes frustrating to feel that my point of view is being ignored.

I would see posting an opinion on your weblog as a surer way to elicit a response--especially if your weblog is perceived as being influential. an email is private--who's to know whether or not you ever sent one? ignoring it will have no repercussions whatever.

in his defense, I thought jay did a heroic job of highlighting various comments (from his weblog and others) in his original bloggercon essay.

Posted by rebecca blood at April 18, 2004 02:39 PM

What I'm trying to illustrate is that the few, limited, high-notice mention-slots tend to be passed around among a very few people. It's not that every person in this group gets a slot for the asking every time they try. That's another misreading of the phenomena. It's not that it's utterly and completely impossible for anyone else. And it's not that the people are bad! But ... there's a clubbiness, an insularity, that sometimes just leaps out amidst all the talk of democracy and open to everyone. That's what was lurking under the surface of the humor of the "elitist bad-ass-A-list-bloggers" joke. And what's so evident in the above example.

It's like the studies of news coverage that show roughly the same group of people get quoted in news articles all the time. It's not that those people get quoted every single time they try - often they don't. And it's not that an outsider can't ever get quoted, especially if they work very, very, hard at it, "networking", pitching, power-lunching, etc. But, wow, if you're not inside that tribe somehow, it's sure different.

The results resemble "Big Media" to a frightening degree.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at April 18, 2004 03:56 PM

"What I'm trying to illustrate is that the few, limited, high-notice mention-slots tend to be passed around among a very few people."

but haven't we already agreed that there *is* an a-list? what we're really disagreeing about is the cause of the phenomenon.

you are arguing that it's caused by insularity (and I agree that this is a factor in any group.) I am arguing that a-listers get on that list through the popularity of their work--which is shirky's conclusion as well. I guess I'm arguing for a meritocracy.

I've been shunned by enough a-listers to sympathize with your view of things, but I've seen too many unknown bloggers shoot to the top of the list in a matter of months to believe that anyone is creating even unconscious barriers to their entry.

Posted by rebecca blood at April 18, 2004 04:14 PM

upon further reflection, let me say something different.

I don't think even the unconscious barriers to entry (and we both agree that there is invariably *some* insularity in any group) are strong enough to prevent unknowns from quickly or slowly rising to the top of the heap.

and I think that what is often perceived as insularity is often much more benign--it's just that any self-selecting group will contain the people who are talking about things that are interesting to them, in ways that are interesting to them.

Posted by rebecca blood at April 18, 2004 04:28 PM

Well, I'd say "that a-listers get on that list through the popularity of their work" is not capturing the idea that the power-law distribution makes it a small group which tends to be self-selecting and self-maintaining. Tends. Not absolutely. But very significantly. Of course, these groups have politics and in-fighting themselves, as you note. As would a formal oligarchy.

Consider: "I've seen too many techies start a dot-com company and go IPO in six months, becoming millionaires, to believe there is any barrier to becoming a high-tech success".

It happens. But not often.

This is the implicit cruelty of the A-list phenomena. The idea that if you are not rich (i.e. well-linked), it must be because you lack merit.

That everyone who has succeeded, has worked hard, is reasonably true, to some approximation.

That everyone who works hard, succeeds, is not true, and this has very severe implications.

That being "a member of the club" can be a significant factor - not the only thing, not a guarantee, not any substitute itself for skill - if true, makes blogging as exclusionary as anything else, and refutes any special claim to openness versus other media.

Or, another way, are the physical exclusive clubs just a place for businesspeople to relax and have a drink, with no impact on who becomes a business success?

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at April 18, 2004 05:00 PM

"That everyone who works hard, succeeds, is not true, and this has very severe implications."

I absolutely agree with this--I've often made the same argument to the "I've worked hard to make a lot of money. Why should I be punished (taxed at a higher rate) for my hard work?" crowd. :) please note that I deliberately did not describe a-listers as doing better work than everyone else; merely as doing work which is more popular.

but what you're talking about is a condition of life. how do you propose, systemically, to remedy it?

Posted by rebecca blood at April 18, 2004 05:13 PM

Honestly, I don't know how to fix it. I'm merely getting a (mathematical) handle on the problem, so that I feel comfortable that I'm not in denial over being unmeritorious (:-)).

The other relevant implication is that maybe I'm wasting my time writing my own blog (assuming I'm not doing diary/chat, that is, my motivation is *not* purely internal), because whatever the propaganda, I'm not likely to ever reach the A-list heights.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at April 18, 2004 05:21 PM

well, you can do what I do, which is to feature lesser-known, interesting bloggers on your own site from time to time. I figure that the people who read my site will think the sites I find interesting are worth looking at. I haven't made anyone popular, but I like to think I've helped a few of them start to find their niche.

in my book I write about how, in the beginning, we amplified each other's voices by linking to each other. at that time *no one* knew what we were doing. this is just as true for a blogger with no access to major (or minor :) media today as it was then. and all of our audiences have grown over time. I think there is probably a natural limit to most audiences, but I don't think most of us have reached it yet.

you can also try to make your site more heavily linked by posting in other people's comment threads, and posting about other bloggers' posts on your own, or maybe writing the occasional essay. I don't recommend emailing other bloggers when you've put up a post, just because I think it puts them in a somewhat uncomfortable position, but that's just me. with trackback and technorati it probably isn't necessary anyway.

if you're interested in reaching more people with your ideas, I recommend writing articles and submitting them to ezines and magazines or a local paper. those publications attract more eyeballs per day than any weblog ever does.

one thing I know: if you worry very much about the size of your audience, you will never be happy with it. no matter how large it grows, someone will always have more readers than you have--and someone, fewer.

Posted by rebecca blood at April 18, 2004 05:43 PM


Thank you very much for your extensive kind advice.

[Updated: Because I'm getting some hits - I was being polite. I've tried much of the advice, and not had it work for various reasons]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at April 18, 2004 05:50 PM

What are you up to here, Seth? Jay McCarthy was not summarizing the post Doc was talking about or Dave was talking about. That was "Brain Food for BloggerCon."

McCarthy was summarzing the comments thread to an earlier post, "BloggerCon: Discussion Notes for, "What is Journalism? And What Can Weblogs Do About It?" What kind of comparison is that?

Posted by Jay Rosen at April 18, 2004 11:19 PM

Fair objection, post updated with it.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at April 18, 2004 11:55 PM

An interesting point about the so-called A-List (and surely everyone and their sibling will have a different version of just what comprises the A-List): it was suggested to me that Jay Rosen is an A-List logger. Well, if that's the case, we should give Dave Winer the status of "A-List Conferrer," as Dave would seem to have sponsored Jay's arrival at such position.

Yikes, Seth, you quote, and even link to me in that A-Listers circular reference item. Well, I cling to my self-designated status of B-Minus Blogger. And since I take frequent leaves of no-posting-for-many-days (even sometimes weeks) -at-a-time, I will never be among the anointed (should that have had a capital A?). After all, I have *real work* to do, I tend to work long days, and sometimes there's no time or inclination, much less energy, to devote to the blog.

I mentioned the Shadow list during the Shirkey session. That's the list of friends/associates, and referrers to A-Listers. Rebecca's point about A-Listers being at the center of certain groups is right on the mark.

Be it a global A-List (if such a thing really exists), or a topical or interest group A-List, this whole concern seems to be more a matter of ego than of influence. Shirkey's point had more to do with the cycles of interest and relevance than with the spheres of power or sway of the so-called A-Listers. But it makes for hot discussion and much linkage to blather away about A-Listers and their seeming circles of authority.

Then again, just a few years ago in journalism circles it made more sense to write more about oral sex in the Oval Office than other news. That was sort of an A-List topic, and, pardon the pun, for Starr there was no Deep Throat to offer journalistic insight and scoop.

Oops, did I just confuse blogging and journalism? Excuse me. I guess I am doomed to be sub-A forever.

And I must ask: what makes A-Listers necessarily meritorious? Aren't they just people with more time than others . . to sit at the keyboard and compose and post?


Posted by Dean Landsman at April 19, 2004 01:41 AM

"That being 'a member of the club' can be a significant factor - not the only thing, not a guarantee, not any substitute itself for skill - if true, makes blogging as exclusionary as anything else, and refutes any special claim to openness versus other media."

I disagree about this being a refutation.

To the extent that it exists, clubbiness is a reflection of human nature and will be present in all media. But it's also true that weblogs are particularly un-clubby when compared to other media. Doc points out that many popular weblogs link to off A-list bloggers ( ). I've noticed this as a reader, and wondered if I couldn't make my own weblog more interesting by highlighting interesting and less well-read points of view. By comparison, I can't remember a single time when CNN or Fox News encouraged me to change the channel for ten minutes to watch something on the community access cable channel.

Posted by Andrew Grumet at April 19, 2004 04:39 PM

We can't ignore the vastly lower barrier to entry for weblogs either, which in itself makes the medium more open, even if it doesn't guarantee an audience.

Posted by Andrew Grumet at April 19, 2004 04:41 PM

Quick repy to Andrew:

1) The "link to off A-list bloggers" is a like saying "The Big Media mention publishers of small newsletters". How many people have gotten business from a mention in a Big Media newspaper article? It happens - but rarely and slightly. Big Bloggerdom is exactly like Big Journalism this way - they usually quote other club members, but occasionally quote "outsiders", if those outsiders have some special relevance or expertise to the item they are writing. Same pattern.

2) The "barrier to entry" argument is what I call the "Lottery Tickets Are Cheap" argument. It doesn't matter how cheap is a lottery ticket. What matters is how many prizes there are and the odds of winning one - NOT how much it costs to buy a ticket. If I gave you a lottery where tickets cost a penny, it wouldn't be a recommendation for me to say "Lottery with the lowest barrier to entry ever! Tickets just one cent!" (nor would it be good for me to say "buy these tickets just for the goodness of buying them")

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at April 19, 2004 05:06 PM

The interesting thing about #1 is that it can be quantified, at least in the weblog space. Has anyone done the link analysis, using, say the technorati authoritativeness score to differentiate popular weblogs from unpopular ones?

Posted by Andrew Grumet at April 19, 2004 05:33 PM

Hmmm, well, it could be tricky, depending on how we draw the analogy. We have a way to measure hyperlinks, but hyperlinks could equate with either "mentions" or "business". Not sure.

Posted by Andrew Grumet at April 19, 2004 05:37 PM

Technorati serves any number of worthy purposes, or at least many people say so. A number of people for whom I have a great deal of respect seem to think that Technorati will become Googlish in size and service in the very near future.

The Technorati authoritativeness score mentioned here is a particularly inaccurate measure. Technorati, openly a product in Beta, misses a ton of hits. It was suggested to me (by a fellow B-Minus type blogger!!) that Technorati is designed to super serve the A-List and the A-Listas, as they will drive the concept, the use, and the perceived value of a blogadocious info and hit measurement engine. The RSS dependency of Technorati results in it favoring those who are meticulous about creating a little anchor sort of URL for each and every post, and who are certain to update all that syndication and technospiffy sort of stuff.

My own personal note: at BCII and yesterday, I got a slew of hits, mentions, links, and so forth. As they said over and over in the Shirky session: this qualifies as a spike, not a new legion of ongoing daily readers of my blog.

Gee, I thought, is this reflected in Technorati? So I checked it out. Reflected? Well, barely. In the interests of fairness, Google also was slow to show much, when I ego-surfed over there.

But today Google is all over it. Yet in Technorati, I remain at best a lowly B-Minus kind of guy.

I guess I should add a few things: first, that I have no idea what any of this means in the greater picture of living and breathing. Second, that being B-Minus may be overstating my own readership, impact, spreading of the word (whatever the hell that may be). I am interested, and an observer. But I also know that none of this discourse will get us out of Iraq or provide affordable health care. Now **those** are issues of some note and merit.

Posted by Dean Landsman at April 19, 2004 08:02 PM

Seth - it also occurs to me that with point #1 in your reply to Andrew above, that blogs may be unique in that some of the exposure of "unknowns" comes from what I suspect is a fair amount of the A-list's daily ego-surfing to see who's mentioned you today. Good mention - get a link.

And yes, the barrier to entry argument is also somewhat specious. It discounts the public part of publication. I can write what I think on a Big Chief tablet for a couple bucks, but that doesn't get me a book contract at Knopf. If barrier to entry were all it took, the A-list'd all be coming out of Live Journal. The other part of that argument that I find disingenuous is that it discounts personal relationships entirely and posits the blogosphere as a pure meritocracy, which is just full of it on its face.

I've been thinking that we need a better metric for linking. Right now, it looks like high school because it's a high-school like metric. It's quantity, pure and simple. So far there's no way to determine whether you're linking me because you think I'm Jesus on a pogo stick or an utter moron. More links = more authority? Can we see the danger of equating authority with a popularity contest?

As per usual, whining, bitter and envious, etc etc, ymmv.

Posted by jbm at April 19, 2004 09:36 PM

I'm pretty late to this discussion, but I love it when two of the longest-running (most undying) memes cross over and form one meta-meme like this. The A-List AND Weblogs-as-Journalism in one!

But my sarcasm is NOT intended to discount the underlying point. Seth I do think there's something to the notion that the existence of power-law-shaped relationships in the weblog world does indicate that there's essential information missing in any analysis that suggests that weblogs are necessarily a more democratic or egalitarian form than big-media journalism or whatever.

I also think it's exceedingly difficult to discuss it because as soon as someone tries, about 1/3 of readers assume the writer just wants IN (and offer tips), 1/3 assumes that the writer is just crap and if they were better would deserve to be IN, and 1/3 disputes the very existence of an A-List.

The only thing I am sure of - journalism is so broad a term as to be essentially meaningless in any kind of analysis, and I am not an A-List blogger despite my many Machiavellian attempts!

Posted by Michael Boyle at April 21, 2004 03:36 PM

Late to this conversation, but a couple of tangential comments:

I'm going to equate blog situations and "journalism" situations here, partly because I'm on the F-list for weblogs (I don't do one, so it's not on anyone's blogroll), but:

=I'm convinced, through personal experience, that there are A-lists within each "community of interest" (depending on how you define that), which may have little or nothing to do with whatever global A-list may (or may not) exist.

=I guess I wonder whether there's much point in worrying about failure to make it to a global A-list. Most of us never will; many of us never want to.

=Making it to a "community" A-list isn't all that difficult, I don't think (and I'll assert that I'm part of the "journalism" A-list for libraryland): some talent and a certain amount of persistence is mostly what you need.

=With reference to which: I think, Seth, that you're on the censorware A-list. I suspect you're very close to being on an ill-defined A-list that might center on Freedom to Tinker.

But then, until all this A-list hoohah started, I read at most one weblog within the A-list group, and had no idea who "Doc" or "Dave" or any of that crowd even were...but as a library person, I sure did know who Blake and Steven and Karen and Jessamyn were.

Posted by Walt Crawford at April 23, 2004 05:05 PM