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links, influence, and networks

According to this list at BlogRunner that contains "the most influential reporters and bloggers on the web" I am in position 190. Apparently there were some complaints over the results (I say "apparently" because I have been a little removed from online conversations in the last few days), which led BlogRunner to calculate a revised listing changing the parameters by which "influence" was calculated (for example, "penalizing" by posting frequency). I thought I wouldn't show up in the new list, but there I'm in position 128!

Yeah, of course I'm surprised. But that's not the point of this post. :)

Now, I do read many of the journalists and bloggers listed there. List #1 is clearly "skewed" towards bloggers, while list List #2 would be skewed towards journalists (If I'm higher on #2 than on #1 then, does that say anything about me?). The author, Philippe Lourier, responded to comments by Daniel Drezner which noted the problems on the first list (and resulted in changes for the second list).

Philippe's comments make it clear that he doesn't think there's a silver bullet for this, and he probably agrees with Dave, who says that it "proves that trying to quantify influence pretty hard to do, and maybe not so important". (My emphasis).

Not so important in absolute terms, I agree, but definitely useful if we could just put it in the context of a single person, that is, creating (privately) my own network of influence.

A starting point would be to delve a little more into the word "influence". Influence is, in this case, a possible effect of the number of links, and so this ranking (or similar others) is more an indicator of possible influence rather than a direct measure of it (btw, I'm not saying anyone suggested otherwise, I'm just clarifying my POV before continuing).

I've been thinking a lot recently about this, in the context of social software (or, as Anne prefers to call it, sociable software). There are roughly three levels of "influence" that we can readily identify in our daily lives:

  • Personal: friends, family, etc. We are naturally more inclined to take into account and listen to ideas and opinions that come from people we know and trust.
  • Community: Community spheres are generally multiple for any given person: your neighborhood, group of online friends, bloggers you know, local politics, etc. These involve people that you don't know very well but that see their trust level increased because of the context. That is, you may not know A very well, but if B, C, and D all say that A has got a point, you might be inclined to take the idea into consideration. This could also be a form of "soft" peer pressure.
  • Media: I say "media" here lacking a good term to describe influences that are massively distributed and have (more often than not) global reach. Here the context is almost all that matters, as what makes you take the time to consider something is the forum in which it is published.
Each sphere also moves, incrementally, from action to reflection. In my personal sphere my opinions (reflection) can affect my actions directly, but less so when dealing with communities, while at the media level pretty much all I can do is rant about it and then take it as information that can filter back into my other spheres of interest. The interaction between the spheres however, is largely opaque. If I read a number of articles that move me to take action, exposing that context into the other spheres will be difficult (although people that know me very well might know "where I'm coming from").

Nice theory, but so what?

First, I think that weblogs+RSS correlate and bind these three spheres of influence tighter than before. Within my weblog I can include pointers to elements of any of the three spheres, and provide a better context for each. A lot more people in the two spheres that really matter to me as an individual ("personal" and "communities") will be able to know "where I'm coming from". Which in turn changes the dynamics of communication within those spheres of influence, both online and off.

But let's backtrack a bit further though. What are these "lists" useful for? Aside from the fleeting ego-trip they provide :), I see them as useful for finding new "spheres of interest", another form of the old "related links" or "other people who have read this also read...". In other words, community formation and (re)shaping.

With weblogs those interconnections are decidedly faint (which is why it's so hard to come up with these lists), because they in their basic form don't include relationship-value information to the embedded links. Also as a consequence of their nature, weblogs have so far defied easy definition of absolute spheres of influence, and so what weblogs are and do hasn't been overshadowed, yet, by lists of various types. Anything that relates to weblogs, in this sense, is useful in some way. To find new ideas, new discussions, long-lost groups, or what others are saying about things that interest you.

Which (finally!) brings me to the point.

What would happen, for example, if we overlapped FOAF information with those links? Wouldn't we be able to obtain a clearer picture of influence as it relates to a given person? Granted, that by itself wouldn't tell us much about the overall influence of something, but that would be a meta-value that could be obtained based on the aggregate of all those values. But for most people, their own spheres of interest/influence, and that of the people they trust the most, would be enough.

More generically, this goes back to what I said a few days ago about social networks being the glue for next-generation internet applications, as it is one more example of how the personal networks defined by these applications can give new meaning to the data that's out there that we generate, and that relates what we and others create, providing us with new windows (and ways to navigate) the vast sea of information that is the Internet, with the goal of doing something truly useful for us in concrete terms, in improving communication and exchange of ideas.

The network is not the computer. The network is not the person. And because it's neither one or the other, it can help in using the first, and help us, in small ways, in "being" the second.

Lists of connections are nice, but only as far as they are useful for something. And, as with other things, weblogs lead the way.

PS: and, before I forget, happy St. Patrick's day to all! :)
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Categories: technology
Posted by diego on March 17, 2004 at 1:30 PM

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