Why I'm Not Afraid of AOL Weblogs

by Charles Miller on July 27, 2003

We've all heard by now that AOL is introducing itself into the world of weblogs. Some people believe this is a bad thing. I am, however, not convinced it will have any real effect at all. And that's speaking from the position of an ex-member of not one, but two alt.aol-sucks secret cabals.

There are basically two kinds of people who have tried IRC. The first kind connected on a whim, randomly tried a few channels. While a few of them got lucky and found something interesting, most became annoyed at all the complete lamers they found and left in disgust. The other kind already had some kind of destination in mind, people they wanted to talk to. They made use of the medium, and if they ever moved to another channel, it was because it had been recommended to them by someone they knew.

Blogging is like that too. There are already several million weblogs out there that aren't (in my opinion, anyway) worth reading. If you're not convinced, try The Random Livejournal Link a few times, and see if you find anything particularly interesting there. It's unlikely that you will.

If you sample weblogs at random, of course you're unlikely to find anything that interests you. The presence or absence of AOL will not change that one iota. On the other hand, if you enter into blogging because there are specific sites you have found you like to read, and then follow hyperlinks from those sites to new blogs (how most of us operate), you're much more likely to only see that portion of the blogosphere that you are likely to find interesting.

Blogging is a collabaratively filtered trust network. This is a fancy way of saying “people who link to each other”.

In this community, a blog post comes into existence as a web of people's attention. At the centre of the web is the blog on which the post lives. Radiating out from that centre are the people who subscribe to that blog. Traditionally, people who find a particular post interesting will create a link to it on their blog, extending the web to their readers. The reach of a particular post becomes an equation based on how many readers you have and how interesting the post is.

It's a diffuse, loosely-coupled community: an informal reputation system, based on the ability to choose who you trust to point out interesting stuff. It's that reputation system that makes the blogosphere work. After all, Sturgeon's Law applies everywhere. The problem is, like the 80/20 rule of software development, everyone's opinion on which ten percent isn't crap differs.

One or two blogs in any interleaved community act as hubs, their authors committed enough to read a large number of weblogs themselves, and post a large number of links. An individual finds new, interesting blogs by following links: if people on your blogroll (often the aforementioned hubs) link to a particular person a few times, you get to recognise their site, and eventually you decide you like it enough to add it to your own subscription list.

New sites' main avenue of promotion, on the other hand, is through trackbacks, comments and referrer logs. You get attention by commenting on some existing conversation in the blogosphere. If your comment is interesting, people will follow it back to the source, read some more, and perhaps subscribe.

Think of the thing that AOL users were most pilloried for on Usenet: the “Me Too!” post. On Usenet, because it is assumed that everyone within a particular group follows that group, making a post that agrees with some other without adding any additional content is the height of bad netiquette. On blogs, such behaviour is de rigeur because you don't assume that your readers read the same sites as you, so passing on links (even without comment) is a vital way to spread the ideas you feel are worth spreading.

All this is how blogs generally work1. It has its good points, such as the ability to quite accurately subscribe to your particular areas of interest. It also has very little acrimony over redundant or “off-topic” content, because nothing on a blog is truly off-topic: you read a blog because you are interested in what the author has to say, and if you are not interested you can easily tune out.

It also has its bad points, in that it generally creates an A-List of bloggers with an influence perhaps beyond their merits, just because they happened to be there first. Also, it can be very frustrating when your particular audience doesn't find a post interesting, but the community is structured in such a way as there's no way to punch your ideas through to the wider audience. In that way, you can find yourself stuck in a niche.

What it is, however, is highly resistant to floods of crap. The network routes around such damage easily. Nobody finds it interesting, nobody links to it, so it may as well not be there.2 Which isn't to say that AOL weblogs are going to be all crap: they'll just follow the general distribution such services have shown elsewhere. Those that aren't crap will be linked to, and become part of a larger section of the blogosphere.

Things that might suffer the brunt of damage from a few million AOL weblogs coming online would be the services that try to treat all weblogs as being equal, rather than divided into niches of interest: services like weblogs.com, would likely be overwhelmed by the sheer volume, not to mention the continuing drift from the ascendancy of technical and current-events blogs towards the personal diary. Just compare, for example, the Daypop Top 40 with the Livejournal Meme Tracker and you'll see what I mean.

1 I say generally, because a dominant topic-based aggregator like Javablogs can change the shape of the community markedly, turning it into an entirely new beast. But that's a story for a later article.

2 This is, of course, subjective, where “nobody” really means “nobody I know”. Of course these blogs will link to each other, and to their friends in other blogging or diary systems, and create their own communities of interest, over things that I just don't find interesting. They just won't intersect enough with mine for them to exist for me.

Previously: Corporations Law

Next: Version Numbers and You