A Thought or Two on Social Capital [en]

A couple of weeks ago, I was having a nice afternoon in Geneva (a surprise for me!) sipping an ice tea on the terrace of a café in the Quartier des Bains. The people around the table were interesting, as was the conversation. At one point, I was trying to explain how I viewed “social capital” and the meritocratic nature of the connected lifestyle.

As with many things, the Internet has not really created anything new, but given more visibility or weight to something that already exists in the offline world that everybody knows.

As an individual, I have certain connections with other individuals, and a certain reputation. If I’m respected and appreciated, then I have a certain amount of social capital that I can either accumulate or “spend”.

Here’s an example of “spending” some of my social capital: I’m organizing a conference and ask people to blog about it or introduce me to possible sponsors. In “normal” speech, we’d simply say I’m asking for favours — and that’s what it is.

The amount of favours people will do me depends on how much “social capital” I have — how much they respect, regard, appreciate me. It’s pretty simple, really. “Social capital” is just an expression (like “whuffie”) used to give a name to this “thing” that people have more or less of, and which gives them power as an individual in their network.

Social capital can be well spent, or dilapidated. It can also be lost by doing stupid things (the kind of things that “ruin a reputation”). I think it’s a better expression than “popularity” or “reputation” because it stands a chance of being understood as multi-dimensional.

Power Laws, Popularity, Authority, A-Lists and the Rest… [en]

Things are colliding in my mind and slowly falling into place. A word of warning, however: contents may have settled while shipping. Here are the ingredients:

Popularity begets popularity

Neige et lune 13When the photograph you see here suddenly ranked number twelve in Flickr “interestingness” for the day it was taken, I got a bunch of very appreciative comments about it. But something bothered me: it’s a nice photograph, but it’s certainly not the best photograph I’ve taken. However, it was attracting all the attention. And as it was attracting attention, it was becoming more and more “Flickr-interesting”.

Then I stayed stuck on the WordPress.com home page for a couple of days, and watched my traffic soar up and come right back down again. I was getting visitors because I had been labeled as “fast-growing” or whatever, not because I had suddenly become brilliant. Proof being the decrease in traffic after the peak. What’s popular becomes more popular, or stays popular, because it’s popular. At some point, just being popular is enough.

And, as I was already hinting in my previous post on the subject, it’s normal. That’s the way things go. I found confirmation of what I suspected in this article on hit songs. They explain that we are more likely to say we like a song if we see that others have already said they like it. Yeah, it’s not a part of us we like looking at, but we’re influenceable. It’s human. They set up an experiment with two groups which have to rate songs. One group can see ratings of other group members, but the other cannot.

In the independent condition, participants chose which songs to listen to based solely on the names of the bands and their songs. While listening to the song, they were asked to rate it from one star (“I hate it”) to five stars (“I love it”). They were also given the option of downloading the song for keeps.


In the social influence group, participants were provided with the same song list, but could also see how many times each song had been downloaded.

Researchers found that popular songs were popular and unpopular songs were unpopular, regardless of their quality established by the other group. They also found that as a particular songs’ popularity increased, participants selected it more often.

So, let’s say it so it’s said: it’s normal that the most “popular” blogs get the most visibility, links, and visitors. That happens because they’re popular. They don’t totally suck, of course, or they wouldn’t have got “popular enough” for the feedback loop to work in the first place, but they are helped in remaining popular by the fact they are popular. Which maybe puts pressure on some to keep the quality level up.

Popularity or authority?

Popular? Visited, linked, or some combination thereof. People hear about it, talk about it, go and see it. That’s popular. Popularity is pretty close to things you can measure, like how many visitors a site has (that’s the numbers you see in news articles), or how many incoming links it has (that’s what Technorati tracks).

But is that what we really want? People who blog clearly want recognition of some sort (otherwise, we wouldn’t take the trouble of writing in a public space), but is recognition in numbers really what we’re after? At LIFT’06, I heard Robert say that it wasn’t the number of readers of his blog that mattered, but who these people were. Is your readership going to come and leave without a word, or react, start conversations, influence the people around them? What matters is how your audience scales. But in some way, we’re still thinking about numbers, here: “how can I have the most influence?”

I think that what we’re really after isn’t recognition by numbers, because somewhere inside we know that numbers are fake. I can be hugely popular but still not feel recognized for who I am or what I’m worth or what I’m saying. I suspect that what we want to be recognized for is more along the lines of authority in a certain field (ie, what we write about). We want people to see that we have something valid to say. That we have ideas that are original or provocative or that help things move along. That we know what we’re talking about. That, for me, is authority. And that cannot be measured by incoming links, visitors, or even conversational indexes.

This is why I find it increasingly disturbing that Technorati is calling (and has been calling “authority” something which is in fact much nearer to “popularity”. It gives us the impression it’s measuring what we want (authority) when in fact it’s measuring something which is maybe more superficial (linkedness-popularity) but more measurable. So we get all worked up by the A list popularity problem, and gatekeepers, and stuff like that — when in fact being in the A list probably isn’t really what most people want. It’s confusing something qualitative (authority) with something quantitative (number of links).

Quality and visibility

Robert wrote a post giving tips for joining the A list, and Stowe Boyd responded with tips of his own, saying Robert’s were a bit superficial.

Both posts have valid tips and insights, but they run along two different lines. Robert’s post is more about “how to be more visible/become more popular” and Stowe’s is more about “being a good blogger”. Both are important. You can be a good blogger, have a good blog, but stay in the shadows more than you deserve because you’re not visible enough. And you can make yourself visible all you want, all that agitation isn’t going to bring you recognition if you don’t have “good content” (in the wide sense).

A list thoughts

People often think that getting mentioned in some high-traffic blog will automatically bring visibility. Not true. Robert mentioned me twice in his blog during the last week (and he actually said really nice things about me), but that just made a bump in my stats. Not a huge peak with server overload and comments pouring in and hundreds of other links. Just a little bump. (And it’s not like I already have 5’000 readers anyway.) On the same day, Robert talked about coComment, also saying really nice things , and as a result, all hell broke loose and in a matter of hours, coComment was all over the blogosphere. Well, that’s because coComment is a major advancement for the blogosphere, and I’m not. It’s not being linked which is important — it’s what you are. (So, if you’re a post or a blog, whether you’re an interesting post or blog.)

Another interesting thing about most of these so-called “A list blogs” is that I barely read them (OK, I barely read any blogs, but that’s another story). The only reason I drop by on Boing Boing every now and again is because it’s “blog number one” and people talk about it all the time. It’s not on my A list. (Which isn’t to say it’s bad — it isn’t — it’s just not a compelling read for me.) Robert’s blog was exactly the same for me until recently. I’m reading it now, but that’s because I met him at LIFT’06 and discovered he’s a really sweet person. I read his blog because I appreciate him as a person, and I’m generally interested in reading what people I like are writing.

Maybe I’m a weird blogger who doesn’t know how to recognize a great blog and only reads blogs of people she knows. I see this trend in my reading habits, I’ll be honest about that. I think Random Acts of Reality is one of the rare exceptions to this rule. I remember when the “A list complaining” was about Megnut, Evhead, Kottke and the like, in the good ol’ Blogger days. None of these blogs really attracted me as a reader, their popularity put aside.


I’m not sure many of you will have had the patience to trudge through this long, rambling post, so I’ll try to summarize things for you:

  • being popular helps you stay popular; it’s a normal thing, because we tend to like what other people like; nothing wrong with that, just be aware of it;
  • popularity is not authority; popularity is easy to measure, it’s quantitative; authority is qualitative; maybe we think we want popularity, but what we really want is recognition for our authority;
  • being a good blogger and being a visible blogger are not the same thing, though they can work together well; different tips apply;
  • a link on an A list blog is not going to drive tons of traffic your way and put you in the limelight unless you really deserve it; A list blogs aren’t necessarily fascinating for all readers — remember part of their popularity comes from being popular, so don’t fret if you don’t understand what all the fuss is about.

As a final note, I’m pretty happy where I am:

  • in the Swiss French media, I have what amounts to “popularity which begets popularity”, and it’s not always all that great: I often feel I get called for interviews more because my name is all over the place than because the journalist has read stuff I wrote and wants to know more about what I have to say on this or that topic;
  • I’m not certain I’d like to have 20’000 readers ready to tear apart every post I made;
  • I don’t think I’d like people gravitating around me in the hope I’d “out” them and bring them their well-deserved popularity;
  • and I certainly wouldn’t like having resident trolls!

Thanks for reading (or skimming), and feel free to react to what I say here. I’m aware some of it is probably a little clumsy or beside the point. Show me where.

Visibility is in Feedback Loops [en]

[fr] Ce qui est populaire le reste, et devient plus populaire encore, justement parce que c'est populaire. De temps en temps un pic de visibilité se présente à  nous (comme le montre l'illustration ci-dessous). Est-ce que ceux qui sont les plus connus le sont simplement parce qu'ils proposent un menu qui convient à  la majorité, et qu'ils savent tirer avantage de ces pics pour rester la tête hors de l'eau? Est-ce vrai? Est-ce bien? Est-ce mal? Qu'en dites-vous?

Last month, I had a jump in my Cheese Sandwich stats:

Traffic peak graph.

This was because the post Get an iBook! had for some reason or another made it to the “Fastest growing weblogs” list which appears in every WordPress.com dashboard. And it stayed stuck there. I think there was a bug or something and it got stuck there, but it might also have been a little feedback loop: what is popular becomes more popular because it is popular — I’ve discussed this briefly regarding a photograph of mine which suddenly became ‘interesting’ in Flickr.

So, let’s first note one thing: this little peak of traffic finally had no long-term effects for me. My traffic is back down to what it was before. Sometimes a feedback loop can send you into another playground, but most times it doesn’t. So either you try to create another popularity burst, or you just keep plodding along your way.

My second thought is that popularity, visibility, fame, or whatever-you’ll-call-it mainly has to do with feedback loops. If something is very visible, you’re more likely to know about it. Sounds stupid, doesn’t it? I think I’m coming to accept it’s a rule of the game. But to stay in the limelight once the feedback loop has put you there, you need certain qualities. Which ones? Look at the latest interesting photos on Flickr. What do they have in common?

I think you can have a great mind, great style, great many things, and still stay in the shadow if the right feedback loop doesn’t come along. Is being successful just a case of managing feedback loops and getting them to work for you? Is this bad?

I know nothing about feedback loops, actually, so what I’m saying here might very well be a lot of BS. I’ll let you decide. I’m feeling very conversational after LIFT.