Social media people still haven’t shaken broadcast thinking. So many still think there’s a relationship between attention and credibility. If I write a bestseller, I’ll be smarter than I was before I wrote the book, and a guy who writes a very smart book that doesn’t quite take off can’t be as smart as I am. Cream rises to the top. In the social media world, if I’m an A-list blogger, I’m smarter and cooler – even more so, because there’s so much more competition for attention in the blogosphere.
I think there are a lot of factors in producing success in the economy of attention, and being the smartest guy in the room ain’t necessarily one of them. Working hard and even working smart won’t necessarily do it for you. Talent isn’t enough. Having a smart PR person or machine will help. Luck is a big part of the deal – right place right time etc.
Someday I’ll talk about ways to get attention for yourself, but that’s not what I was thinking about when I started writing this post. The point I really want to make is that there are a lot of really smart, talented, and capable people in the world that nobody knows. They have zero visibility, and they don’t even try to get attention. In fact, real wisdom would probably suggest you don’t want the attention unless that happens to be your thing. Getting real attention – fame – is a lot of work and could get in the way of anything else you might want to do.
What I’m thinking about today is how we leverage intelligence and talent that we don’t necessarily see, and how we establish credibility for smart thinking that isn’t acknowledged by the media (or social media) machine. We like to think that social media is about crowdsourcing and brings more people into the conversation, but I’m not sure this is true. Consider the concept of the a-list blogger and Clay Shirky’s application of power law thinking to the blogosphere:
Though there are more new bloggers and more new readers every day, most of the new readers are adding to the traffic of the top few blogs, while most new blogs are getting below average traffic, a gap that will grow as the weblog world does. It’s not impossible to launch a good new blog and become widely read, but it’s harder than it was last year, and it will be harder still next year. At some point (probably one we’ve already passed), weblog technology will be seen as a platform for so many forms of publishing, filtering, aggregation, and syndication that blogging will stop referring to any particularly coherent activity. The term ‘blog’ will fall into the middle distance, as ‘home page’ and ‘portal’ have, words that used to mean some concrete thing, but which were stretched by use past the point of meaning. This will happen when head and tail of the power law distribution become so different that we can’t think of J. Random Blogger and Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit as doing the same thing.
At the head will be webloggers who join the mainstream media (a phrase which seems to mean “media we’ve gotten used to.”) The transformation here is simple – as a blogger’s audience grows large, more people read her work than she can possibly read, she can’t link to everyone who wants her attention, and she can’t answer all her incoming mail or follow up to the comments on her site. The result of these pressures is that she becomes a broadcast outlet, distributing material without participating in conversations about it.
Meanwhile, the long tail of weblogs with few readers will become conversational. In a world where most bloggers get below average traffic, audience size can’t be the only metric for success. LiveJournal had this figured out years ago, by assuming that people would be writing for their friends, rather than some impersonal audience. Publishing an essay and having 3 random people read it is a recipe for disappointment, but publishing an account of your Saturday night and having your 3 closest friends read it feels like a conversation, especially if they follow up with their own accounts. LiveJournal has an edge on most other blogging platforms because it can keep far better track of friend and group relationships, but the rise of general blog tools like Trackback may enable this conversational mode for most blogs.
Clay wrote this in 2003; what we’ve seen since then is pretty consistent with his predictions.
The short version of what I’m thinking about is this: how do we find and leverage real intelligence within the long tail of bloggers, and how do we extract and process useful knowledge from larger ongoing conversations on the web. One way might be to depend quite a bit on writers who filter – who are exploring and crunching the larger conversations, placing them in context, and interpreting their meaning and relevance. We depend on thought leaders and intelligent aggregators.
And we still probably miss the thinking of some of the smartest people who for whatever reason don’t release their thoughts into the wild.