Archive for the ‘Blogging’ Category

Tony Hirst pointed me to a lovely blog by a T189 student. It’s a stunning example of the usefulness of blogging in education. It provides the student with a tool for publication and self-expression, and it provides very useful information for teachers (e.g. in this case about the difficulties T189 students are experiencing with our Flash-based tutorials). I wish more of our students would blog.

Update: Bill Larnach also publishes an interesting blog which often touches on OU-related stuff.


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In April 20, 2006 edition of LRB. [Link.]

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Blogging is…

“The most powerful two-way internet communications tool yet developed”.

Naked Conversations, page 28.

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Is quite useful. Find it here.

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Useful for T214
And for Blogging paper and ecosystem essays.



The basic shape is simple – in any system sorted by rank, the value for the Nth position will be 1/N. For whatever is being ranked — income, links, traffic — the value of second place will be half that of first place, and tenth place will be one-tenth of first place. (There are other, more complex formulae that make the slope more or less extreme, but they all relate to this curve.) We’ve seen this shape in many systems. What’ve we’ve been lacking, until recently, is a theory to go with these observed patterns.Now, thanks to a series of breakthroughs in network theory by researchers like Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, Duncan Watts, and Bernardo Huberman among others, breakthroughs being described in books like Linked, Six Degrees, and The Laws of the Web, we know that power law distributions tend to arise in social systems where many people express their preferences among many options. We also know that as the number of options rise, the curve becomes more extreme. This is a counter-intuitive finding – most of us would expect a rising number of choices to flatten the curve, but in fact, increasing the size of the system increases the gap between the #1 spot and the median spot.

A second counter-intuitive aspect of power laws is that most elements in a power law system are below average, because the curve is so heavily weighted towards the top performers. In Figure #1, the average number of inbound links (cumulative links divided by the number of blogs) is 31. The first blog below 31 links is 142nd on the list, meaning two-thirds of the listed blogs have a below average number of inbound links. We are so used to the evenness of the bell curve, where the median position has the average value, that the idea of two-thirds of a population being below average sounds strange. (The actual median, 217th of 433, has only 15 inbound links.)

Freedom of Choice Makes Stars Inevitable #

To see how freedom of choice could create such unequal distributions, consider a hypothetical population of a thousand people, each picking their 10 favorite blogs. One way to model such a system is simply to assume that each person has an equal chance of liking each blog. This distribution would be basically flat – most blogs will have the same number of people listing it as a favorite. A few blogs will be more popular than average and a few less, of course, but that will be statistical noise. The bulk of the blogs will be of average popularity, and the highs and lows will not be too far different from this average. In this model, neither the quality of the writing nor other people’s choices have any effect; there are no shared tastes, no preferred genres, no effects from marketing or recommendations from friends.

But people’s choices do affect one another. If we assume that any blog chosen by one user is more likely, by even a fractional amount, to be chosen by another user, the system changes dramatically. Alice, the first user, chooses her blogs unaffected by anyone else, but Bob has a slightly higher chance of liking Alice’s blogs than the others. When Bob is done, any blog that both he and Alice like has a higher chance of being picked by Carmen, and so on, with a small number of blogs becoming increasingly likely to be chosen in the future because they were chosen in the past.

Think of this positive feedback as a preference premium. The system assumes that later users come into an environment shaped by earlier users; the thousand-and-first user will not be selecting blogs at random, but will rather be affected, even if unconsciously, by the preference premiums built up in the system previously…

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You asked whether the independent media can be trusted as much as existing Big Media. This is a case of conflict between the real and the ideal. When it comes to journalism, the ideal is a strong, dedicated, and fair media establishment that just wants to get to the truth and is willing to spend a lot of money and effort to do so. Compared to this ideal, bloggers, with their minimal resources and strong opinions, don’t look so good.

The real, however, is nothing like the ideal. The media today is an often flaccid, lazy, and unfair establishment more interested in selling advertising than in anything else. Compared to this reality, bloggers don’t look so bad. I’ve long said that the relationship between Big Media and blogs should be more symbiotic than adversarial. On the other hand, blogs are actually better at some things than Big Media—note the Iraqi document translation effort, for example. And as Reason’s Julian Sanchez noted regarding the Ben Domenech plagiarism affair at the Washington Post (in which a new Post hire was quickly found by bloggers to have been a serial plagiarizer, something that had eluded the folks who hired him), “The truth at the core of much often-tiresome blog triumphalism is precisely that the Post probably couldn’t have vetted anyone as effectively as a blogospheric swarm.” As Sanchez continues:

The same task would have taken a committed body of researchers days, but because the task was what Net theorist Yochai Benkler would call highly modular and granular—capable of being broken up into highly fine-grained microtasks—a distributed swarm of bloggers was able to accomplish it incredibly quickly, turning up many more instances in a matter of hours. The blogosphere’s virtues on this front are not necessarily the Post’s defects, any more than it’s a problem with the blogosphere per se that it’s less well suited to producing intensive, sustained investigative reporting on stories that aren’t similarly modular and granular. They’re different kinds of information systems with different comparative advantages.

That notion of differential competences seems to me exactly right. The question—discussed at some length in my book, of course—is whether the folks running many Big Media outlets will be smart enough to take advantage of this symbiosis and of their natural strengths in newsgathering. So far, the matter is still in serious doubt.

One good sign: The Washington Post is including links, via Technorati, to blogs that discuss its stories, allowing readers to quickly get multiple perspectives. The next step would be for the Post to assign some staffers to read those blog posts and look for errors in the story, correcting them and offering credit to bloggers when they’re discovered. That would transform an army of kvetchers into a powerful squad of unpaid fact-checkers. (And the word “unpaid” must surely ring sweet in the ears of today’s newspaper management.)

The next step would be to turn trusted bloggers into stringers, reporting on events in their areas (whether by geography or by expertise). As we’ve seen with news events like Katrina, the Indian Ocean tsunami, and the Columbia disaster, there are lots of people with digital cameras and Internet connections who can provide useful reporting on short notice when something happens in their vicinity. There are also lots of people with deep expertise in particular topics who would be happy to share it when something happens. Maintaining a roster of these people in advance would be a smart move.

It would also address your concern (that bloggers are too weak to resist pressure from governments) as well as mine (that Big Media is out of touch). Instead of sniping at one another (OK, a more accurate formulation might be in addition to sniping at one another), bloggers and Big Media could become mutually supportive—helping to resist the pressures for censorship that your book describes. I think that would be a good thing.

From an email exchange with Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu.


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