All is not well in the Web 2.0 world. There’s a basic tension in the world of people who write online that has been brewing for awhile and has bubbled up once again. Until very recently, publication was a relatively limited option for most people who sought an audience for their writing primarily because of the costs involved. With barriers to entry high, the probability of being offered the opportunity to reach an audience was slim — but, if successful, was rewarded with a fair probability of being read. The internet promised to change that formula, and has. On the one hand, technology has reduced the cost of publication to near zero, which allows just about anyone to self-publish and seek an audience. On the other hand, somewhat ironically, the increased number of competitors for reading attention has effectively reduced the probability of any particular writer collecting a significant audience to near zero. What Web 2.0 offers with one hand it takes away with the other: the democratic, hierarchy-flattening promise of technology leads not to a Commons where all voices are equally considered, but rather a cacophony of voices, above which only a few are heard clearly.
Chris Anderson’s theory of [The Long Tail] could be seen as an article of the Commons faith — as with any other consumable, with technology providing even residents of the long tail of the consumption distribution access to readers, one could still hope to find at least a niche audience. But [recent work] out of Harvard suggests that the web actually acts to flatten the long tail and magnify the impact of the short tail. For those who are frustrated by the apparent inequities of the online publishing world, this will not come as good news.
For bloggers, the short tail is embodied in the “A-List” — whether in the tech or political worlds — the celebrity bloggers, like Robert Scoble and Arianna Huffington, who collect the most readers and who exert extraordinary influence over the public conversation. One regularly reads impassioned essays such as [this one] by Jim Kukral declaring war on the idea of the A-List or even, as in Krukal’s case, wishing it away entirely by decree. But there are reasons A-Lists exist that can’t be wished away. The principal one is: they provide value. A-List bloggers gain their authority because they enjoy advantages that most writers do not, primarily access. By dint of geographic location and professional history they are directly connected to sources of news and product information that are highly valued by their readers. Their connections make them valuable to their readers who, in turn, make them popular, more influential and better connected, hence, more valuable. It’s a “virtuous cycle” that benefits the A-List bloggers and their readers but not, alas, the millions of other bloggers scrambling to gain attention for their work.
Those who are unhappy about the elite status of certain writers need to be clear about who they are really unhappy with and why. The “who” is other readers, like themselves. The “why” I’ll leave to them to figure out.