Hyperlinks don't subvert hierarchy, they expose it

Among people that think about the Web there is disagreement about whether a revolution has occurred. It's rooted in the belief among some that hyperlinks in general and web logs in particular signal something entirely new about the World, that something fundamental has changed -- and changed for the better.

Clay Shirky returns to this theme in his posting, Powerlaws: 2006 Dance Re-mix where he responds to a rather sentimental post from Doc Searls, another thinker about the digital community, who  wants to subvert blog hierarchies, the so-called A-list of web log writers who have reached a certain status. Searls:

I have this idea that the blogosphere is the one place in the world — or perhaps an entirely new world, or a part of a new world, created on the Net — where there is no need for class, for caste, for gates or keepers of anything.

Shirky rejected the notion of a classless Web in his 2003 essay Power Laws, Weblogs and Inequality:

[P]ower 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.

His take: "Freedom of choice makes stars inevitable." Asking whether it's fair or not is in some sense, beside the point. Physical laws just are. The only revolutionary choice is opting out of the system altogether.

I might have agreed with Searls in the recent past. Now, I've come around to the view that, at least when it comes to the material we (freely) consume, the digital world recreates the off-line reality -- if that reality could be mapped among competing suppliers and consumers of media. The digital media frontier is new and necessary -- media suppliers, which incidentally includes you and me, need to pay attention -- but it's not revolutionary in the sense that old value systems have been swept aside. Fair or not fair, hierarchies develop.

Hyperlinks, do however, expose our choices. More importantly, though, they expose our choices down the Long Tail, the portion of the power curve that trails off at much lower amplitude to near infinity. That space is now available to be explored, aggregated and, with skill, hard work and a break or two, capitalized.


Technorati tags: Clay Shirky, Doc Searls, revolution, hierarchies, new media, power curves