So the BBC has launched a public pre-beta version of iCan – their attempt to help people re-engage with and self-organise around politics at an local/national/international level. The early stage makes it almost inevitable that there are going to be bugs – and bugs there are – but the idea seems sound and there’s considerable scope for iteration toward something profoundly useful and important. The non-beta version is a way off yet, but I can recommend that anyone who’s interested in starting a campaign or getting engaged around an issue try the site out and feedback into the development cycle. There’s a good few issues starting to populate the site already – including Kevin Marks’ campaign to get the BBC releasing audio as MP3 rather than Real, which is obviously interesting to me (working in R&D at BBC Radio and Music Interactive) but which – also obviously – I can’t really comment upon in the public sphere…
Matt Jones – who has worked on the project for the last couple of years – has written a post (It’s all about the tail) which tries to articulate some of the rationale for the endeavour, based on that old power law chestnut. This time the power law graph has “issues” on one axis and (I suppose) “amount of coverage” or “scale of political engagement” on the other. A tiny amount of national issues get massive amounts of coverage/engagement while a massive amount of smaller local issues get little or none.
The aims of iCan in this space seem to be two-fold – firstly that the tail should get ‘fatter’ ie. that there should be a way to encourage people to engage in the smaller, lower-rent difference-making. Secondly there’s an aspiration towards mobility – that smaller campaigns should be supported in their attempts to get larger, to transition into different scales of activity and to grow.
This latter objective does seem to come with some interesting provisos, however. There are some issues which are by necessity localised, there are some campaigns which will never and should never become national news or motivate hundreds of thousands of people. In a sense, then, iCan is about finding the best place on the power law for a campaign to live. It’s about facilitating the scale and type of engagement that will do the most good for people based upon the kind of issue that they bring to the table.
All of which brings me right back to the issue of weblogs (again), back to Clay Shirky’s article (again) and back to this issue of ‘inequality’. In the case of iCan, there seems to be an acceptance that there’s a difference of type between kinds of campaigns and that certain types will sit at different levels of the power curve. So of course the question arises, is there a difference of type between the weblogs at different points in their analogous curve and what does that mean for weblog inequality.
Any examination of the ‘top-linked’ weblogs brings you to the conclusion fairly quickly that they’re either highly subject-focused or totally subject-focused. Several of them are group weblogs as well. They are almost totally non-conversational. At the bottom end are the small focused, highly conversational clumps of weblogs used almost as mailing-list/group e-mail equivalents for friends, familes and small groups of people. This isn’t a question of quality – the latter type has no aspiration towards massive traffic and web-popularity, while the former model has aspirations towards a publishing model and a larger ‘mass market’.
That’s not to say of course that a conversational weblog will remain conversational or small and downplayed (any more than to say that all human beings are uniformly socially popular) or that the publishing model weblog will necessarily achieve Time magazine levels of success, but simply that the inherent qualities of each type of site make them ideally suited to different points in the power-law – that there are different kinds of interaction which work better at different scales.
In between of course, there are many variants of tone, personality and conversationalism – hybrids designed to operate at different ‘depths’ – some by choice or aspiration, some forced into new forms of interaction by dint of new forms of pressure. Any long-term weblogger is familiar with the changes in tone that come with the arrival into your online social scene of people from your real-world who you didn’t expect to read your writing – and many are equally familiar with the sensation that too much of your life is on display for the benefit of strangers. A trafficked personal site necessarily becomes less personal – more of a publishing style site eventually, as the author is slowly eroded by revealing themselves totally in the public sphere – just as the local campaign becomes less homely and more structured as it extends to the county or national level.
Which leaves us where? My argument would be the fairly obvious one that – in order to create a fair and useful (equal) space within which webloggers can operate, we should be thinking about how to build tools and mechanisms that will encourage movement along the arc of the power-law, helping sites responsively find a level of traffic and engagement that reflects what individuals are trying to achieve, and that we should find new ways (maybe new kinds of weblogs themselves) that help articulate what kind of activity a weblogger is aspiring towards, and help them move in those directions. The level of engagement that has been demonstrated by individual webloggers has clearly been one of many inspirations for iCan – now perhaps it’s our turn to be inspired in turn?