In his recent writings on social software Clay Shirky has raised important normative issues. He has challenged us not just to innovate future tools but ask normative questions about them. He has asked ought questions in addition to the is and will be questions. What should we think about the inequality arising in the weblogging world? Is the social system that arises from the use of these tools fair or just? What kinds of features should tools and social networks support in order for them to form stable sustainable social systems?
In asking and answering these questions Shirky makes two claims that stand out. The first is the claim that the inequality that arises in the blogging world (of links, traffic or attention) is acceptable or, as he puts it, “mostly fair.” The second, is his claim that social software should accommodate some form of constitution building in order to be successful and sustainable.
This is a quick note on the first claim. In Power Laws, Weblogs and Inequality Shirky offers three reasons for his claim that the blogging world is mostly fair. All of them are important and perhaps necessary conditions for a just system. But these reasons aren’t sufficient to establish that the blogging world is a fair social system. I’m not saying that the blogging world is or is not fair. I’m just saying that the question makes sense and is worth asking. And that Shirky’s reasons don’t settle the question either way. Here are the reasons:
First is the fact of low barriers to entry in the weblog world. Anyone can start a weblog. Shirky describes this as to the “freedom in the weblog world in general. It costs nothing to launch a weblog, and there is no vetting process, so the threshold for having a weblog is only infinitesimally larger than the threshold for getting online in the first place.“ (79) While important, low barriers to entry are a necessary but not sufficient quality for fairness. You need to play to win to be sure, but the game can still be sadly stacked against you.
The second feature – dynamic competition – is that established positions in the blogging world need to be maintained actively or lost. “[B]logging is a daily activity,” writes Shirky. As beloved now popular bloggers are “they would disappear if they stopped writing, or even cut back significantly. Blogs are not a good place to rest on your laurels. “ Simply put, there is constant competition for the top positions. Established positions must be earned again day after day and there is downward mobility. Perhaps more importantly, established positions are harder to maintain in the weblog world than in physical media economies (e.g. newsprint) where economies of scale as well as advertiser, distributor and audience relationships make unseating incumbents more difficult. Again, while no doubt important, dynamic competition is not sufficient to establish the fairness of the system. One would have to say more about the competition for the top spots. In particular one would have to say something about upward mobility of newcomer’s into the system. This could be called the newcomer’s challenge.
The third feature – resistance to manipulation – points to a key issue regarding the justice of freely forming networks. “[T]he stars exist,” claims Shirky, “not because of some cliquish preference for one another, but because of the preference of hundreds of others pointing to them. Their popularity is a result of the kind of distributed approval it would be hard to fake.” One can debate the point. But even if we reject the claim as such, we may accept that resistance to manipulation (of all kinds) is a key characteristic of a fair system. Still this characteristic is yet again only a necessary, and not sufficient condition for justice. One can easily imagine systems free of manipulation that are perfectly awful from the perspective of most of its participants.
While important, it seems that Shirky’s three reasons do not alone or jointly establish the fairness of the blogging world. So the interesting question this raises is: What are the principles if satisfied that would show the blogging world to be a just institutional structure? And the meta-level question: How would we justify these principles to each other?
(Note: Shirky lists a fourth point in favour of his claim that the weblog world is mostly fair but strictly speaking this is not really a feature of the blogging world at all but rather a claim about descriptions of it. “There is no real A-list, because there is no discontinuity,” he writes. “Though explanations of power laws (including the ones here) often focus on numbers like ´12% of blogs account for 50% of the links´, these are arbitrary markers. The largest step function in a power law is between the first and second positions, by definition. There is no A-list that is qualitatively different from their nearest neighbors, so any line separating more and less trafficked blogs is arbitrary.” Since there exists no unarbitrary way of drawing the line that separates the A-list from the B-list, we need not be so concerned about any chosen A-list as marking out any particularly bad kind of inequality.)