"Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality" is a great read for bloggers, but it has some interesting points more generally.
In systems where many people are free to choose between many options, a small subset of the whole will get a disproportionate amount of traffic (or attention, or income), even if no members of the system actively work towards such an outcome. This has nothing to do with moral weakness, selling out, or any other psychological explanation. The very act of choosing, spread widely enough and freely enough, creates a power law distribution.
And of course, this will apply to school choice. I think that's what some opponents fear -- that the very act of choosing will create an undeserved perception of quality for some schools. Here's how Mr. Shirky explains it for weblogs:
Given the ubiquity of power law distributions, asking whether there is inequality in the weblog world (or indeed almost any social system) is the wrong question, since the answer will always be yes. The question to ask is "Is the inequality fair?"
He suggests fairness in the world of weblogs is established by the low barriers to
entry, the lack of inertia ("A-list" bloggers must keep blogging or lose their audience), the fact that the "stars" are created by hundreds (thousands?) of choices rather than by the actions of a small group, and by the fact there is no discontinuity in the curve. (Note that this issue of fairness has come up in the liberal/conservative discussion. Dr. Halavais has even raised the homeostasis question we come to next.)
Homeostasis and Diffentiation
Mr. Shirky notes, however, that
Once a power law distribution exists, it can take on a certain amount of homeostasis, the tendency of a system to retain its form even against external pressures.
In the case of weblogs, this means that it is harder today to start a weblog and obtain "A-list" readership than it was three, two, or even one years ago. He suggests that, as a result, blogs will differentiate.
The vast majority will become conversational -- highly personal, read by a few friends and family, most of whom will be engaged in the conversation.
A moderate number will be niche publications -- moderate readership with the authors engaged in the conversation (and, I suspect, typically focused on a narrow topic). We can already see a great deal of this in the education blog world, e.g, Joanne Jacobs and Number2Pencil.
A few blogs (the "A-list") will basically become broadcast media. The authors will be unable to read, much less respond to, any significant portion of their links, trackbacks and e-mails.
Mr. Shirky does not comment on the effect of popularity on the blogger. I suspect many on the A-list feel trapped by the success of their format. The pressure to post and to stay "in character" can be huge. Few seem willing to fight it. Rather, the tendency is to simply stop posting (e.g., Don Sensing).
I knew when I started this blog that two things could boost its readership: a tight focus on an area in which I had an unusual background and basis (former school board member, very conversant in educational issues) and "attitude." Pick fights, criticize -- get readers. I chose not to do either. Why? Well, in the first place, I write this for myself. It's something of a hobby. It helps me think things through. It keeps me (to some extent) from "losing" thoughts and knowledge -- the "where did I see that" phenomenon. And, though I have been and am still interested in education, I have other interests: business management, social psychology, the legal community, computers/tech in society, dogs, kids, hunting and guns (through the kids), science fiction, religion and faith experience, history, biographies, etc. I didn't want this to become an activity that stifles those interests; I wanted to engage them.
So, what am I hoping for? The conversational blog with a few folks who cross-link, comment and discuss. Dr. Halavais' comments have been engaging and enjoyable. I comment on his blog some. ASYB, Chris Correa, and others have done the same and I with them. Most will likely have a connection to education, but also a somewhat broader focus. Could be fun.
Meanwhile, speaking of dogs, ours need baths. See ya.