Are Ranking Lists Bad for Blogging?

With so many writers and bloggers working online today, how do we identify the talent in the blogosphere?   Bonnie Stewart wrote an article in Salon yesterday, discussing the wrongness of using algorithms to identify social media Klout.

But because Klout rewards use-value networking over other forms of engagement, it fosters an increasingly use-value environment. The peer-to-peer relationality of social media is undermined by the kind of behavior that cultivates status over relationships. Status is part of the game. But when it becomes the whole game, the broad, rhizomatic networks get boxed in and wither, and then we’re back to something a lot less interesting than social media.

Even though the idea of quantifying influence in social media is rather ridiculous, I will admit that I have a soft spot for using numbers as standards.   There is a reason that SAT tests were created as a barometer for getting into college.  They helped undercut the human-based old-boy network of the past.   Standard enabled those outside the inner circle, such as women and minorities, to attend Harvard.   Standards help create diversity.

Bonnie seems to prefer a human-based system of our peers to identify influence, but who do we trust as an authority?  Should we even attempt to create a hierarchy in such a democratic medium such as blogging?

The editors of Babble, the online parenting magazine, are well-known in their community for making frequent lists promoting the Top Moms on Twitter, the Top Mom Bloggers, and now the Top Dad Blogs.   While these announcements create some buzz for those on the list, they also create controversy and hurt feelings in the parenting community.  I’ve seen this year in and year out.  So, last week, after a new controversy involving the Dad community, I commented on their site.

“If these lists always generate such animosity, why do you continue to have them? It certainly doesn’t seem to enhance the well-being of the community. What is the point? How does it help improve things? That seems to be the question no one answers.”

My blogging friend, Catherine Connors, who works with Babble, answered —

“Neil, relatively speaking, the amount of animosity generated is a fraction of the amount of excitement generated – but animosity tends to generate the more heated discussions, so that’s where a lot of the discussion goes.”

The lists matter because they make a statement about the degree to which parent blogs matter – these are content spaces and conversation drivers that matter just as much as, if not more than, the names that you see on the lists published by Time or Vanity Fair or the New Yorker or People. We’re asserting that this is a cultural domain, and an industry, and that its leaders and innovators deserve to be recognized.”

I appreciate her answer.   And I understand that we all want to be taken seriously, and to see the best of the best get the recognition they deserve.   And clearly there are important writers online who speak for many in their community as conversation drivers.  But surely we can’t we find a better way to promote the cultural domain of blogging than hierarchical LISTS that imitate mainstream old media?

I was a little afraid of writing that comment on Babble, since I am not a parent, and it would appear as if I was jealous of these lists.  There might be some truth to that.  We all want to be included and recognized, but there is something more personal at work here that strikes a nerve.   The compiling of lists, and the acceptance of them as authority, has been a thorn in my side from my first year of blogging.

In 2005, a few months after I started blogging, I was asked to write for this new site titled Blogebrity.  Blogebrity was a site where hip writers riffed on the new trend of blogger as celebrity. The site was notorious for the snark and particularly, their blogger lists. The editors ranked bloggers according to their status, placing them on A,B,C, and D-lists.

BlogHer had yet to come onto the scene in a big way, and the elite blogosphere was entirely male, guys who wrote about tech, gadgets, and sports.  You only had street cred if you were part of a advertising network.  There was a Wild West atmosphere to professional blogging.  Mommyblogging was hardly on the radar.  Even Dooce was on the C-list.

The writing style on Blogebrity was snarky; the writers used Gawker-type mockery to discuss the excesses and deals of the internet bigwigs.  Everyone had the feeling that there was a lot of money to be made in blogging.   It was the new Silicon Valley.

The editors of Blogebrity were under the assumption that I was a snarky writer.   My gig was to focus on the D-list bloggers, poking fun at them, as if they were a sideshow to the real industry.   What the editors didn’t realize was that I found the D-listers the most interesting of all the writers online; I was a D-lister myself who liked reading stories.  I loved that ordinary people AND weirdos had a voice online and were using blogging to express themselves.  To me, blogging was the greatest change in publishing since the printing press, and the “D” list bloggers were leading the revolution in the democratization of writing.  To paraphrase an early cry of the mommybloggers — blogging was a radical act.

While at Blogebrity, I wrote enthusiastic posts about personal bloggers.   I wrote about librarian bloggers, and how they were blowing away the myth away of the shy, reserved librarian.   I wrote about how sex bloggers were pushing the envelope of online-writing.  I was one of the first bloggers to introduce the newly-coined “daddy bloggers” to this audience. Within a few weeks, I had given up on watching TV because reading personal blogs were more fulfilling.

Because of Blogebrity’s snarky tone, the site created enemies with some of the bigger industry bloggers. One tough-talking business writer by the name of the Cowboy, decided to poke fun at the writers of Blogebrity.  Because I was the low man on the totem pole, he mocked my writing, calling my personal blog as irrelevant, and noting that I wasn’t even with an advertising network.    What irked me the most was when he called me a nobody.

I remember this online moment as rather traumatic, something that has colored my experience as a blogger ever since.   Another writer was trying to embarass me for doing something positive for the blogging community — which was introducing new bloggers to the community.

As a response, I wrote a long, crazy diatribe on the site that was 1/4 narcissim, 1/4 Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream speech, 1/4 Jimmy Stewart’s final speech in Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and 1/4 a re-telling of my overblown elementary school valevictorian speech.

The post has since been deleted, but it was titled “Who Cares about Neil Kramer?” and went something like this, reconstructing it from memory  —

“Who Cares About Neil Kramer?   Hell, why should anyone care about any of those on the D-list?  Or care about any blogger not listed at all?  Well, I tell you one thing.   You should be careful what you say.  Because we are the ones who are YOUR readers!  And now we have a voice too.  Whether we have five million readers or five, we are just as important… I have a dream… blah blah blah….”

You get the point.  It was a bit melodramatic.   After I published it on Blogebrity, I was attacked in the comments by the Cowboy.   He called me a pussy for reacting so emotionally.   He then invited his friends to come by and bully me further — my first true encounter with how the world works — the higher your perceived power, the more your friends will take your side online, even if they are wrong.

I soon stopped writing for the site.

This bullying in 2005 molded my online persona for the next six years. I never monetized my blog. I remained stubborn in viewing blogging as something uniquely different than traditional publishing, and saw any attempt to build a hierarchy within the blogosphere as a spit in the face of the essence of blogging.

Blogging was not created to be a farm league for writers to get gigs with the New Yorker Magazine. Blogging was a living and breathing entity, a fluid community of professionals and amateurs connected through comments and links, ideas and humanity.

I complained when Guy Kawasaki creating AllTop.  Even though I was on one of his lists as a “Top Blog,” I was worried that he was creating a “velvet rope” of haves and have nots by the very act of making his lists.   Authority is powerful, especially when it becomes recognized as THE authority.

I remember how excited I was when advertised the Great Interview Experiment on my blog.  What could be more radical and truer to the essence of blogging than announcing that everyone had an important story to tell, and not just the same ten bloggers who are trotted out for every interview and conference talk?   Rather than wait for some authority figure to interview us as worthy to speak to, why not interview each other based on a random encounter on a blog comment page? Almost 1000 interviews were conducted during the experiment, random blogger meeting random blogger, and proving that blogging is unique, unlike any other medium.

It is almost 2012.  The landscape online has changed since 2005.  But I still feel the urge to codify any part of the blogosphere into a hierarchy is bad for the community at large, and goes against the essence of blogging.  We should be protecting the blogosphere as a democratic force, not creating another 1% vs. 99% that we are protesting on Wall Street.   Who needs a bland corporate retread of the world we already have on TV and magazines?

Why not have revolving lists,  constantly introducing new bloggers to the community, including those outside of the same group of friends?   I like the open model of Schmutzie’s Five Star Friday, with the weekly mix of new names and old favorites.

Catherine’s response makes me flash back to 2005 and my Blogebrity days.  Using her criteria about the importance of leadership and innovation in a cultural domain, were the editors of Blogebrity correct for focusing on the conversation drivers of the time — the old-boy school of A-listers?    And was I wasting my time back then introducing those less innovative and important bloggers who comprised the “D” list — like the parenting bloggers?

Klout?  Lists?  Why is there such a strong human need to organize the human spirit with numbers and rank?

Side note:  Total coincidence.  This afternoon.   The Disney Corporation bought Babble for 40 million dollars.

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38 Responses to Are Ranking Lists Bad for Blogging?

  1. Amanda says:

    I think there are parts of the community, particularly those who have monetized their blogs, that are watching Klout and the lists, to make sure that they can respond if they are asked about ranking etc. So long as those are the only defined metrics to be compared against, there is a requirement to at least be aware of them.

    I find that the greatest influence for me is a personal connection, whether someone writes about something that resonates with me (even if we never interact on any of our many accounts) or we actually share an exchange.

    I think it was inevitable that all of this would happen—subjective measuring tools and lists, monetizing (sometimes at the expense of integrity) and corners being marked.

    Our responsibility as people who love writing, reading and the life that springs from the two, is to focus on the good. I’ve been hurt, I have felt shunned, but when I really think about it, I don’t operate the same way. Maybe I didn’t earn the number or a spot on the list. Whenever you get mired in being a have-not you lose.

    All that said, I think the bullying and unnecessary fighting is bullsh*t. Be nice people.
    Amanda posted Never Lose Your Voice

  2. Neil says:

    If it is all for business, that is fine. But it never stays that way. We already heard stories of people on Twitter unfollowing those with lesser scores because it didn’t help their score. So while it might seem like it is only for business, it has repercussions on the social fabric. Does a Klout 75 really want to become a follower of Klout 43?

  3. Alison says:

    I haven’t looked into Klout (because ugh, it replaces a C with a K and that annoys me), but I have seen my friends’ Twitter posts about it. I also don’t want to spend any energy learning a new social networking tool, especially one that deals with rankings. (I gave up on Technorati a long time ago.)

    Thank you for writing this post, Neil. You’ve expressed many of my own feelings.

  4. the muskrat says:

    Hi Neil-
    I’m glad to have you as a neighbor in the blogosphere neighborhood. The only thing I’d add to the above is that rankings encourage pigeonholing our blogs, which means pigeonholing ourselves. Not everyone is (or can be or wants to be) just a “dad blogger,” “tech writer,” “fashion writer,” etc. Most of us have more layers than that and would prefer to express such online.
    the muskrat posted like 10 elephants. or one of jesus’ friends.

    • First, thanks, Neil, for the post. As always, an insightful post…second, I agree with Muskrat in that I don’t want to be pigeonholed. I hang out with all kinds of bloggers from personal bloggers to book bloggers to humor bloggers, but sometimes I go off on sports or (rarely) politics. I don’t want to be put in a box.
      unfinishedperson posted The week the galaxy went and the week that Dr. No will go

    • Kim says:

      I agree with Muskrat and unfinishedperson; the kind of sorting that is necessary to create a list is bound to eliminate the blogs I most like to read because they don’t fit easily into any subcategory. I like a little bit of everything in a blog. It’s (hopefully) more like the writer him/herself that way.

      I have been writing online since 2000 but only started blogging publicly last year, so rankings and celebrity don’t feel like they apply to me. And I think almost everyone knows a handful of blog writers who are screamingly good who get no recognition at all; I certainly do.

      I don’t know if I think that ranking lists are bad for blogging; I just think they’re likely to be oversimplifications. What matters is what shows up after you push “publish,” to me.
      Kim posted two views, one weekend

  5. Ninotchka says:

    Really enjoyed this post, Neil. I think blogging was further revolutionized by the introduction of social media. It really separated the have’s from the have not’s, using your term, now that EVERYONE has an online voice (via Facebook). The way I perceive blogging now is wholly different from how I perceived it back in 2003 (when I started reading blogs, I started mine in 2004). Back then there were more categories than those who are in it for business and those who are not. That’s kind of how I view (process?) blogs now. I haven’t quite figured you out yet but I have to admit my blog reading has diminished greatly with the “Second Revolution.” :)

  6. Amanda says:

    I guess to what I was saying, if they unfollow someone for that reason, they were never really with you to begin with—so maybe it’s actually a service to those of us living for true connection.
    Amanda posted Never Lose Your Voice

  7. Wendi says:

    I think you and I approach blogging in a very similar way, Neil, meaning we just write what we want and value the relationships we’ve gained from doing so. I have never monetized and don’t ever plan on it.

    My biggest pet peeve about blogging is what you mentioned about bigger bloggers calling upon their readers to go bully someone they don’t like. Or posting something offensive and supposedly “humorous,” then their readers fight anyone who calls bullshit. I see it happen time and time again and just don’t get it.

  8. Bon says:

    i think the problem is trusting anyone as an authority, especially in a participatory medium like this.

    Klout has its uses…though i have less good things to say about SATs. in either case, reductionist metrics given too much power create situations where people simply teach to the test, or konnect for the Klout, or whatever.

    the problem isn’t actually the metric. it’s believing the metric can have an objective view of anything. no algorithm or test can actually offer the “God’s eye view” of hierarchy that we like to believe it can. because the hierarchy itself doesn’t really exist, not as a single thing. there are a hundred of ‘em, depending on where you’re standing and looking from. triangulating THOSE: best method. but impractical. so we boil down. i get that. i just think we need to stop buying it as TRUE, and start talking about its limitations.

    your revolving lists would go some to do that. it would be hierarchy revisioned through a bunch of different eyes, which would help to undermine the idea that the Babble Lists are “the” bloggers to invest in, time-wise or eyeballs-wise or $-wise. which would have its benefits, for the community and behaviours. and maybe its drawbacks, from Babble’s perspective. but they would still carry cache, just triangulating those opinions would be easier.
    Bon posted the thing that sucks about parenthood

    • Neil says:

      There will always be attempts to create order. I just think we sometimes forget that each medium is different, and what makes blogging special is that it doesn’t follow the forms of the dying old media. The lack of hierarchy and lists IS the point, and it would be a shame if blogging became a hierarchical dinosaur like the rest, while we all flee to Facebook.

  9. Julie says:

    Just a quick personal anecdote: Last year my blog was ranked #5 on Babble’s mom blogs list, between Pioneer Woman and Dooce. And although I was kind of tickled by that — ImeanWUT?! — I’ve found that it had a pretty chilling effect on my blogging. It was (and remains) very hard to just write, or not when I don’t feel moved to, without considering what it means in the greater context of blogger rankings, as if that context had real meaning, and I think it’s been kind of poisonous to my process, to any feeling of spontaneity.
    Julie posted In reverse

    • Julie says:

      …All of which is to say that it’s been bad for my blogging on a personal level. Whatever large-scale effects such lists have, I can only presume they have a trickle-down effect on others, as well.
      Julie posted In reverse

  10. Erika says:

    I am definitely a D list blogger.. it’s a lot like kareoke night. i feel like im singing someone elses songs bc im still trying to find my own voice. it’s nice to be recognized but these lists and awards lack diversity.
    Erika posted New Chapter

  11. Rufus Dogg says:

    I’ve always been on the D-List and intend to remain there forever; the DOG List. After having been rejecting by AdAge’s Power150 for not being relevant in the marketing world, I made up my own list, the Pawer150. Got me a badge and everything.

    Here is my take on these numbers. People are lazy about issues of trust. They don’t want to think very hard so they make up these quantifiers that boil decisions down to a simple number or whatever. Way back when I used to shop at malls, I went to one of these hand-made pretzel places in a food court. I thought the girl behind the counter was AMAZINGLY fast and accurate making these pretzels by hand… until I looked over at her work surface. Someone had made a template for her to shape the pretzels from pre-measured extruded pretzel dough. She had no skill whatsoever! They could have hired a monkey to do that job.

    Klout is doing the same thing. Kout is building a template to make complex stuff simple so the rest of us don’t have to think about who we trust and why. High score=high trust. Low score=POS. FICO does the same thing for credit (and employment, rent risk, insurance, etc… THAT is where is gets dangerous and reckless…) once Klout gets to mean something in the real world you and I walk around in, that is where it gets dangerous. Until then, stupid, meaningless number.. but a potential Trojan horse nonetheless.
    Rufus Dogg posted You cheated me. You stole my destiny.

  12. Megan says:

    I often find that these bloggers that seemingly have the most influence aren’t very interesting to read. There are exceptions, of course, but I’ll take substance over flash any day.

  13. Klout says I influence you. Perhaps I should be careful what I say.

    Klout also says you are a disseminator of others’ content. You’re a broadcaster, apparently. Does Klout read the blogs they rate, do you think?

    I’m merely a 30, when you are a 61. Please don’t unfollow me! I need to ride to the top of the online world on your coat-tails. The online world is the only one that counts anymore.

    The menu to the left of the Klout page seems to suggest that if I fave them on facebook. they’ll give me a +1. I’m tempted, but that would be selling out. Since I work in advertising, I have no problem with that. Here goes…

    Holy crap! In the last ten minutes, they’ve busted me to a 29.45! Neil…I beg of you! Please give me a +1 on feminism or bacon or something. I need you!

    THH
    Conversationalist
    The Honourable Husband posted Comrades in Kitsch

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  15. amiee says:

    a few years ago i came to your blog via sweetsalty kate. she writes amazingly good words and suggested that you did too. i’ve always thought she is amazingly right. i love your stories, your personality, your way with words and that is why i’ve stayed.

    i am ignorant of the whole blogging list thing because i don’t look at them so i love looking at them through your eyes. you ask why we have to go about ranking ourselves, comparing, contrasting, one-upping? because we are human and conscious and crazy. i don’t think people can live without it, the knowing of where you fit in the scheme of things.

    what i love though neil is that even before the world of mommy-this and babble-that you honed in on the crux. that there is true value in being a D. not through the lens of the A but then why do we have to give a fuck about the A’s. just stop looking at them. find the true words and stories and people and ignore the rest.

    that’s how i roll and i will always roll around you. also, wish i could clock the Cowboy and all others like them. what a douche.
    amiee posted RIP Steve. From the Eye of a Little.

  16. The lists are bullshit and are published to drive traffic.
    The end.
    Twenty Four At Heart posted Dream House

  17. Lindsey says:

    Awesome post, Neil. I have been blogging since 2008 but it was password protected. I did not necessarily want to be public but I wanted to be able to write while at my desk at my day job and express myself even if only a handful of friends read it. I saw other friends around me blow up with blogger celebrity and it seemed to me a lot of the blogging world was about mom bloggers. I have only recently (since October) taken my password off and gone public with my writing. When people ask what my blog is about it feels much like the Hollywood line “Who do you work for?” I do not have many followers. I just started with twitter and always fuck up my tweets. I am not sponsored or have any Klout or anything. I have a personal blog. I am not a mom. I am a writer having a hell of a time using my blog as a creative outlet. But sometimes I do feel anxiety or the push to “build my platform” if I want my writing to really be read. Thank you for reminding me what its really all about. Its an interpersonal creative community and I’m excited to have finally joined it.
    Lindsey posted Join The Mean Bitch Revolution

  18. “Who needs a bland corporate retread of the world we already have on TV and magazines?”

    Exactly.
    V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios posted She asks me

  19. Disney wouldn’t have bought Babble if it wasn’t a homogenized, carefully scripted version of reality designed to make money. That’s Disney’s specialty.
    V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios posted She asks me

  20. denise says:

    I revel in being a no name blogger.
    denise posted Hike Boulder: Mallory Cave from NCAR

  21. magpie says:

    I love it when you get all thinky.
    magpie posted Gleditsia

  22. Pingback: Bad Timing | Citizen of the Month

  23. abigail.road says:

    Honestly, blogging, and Twitter and the like are getting so clique-y, that I feel like the biggest loser in high school some days. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
    abigail.road posted 10 Things that Scare the Crap Out of Me, In Honor of Hallowe’en.

  24. drhoctor2 says:

    The lists ARE bullshit and simple marketing gimmicks as they refuse to publish any sort of info about the criteria for listing. I commented that they were straight up popularity contests and got “Oh , NO !! Not that”..but no matter how many times I asked, that question was never answered. I’m hardly about to attach any credibility to Best Of lists when there is no way to evaluate the judging scale. I’ll stick to my original opinion ..they’re straight up popularity contests not decided by a popular vote of readers but rather the High Clique of Babble Bloggers. They are devisive, negative, and populated by the same exact insider favorite bloggers every go around.
    I’m quite surprised that people are attaching SO much importance to Klout scores. It’s just a way to gather demographic info for them to sell as a consultation service for advertisers. Klout perks are freebies to make people happy about opting in. This is just internet evolved mailing list surveys from back in the olden days of postal service coupon packs. One can’t possibly take it seriously in terms of how influential one is online. Neither can we possible use any sort of Top # or Best of Blogging lists as a measure of writing or communication talent in blogs.

  25. Poppy Buxom says:

    Great post, Neil!

    Yeah, the Babble lists … I ignore them and the fuss made over them. Babble and I exist in different universes. They’re there for the hits. I’m here to read.
    Poppy Buxom posted Hope springs eternal, or, on-line shopping

  26. Erica M says:

    I am still good friends with bloggers you introduced me to through GIE and your 2006 blogger matchmaker posts. Your influence goes far beyond Klout and Babble simply because you understand the value of community whether or not it comes marked with a brand. Thanks for everything, Neil.
    Erica M posted lovelinks #31 is open

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  28. That would have been a traumatic experience for just about anybody, except the megalomanics. Now I understand why there’s no ads here even though you are widely read. And what you said in your reconstructed paragraph rings true: we are the 99%…
    Absence of Alternatives posted Seriously people: No Christmas decorations or music yet. Bring Back Thanksgiving!!!

  29. Danny says:

    I agree with you completely (except the part about standards allowing for more diversity which I don’t think is true). I find all the rankings, all the lists, and sites like Klout absolutely ridiculous. What does any of that serve, except some sad, innate desire we have to seek external praise and validation? I guess I’m from the Old School of blogging. We do it simply to express ourselves, to share, to feel part of some kind of community. I haven’t “monetized” my blog but it’s given me countless rewards over the past 7+ years. Huge rewards. And if we have to rate people, I nominate you as King of the Blogosphere–your online group activities have done more good for the blogging community than anything I can think of.
    Danny posted 11/11/11

  30. Jack says:

    Lists are good linkbait.
    Jack posted A Thankless Thanksgiving

  31. Pingback: 11.16 « oh, jenny mae

  32. ohjennymae says:

    i started to write a comment and went ahead and wrote a post. it turned out to be a follow up on my previous post about babble voices.

    http://ohjennymae.com/?p=1938
    ohjennymae posted 11.16

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