Blogspace Under the Microscope

May 3, 2002

Jon Udell

The culture of blogspace is evolving in near-realtime. Last week, a new mutation brought backlinks into a more prominent role. At Disenchanted, inbound links were automatically reflected outward. Each article grew a tail of backlinks that pointed to pages referring back to it. Suddenly a new kind of feedback loop was created. With a twist of the lens, conversations that had been diffuse and indirect came sharply into focus. Almost immediately the meme replicated.

Variants appeared at DECAFBAD and diveintomark. It's hard to avoid the sense that there's some biological force at work here. When blogspace told me to follow that hunch, I listened.

Sam Ruby, in an essay called Neurotransmitters, mentioned Steve Burbeck's The Tao of e-business services. "Read the The Touchstone of Life by Werner Loewenstein," said Steve. So I did. Loewenstein argues that the flow of information, more than the flow of energy, is the engine of life. There are many interrelated and circular information flows, or loops, of three main types:

  • Biomolecular loops, where the template on which products are assembled is, in turn, synthesized by those products.
  • Intracellular loops, which recapitulate this theme in the realm of protein synthesis.
  • Intercellular loops, where hormonal or electrical signals form large-scale networks.

At all levels, energy -- lots of it -- is traded for information. So we shouldn't be surprised to see bloggers roust links from their hiding places in referrer logs and use them to create new information loops. The principle of information economy dictates that what was acquired at such great cost will be conserved and reused wherever possible.

More than economy is at work here, though. Offering backlinks is a strategy that furthers the ambition of every blogger to engage other minds. It does so by enlarging the surface area and altering the shape of the posted article, which is the unit of information currency in blogspace.

Both techniques can help provoke the desired engagement which, like a biomolecular reaction, is a hard-won outcome that needs all the catalytic help it can get. The attractive force that binds molecules to substrates is weak, and easily overcome by their incessant jostling. To be effective, writes Loewenstein, "their molecular surfaces must be large, and their shapes must match within a few angstroms."

In blogspace, a backlink tail increases surface area in ways that attract the wandering eye of the reader and the probing tentacle of Google. It alters the shape in a more abstract sense. An article that has manifestly drawn the attention of people I know has, for me, something like the molecular specificity that drives biological reactions.

Backlinks also supply context. In cellular as in language-based communication, messages carry only part of the information exchanged. "A minimal signal," writes Loewenstein, "elicits a large response in a prepared system, one that contains practically all the information that gets into play." A key aspect of such preparation is the assembly and display of context. What was formerly available mainly to writers, for whom the perusal of referrer logs became an obsession, is now reflected back to readers as well.

The information loops formed by these backlink tails are small and simple. They express relatedness very differently than Google's "similar pages" function. That large-scale information loop, made visible by a new species of API-enabled Google explorers, may already have run its course. Evolution, says Loewenstein, favors simple loops over complex ones:

The number of loops, their interconnections, and attendant adapter molecules have proliferated immensely ... but the basic feedback loops ... have remained simple. Evidently, evolutionary advance here was made by multiplication of loops .… The simplest self-reproducing loop ... is the winner. Although it may contain less information, the basic loop with few members is evolutionarily more agile than any loop with more.

The information trails written in backlinks are, of course, new grist for Google's mill. They also enable an emerging breed of software, the social network analyzer, to visualize patterns of group formation.

The fact that groups are not readily identifiable seems at odds with the notion that blogging is a collaborative effort. In forums and newsgroups, well-defined groups interact directly in shared spaces. In blogspace, individuals control autonomous spaces. Groups are fluid coalitions. Interaction happens in more indirect ways. These are hard rules to play by. And that is why life took so long to achieve multicellularity. Writes Loewenstein:

It took some two and a half billion years to get from the first cells to the first multicellular organisms, about twice as long as to get from the first multicellular organisms to us. Evidently the toughest part was to get those solipsistic cellular beings to cooperate. After the first cooperative successes, the millions of organisms followed like an avalanche.

Breaching the cell membrane required complex and delicate engineering. No single strategy sufficed. Like computer networks, multicellular organisms use both broadcast and point-to-point communication. Hormones are broadcasts. Intercellular channels are nailed-up connections.

Blogspace has its analogs in RSS, which broadcasts messages far and wide, and hyperlinks, which fold space to make distant sites neighbors. The new backlinking style deepens these folds but, biology suggests, cannot proceed without limit.

The aperture of an intercellular channel, Loewenstein says, has an optimal size. At 16-18 angstroms, it's wide enough to pass all but the largest molecules -- proteins, DNA, and RNA. Thus evolution arranges for the maximum exchange of information that does not threaten the genetic individuality of the cell. If these pores were any wider, "the RNAs and proteins would go through, which would mean the kiss of death for cellular information selfhood."

I said in an earlier column that blogspace is a laboratory for group-forming experiments. As we conduct and observe those experiments, it seems useful to reflect on how life itself uses information loops to sustain multicellular collaboration.

The analogies are compelling -- though also, let's admit, fashionable and subject to abuse. Happily, biologists and information scientists are now talking to one another more and more. Having that conversation in blogspace might be a good way to get to the root of what blogspace is becoming, and how, and why.