The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

The Long Tail Wags the Blogs

It’s taken a while to see it, but I think I’m starting to notice a pattern. More and more I find I’m taking part in online campaigns in which a group of bloggers — whose cumulative page views and unique visits probably don’t add to a single day’s traffic for any one of the bloggers in Technorati’s top 100, the higher beings of the blogosphere ecosystem, or the Blogebrity a-list (note which list I’m on)— come together to amplify a story and mobilize people into action on a scale that probably none of us could have done on our own. And while I’m still not convinced that “there is no a-list” (something most often heard from those on that list), I’m beginning to think that when it comes using blogging to spread information and achieve results, the a-list may not be as important as many are inclined to think.

This most recent time, the pattern emerged again last Monday when I sat down to read my email and learned about the LIFEbeat concert featuring artists known for violently anti-gay lyrics. While still recovering from an AIDS organization promoting those artists, I got an email from Keith asking several black gay bloggers to join in doing something about it, and I did. Less than 48 hours later, LIFEbeat cancelled the concert and then apologized for the whole debacle. Though I was reeling from the speed at which everything had happened, I had a sense of deja vu and realized I’d experienced much the same thing a few times before.

The most obvious is Zach’s story and what happened when I blogged that. It wasn’t even a coordinated effort. I came across Zach’s story and blogged it late on a Friday night. Because it was still on my mind Saturday morning I crossposted it to a few more places and emailed links to more heavily trafficked blogs. While I was doing all of that, a few other bloggers — one who knew Zach personally, some in Tennessee where Zach lived, and others who were just moved by the story — were blogging about it as well. Eventually, through various links we found each other and started reading and linking to each other for updates.

Meanwhile, things started happening. Protests were starting outside of the reparative therapy camp where Zach’s parents sent him when he came out to them. Local media picked up the story. Then national media picked up. The Tennessee Department of Health got calls and letters, investigated the camp twice, and then ordered it shut down. From there, things went to the courts.

The a-list bloggers picked also it up, and maybe that was the most interesting part. I was only able to get one of them to post about Zach through my initial efforts at email, and the only other response I got was from another a-list blogger who was reluctant to post because Zach and his story might have been a hoax. (Zach’s dad eventually made an appearance on CBN, thus confirming both Zach’s existence and his story.) So, for the most part we got things moving without the major blogs participation, and they joined in once Zach’s story had already gone national.

Something similar happened on a smaller scale with the murder of Rashawn Brazell, a young black gay man. A small group of black gay men who were also bloggers came together to keep Brazell’s story on the radar of New York police, and it eventually got covered by local media; essentially ensuring that Brazell’s murder got more attention than it probably would have otherwise. The same could be said for the efforts of other non-a-list bloggers to bring attention to missing persons cases involving people of color like Tameka Houston and Latoyia Figueroa, and finally got Nancy Grace to talk about something besides Natalee Holloway.

And then there’s the LIFEbeat campaign. The bigger bloggers came on board a lot more quickly this time, with links showing up on Americablog, Daily Kos and MyDD. But, again, that happened after those of us initially involved got the ball rolling, as Matt noted in his post about the cancellation of the concert.

There’s another piece here, and that’s that this activism came mostly from progressive African-American gay bloggers. The blogosphere is not a top-down system, it’s more of a pond with ripples that go outward when there’s concentrated energy.

While he has a point, I’m not sure I entirely agree. On the one hand, the black gay bloggers who started and drove the campaign accomplished an awful lot by reaching out to our readers and using our own networks until the story bubbled up into both gay and mainstream media. But having those “bigger” bloggers in my network meant I could push the story to them, and their posts probably got more “eyeballs on the story” than our efforts alone could have.

I’ve pondered the effects of blogrolls and the politics of linking. I’ve blogged before about the “long tail” of the blogosphere and being a “long tail blogger” myself, and I’ve done my bit of railing against the somewhat organic hierarchy of political blogging, but it was upon reading Dave Pollard’s post that I first got the idea that what “long tail” blogs lack in volume of readers they make up for in having stronger relationships with readers and perhaps having more dedicated readers.

I’ve also been reading Chris Anderson’s blog and am currently reading his book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, and I tend to agree with his opening thesis.

Our culture is a massive popularity contest. We are consumed by hits — making them, choosing them, talking about them, and following their rise and fall.

… Our media is obsessed with what’s hot and what’s not. Hits, in short, rule.

The obsession with “hits” has a particular resonance in any discussion of blogging, where your statistics (unique visits, page views, incoming links, or whichever makes the best impression) determine how “hot” you are, and thus how much you have to say and whether anyone hears it or not.

But my experience is leading me to agree with Anderson’s larger point, which I first encountered in Dave Pollard’s post, that there’s untapped strength and unacknowledged importance residing on the long tail, much of which Chris has traditionally been counted as “misses.” Maybe that’s because I’ve seen a few times now how a number of so-called “misses” can add up to a “hit,” as it did in the events I mentioned above.

To borrow a phrase and make a really bad pun, sometimes the tail wags the blogs. Or to put it more succinctly, Archimedes was more right than we knew.

One Comment

  1. online campaigns in which a group of bloggers — whose cumulative page views and unique visits probably don’t add to a single day’s traffic for any one of the bloggers in Technorati’s top 100, the higher beings of the blogosphere ecosystem, or the Blogebrity a-list (note which list I’m on)— come together to amplify a story and mobilize people into action

    That’s exactly what happens with the Blogathon, an online event my spousal unit runs. A few hundred bloggers you never heard of, making a difference in the world. I think about that — and I’m going to remember this post of yours, too — whenever my faith in the ability of “the little guy” to do anything about the state of the world begins to flag.