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by Jay Fienberg

Does the "Power Law" follow the Peter Principle, promoting to the point of incompetence?

posted: Dec 23, 2003 1:45:51 PM

Clay Shirky's Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality brought a lot of attention to possible differences between blogs that gain massive readerships and those that reach only a few readers. Putting aside the details of power law scales, I think it is safe to say that some blogs end up serving as platforms of broadcast to mass audiences.

The Peter Principle basically states: "In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence". I wonder if this principle can be applied to other stratifications of status. In particular, do blogs get promoted to their level of incompetence?

Whatever blogs are, I think the general case is that some person begins publishing a blog without a large readership. As more people read the blog, what is posted essentially gets promoted in its level of importance, measured by attention, links, etc. By association, the blog author gains status or reputation.

At some point, I believe, the status or reputation has its own momentum. (So, let's say we are talking about the median opinion of all opinions.) Major changes in that status require pervasive changes across many points of reference.

For example, if your blog status is measured in links, and people don't read you any more and stop creating new links to you, but most existing links persist, I assume it will take some time to counteract the status suggested by the existing links. (Obviously, there are other ways to affect status than links.)

At a certain point, if the competency that attracted readers to the blog in the first place get lost, does the blog author not notice this because their past status is persisting into the present? In particular, for a blog with a mass audience, can incompetence be realized and the blog author not notice (e.g., because so many people still read it and seem to like it)?

This may be simply comparable to popular fame which often seems to surround, say, an artist with "yes-men" who infect the artistic perspective with a status-concerned perspective. And, with artists or blog authors, obviously, when you have "someone whose opinion you can really trust and who is willing to kick your ass" that you listen to, that maybe makes all the difference.

Nevertheless, these cases both suggest to me that the Peter Principle might apply. And, in particular, that the tendency is to promote past competence. With blogs, I wonder if the turning point is where a blog goes from being something along the lines of a personal diary / dialog with peers to being a broadcast pulpit / public relations medium.

Also, interesting to note that Joi Ito, in his recent post, Blogger's block, collapsing facets and the number 150, is talking about the wide audience that reads his blog and how that is affecting what he writes there. What he is talking about sounds like a firsthand reflection on some of these issues, about which, I am, at best, only speculating.

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