Blogs, Payola, and Gift Exchange

May 17, 2013 at 10:47 am 4 comments

| Gabriel |

In a review of the MRU media economics MOOC course (to which I contributed a guest lecture, part 1 and part 2), Ashok Rao asks why is there not more focus on new media. It’s a fair question and one that could be extended to my own course on media sociology, which for the most part could be fairly described as “sociology of the media as it existed through the 1990s” (I do deal with a few recent issues like how piracy unraveled bundling). In particular, Rao wants to know about blogging payola. This is actually an interest of mine as I’ve done work on radio payola and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about gift exchange.

First of all, Rao’s model is about exchange among bloggers, whereas traditionally payola involves exchange between two different types of actors, such as record labels and radio stations. As I’ve previously discussed, we have seen examples of this with bloggers who seem to be a little too close to political campaigns. Likewise a few years ago the FTC announced that bloggers should disclose when they’d received incentives from companies whose products they were discussing. The business model of Klout is basically to institutionalize this, by quantifying how influential social media users are and then serving as a broker for companies who want to give freebies to relatively influential folks in the hope that they’ll blog or tweet about their experiences.

That said, let’s get back to Rao’s model of blogging, which is that we link to higher status bloggers in the hopes that they’ll reciprocate with a link back. (Did I mention that I saw Rao’s post, via MR?). I’m not sure if I’d exactly call this “payola” but it is an interesting phenomena and is related insofar as it involves an exchange of fame. In fact it closely follows Roger Gould’s model of status. Gould’s model of status is that it’s a combination of preferential attachment and reciprocity. The preferential attachment dynamic means that we prefer to direct our attention towards high-status actors. However the reciprocity heuristic means that we also expect our attention and resources to be reciprocated. To the extent that the high status actors have finite attention with which to reciprocate, the two heuristics are in tension with each other and so in effect low status actors jointly optimize the two heuristics by accepting asymmetric relationships with high status actors, even as they would refuse similarly asymmetric relationships with low status actors. So I am willing to link to Tyler or Megan more than they link to me because they are higher status than I am and so this asymmetry in power makes me grateful for what attention they give me rather than resenting that I give them more attention than they do me.* And in a sense, I should be grateful since their attention is worth so much more than mine, as indicated by a look at the “referrers” section of my WordPress stats.

Nonetheless, as Podolny‘s model of status argues, the Gould model tends to result in cumulative advantage since the preferential attachment heuristic means we are willing to forgo a certain amount of reciprocity when dealing with high status actors. (Note that JLM treats exploitation in patronage as contingent, see figure 6.6 in Social Structures). As such, only occasionally reciprocated links will tend to lead to cumulative advantage in blogging fame.


* It’s hard to describe patronage without sounding like you’re complaining. All I can say is that I have no complaints at all about my relationships with various famous bloggers and I consider some of them to be among my closest friends.

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  • 1. JH  |  May 17, 2013 at 11:25 am

    Wonder if/suspect that male bloggers are relatively more willing to engage in asymmetrical linking w/ bloggers of opp. sex even if they’re not necessarily of higher status? Similarly wi/st that’s less true for female bloggers.

  • 2. Ashok Rao  |  May 17, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    Interesting thoughts here.

    I’d add that low-status bloggers, such as myself, are also unfortunately limited in time. This means I have to optimize my feeds using similar heuristics as, say, Cowen adjusted of course for differences in personality/interests.

    So part of the asymmetry in link strength (let’s say by # of references) is that most low-status bloggers don’t read each other, but what they consider to be the “best” writing.

    I don’t think I’d be particularly more willing to link to MarginalRevolution than any other blog, other things equal (which they obviously are not), because I don’t think they link to me because of the link as much as the content.

    In fact high-status blogs are probably so overlinked that such plays a small role in their decision to link (speculation here). The obvious caveat is when *another* high-status blogger responds, but the link here is more in the nature of “Here’s what Paul Krugman has to say” rather than the content itself.

    There is a sense in which this type of analysis places too much emphasis on “status” because I’d like to think I try to find interesting things rather than get views: but then again, those are the constraints I set, myself!

    • 3. gabrielrossman  |  May 17, 2013 at 2:17 pm

      Yes, I was thinking that it’s true that high status bloggers tend both to post more often and with higher quality than do us lower-middle types. This would fit within the JLM model as them having access to pre-existing resources (although that’s not quite fair in this case as it makes it sound like manna from heaven rather than the result of talent and effort) and in the Barabasi model’s quality parameter.

  • 4. Michael Bishop  |  May 18, 2013 at 8:28 am

    In terms of average post quality, you remain at the top of the game (IMO).

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