David Maizenberg, among other things, operates the Airblogger blog and <a href="http://www.blogbook.org/"Blogbook.org. The other day I got an email from David (I promise to respond soon, David) at almost the same time as I found his new article “A Lawyer’s Guide to Reed’s Law and the Power of Networks” on FindLaw’s Modern Practice webzine. I’ve always associated the idea of the power of networking that David refers to as Reed’s Law with Metcalfe’s Law, but there are apparently are some differences.
In any event, I’m more intrigued by the power of network effects than any attempt to capture the concept in a mathematical formula. David’s article does a nice job of applying the concept to the legal profession and giving us some good examples, although, significantly, none are from the legal profession.
David’s last two paragraphs raise some important issues that I have had substantial discussions about recently with some of the most well-known of the legal bloggers, including a phone conversation this afternoon. Let me quote David’s conclusions here:
“Why does all this matter to lawyers? Well, with all the various forums and groups everywhere beckoning for attention, some lawyers might be asking themselves: Is it a worthwhile use of my time to participate in volunteer, uncompensated knowledge sharing? Reed’s Law suggests that the answer is yes. Of course, one still needs to be selective. Network peer groups with no real purpose, or groups with weak participation, or groups that simply become too large, may not necessarily return maximum value. Nevertheless, here’s a good rule of thumb: don’t be stingy. If a peer group or forum is interesting and useful enough for you to follow on a regular basis, then for the health of the group, as well as your own standing within it, you should probably contribute as well.
Which brings up one other issue: freeloaders. What stops people from reaping the work of others but contributing nothing in return? The Internet is beginning to address the freeloader issue through reputation systems. For example, the reputation system on Ebay operates in a very simple way, but still serves to notify potential buyers of the likelihood that the antique tea service they bought really will arrive in the mail as promised. These sorts of systems, already well known in product markets, will eventually exist in knowledge markets as well. If present trends continue, we will eventually see a full “reputation economy” arise; that is to say, a system assigning value to the veracity, usefulness and reliability of some speakers over others, and the setting of compensation accordingly. So for lawyers and other knowledge workers, the time to begin establishing usefulness in this new networked world is now.”
While I agree, for the most part, with David’s conclusions, especially about resolving close decisions in favor of being more giving, these issues are quite complex. (For example, I think about the notion of enabling comments on this blog on a regular basis, and decide against it – thank you comment spammers for making the decision easier – but I’d use them if I created another type of blog.) These issues will rapidly come into focus as we begin to see law firms treat blawgs as an economic tactic and we move, as we did with web pages, into a second era of blogging. As I’ve indicated before, both the early law firm web page pioneers and the early blawgers have been extraordinarily helpful and generous. I’m not so sure that the early blawgers should be as willing as the early web page creators to be generous to people looking only for economic benefit while being unwilling to return the favor in any tangible or meaningful way.
However, I do not want to overemphasize the economic issues. There are also issues of common courtesy and just the responsibilities you have when you join in any network. The term “freeloading” often comes up in each of these contexts.
In a certain sense, we all look to move into better and better networks. “Better” means different things at different times to different people. For me, I think in terms of energy. I want to be in networks that energize me and where I want to be an active participant, especially when I can learn new things and work together with cool people to expand ideas and create new things. I want to get out networks where I feel that my participation is becoming a one-way street and that the network seems to drain away my energy.
Based on my experience, I don’t really buy into the “reputation economy” in this context. A “reputation” system inevitably lags what is happening and I’m not sure any numerical or “stars” method can capture the richness of the notion of reputation. They also depend on the system having some longevity and stability.
My observation is that people move on when the energy falls into the negative territory and find new networks. As for the networks that last, they become friendships. In my friendships, terms like “freeloading” and “reputation economy” and “Reed’s Law” never seem to enter into the conversation.
However, until that happens, those terms do make sense and, sadly, we are approaching a time when they will start to make more sense to bloggers than they have so far.
The good news, though, is that blogging is one way that technology brings home the point that it is your content and genuineness that matter and that we don’t need to be so concerned about we look like or where we came from or any of those things – unless, of course, we make the mistake of revealing our choice of presidential candidates.