Give me props: Handshakes, salutes, or applause?

Internet | Building/Consensus
Ok, you’ve written a really good, original, article on your blog or webzine or civ or whatever. Your next step is to promote the heck out of it: not just get people to read it, but get people to reference it later, and recognize you as the smart person behind that idea.

Now, I understand that this isn’t the concern of all bloggers. Let’s review the archetypes. There’s the ringers, who already have an audience. The wingers— well they have their own echo chambers. The fingers— these are the bloggers who can “make it up in volume” by just posting a ridiculous amount– they’ll get noticed. The singers I identified as people who just blog for the joy of it, and who generally really traffic in links. However, it’s the stringer that I sympathize with here, for it’s this archetype who toils longest and gets the least recognition.

It’s a problem I covered in the New Gatekeepers series. If that, at 13,000 words, was frighteningly long, my correspondent Seth Finkelstein’s recapitulation of it this week should help. Suppose that Seth is one of the world’s experts in censorware (“and if not, certainly up there.”) He write that “No technology in widespread use” can measure or demonstrate such expertise relative to others. Thus he finds himself constantly needing to engage in exercises in promotion. If the Internet/blogosphere were a flat medium, we wouldn’t have to spend so much energy on these promotional exercises. So I thought I’d offer an explanation as to what to expect from the promotion process.

Promotion is a two-way street. It’s a process I’ll call the Handshake— I’ll explain the metaphor afterwards.

First, you need to promote to people who can share you with untapped audiences. Let’s suppose one such person professionally known as Allister, but we can call him Al. Now, Al may have heard about the “A-List” but doesn’t want to be seen as a snob, so he denies that one exists, and if one did, why would he be on it? Nonetheless, Al has more readers and gets more tips from readers then you do, and it is you petitioning Al to be read and not the other way round. That in itself doesn’t necessarily make Al an elitist, or guilty of association or anything, it’s just how the relationship works. That’s the A-list dynamics. (There’s also A-list humor).

So, you start the handshake. You butter up Allister in an email. You mention how it connects with a point he just made. You comment on his articles. The advice on this runs a mile wide: Chris Bowers of MyDD (I’m Not Going To Blogroll You, Sept. 22, 2005), Susan Mernit (How to grow your (blogging) audience, March 20, 2005) Robert Scoble (How your blog will get discovered, Sept. 19, 2004), Biz Stone (Promoting Your Blog,, Sept. 2004), Eugene Volokh (Promoting One’s Blog, April 27, 2003), Tom Coates (How to get more traffic to your weblog…, January 16, 2002)

That’s plenty of advice that’s been handed down from the Allisters of the blogs. But I haven’t found any advice for them. Here’s my first attempt. There’s a lot that Al can do at this point. These may seem like completely incongruous activities– but they all serve your end of complete the handshake.

  1. Al writes an email back.
    1. He may give an indication that you’ve read your piece.
    2. He may provide constructive feedback on your piece.
    3. He may suggest other resources or people which might be of use to you.
  1. Al responds to your comments in the comments/forum section.
  1. Al adds a link to you.
    1. He may add your to his “show” blogroll, the list of outside links he shows to the world.
    2. He may add your site to his “true” blogroll, the outside links he actually reads.
    3. He may add a link in a blog post.
    4. He may post a link, comments on what it means, frames the point for his readership.
    5. He may write an article at a subsequent time which treats the link as a reference and not just a link.
  2. Al bookmarks you.

Whew! What a handshake! Not surprisingly, it is rare that it is ever followed through in whole for every request.

Al may be too busy to read the piece or to write an email. He may not see the value of posting a comment back in a public forum, even on his own blog! (this was covered in the essay What Lies in Conversation). He may not see a need to do anything if not asked explicitly. That’s life.

Now, if Al is in fact a popular blogger, he gets tips all the time, and the easiest thing to do may be in fact to post a link, maybe with comments. Or he may not. Among the problems with blogging for critical thinking is that it the medium started, as Rebecca Blood tells it, as collections of found things. If you catch Al on an essay day as opposed to a found links day, he may not get to you. As for the blogroll, forget it. Technical writer Shelley Powers, who has written many blog posts about A-list dynamics, wrote an epitaph in March if there ever was one: “blogrolls are a way of persisting links to sites, forming a barrier to new voices who may write wonderful things — but how they possibly be heard through the static, which is the inflexible, immutable, blogroll?”

The problem with the handshake is that our expectations were wrong. It’s a like a handshake in real life– it’s phony, it’s a moment of feigned egalitarianism. Perfect for photo-ops. Maybe you got to meet Big Al after he spoke at a conference. Either he’s shaken a thousand hands, and your hand is just another hand… or he’s shaken a thousand hands and he doesn’t have to shake yours.

Let’s consider some different gestures. First, keep your hand to yourself and put it to your forehead. Al will salute back, even if he didn’t serve the military. Your salute tells him: "I am humble in your presence, oh great one." The return salute has a different meaning: "Thank you oh plebian. Just as you remind me of my place in the pecking order, I remind you of yours." No one questions the dignity of a salute. The second thing you can do with your hands is to put them together. If you like something you’ve read, clap your hands. The trick is now to get Al to do it– so he doesn’t have to strain a handshake.

Now to get back to what we were trying to accomplish. You want to bring something to Al’s attention, or to bring it to the attention of Al’s colleagues, who may bring it to Al, or who may themselves be better able to engage you. We should dedicate a channel, separate from email, for doing this. In April I called such a concept the Tipster Network. On this network, a public channel would be set up for tips to Allister, who could quickly review them and and respond to them. If Allister’s blog consisted mostly of his regurgitating best of the tips sent it to him, this function would mostly be automated.

Ultimately, though, our concern is not the sound of one Allister clapping. It’s the sound of many people– clapping or expressing some other opinion which can be aggregated. Today’s blogging is “kind of a wonderful noise” as Dan Gillmor put it recently, but with a little work we can develop tools discern signals through the noise. When we send Al a link he finds halfway decent, he should put it in his bookmarks. But if he has set up his shared bookmarks, his trusted colleauges can peruse them. Bookmarks by their nature tend to be shorter than blog posts. Consider the output of Howard Rheingold, who was an Internet visionary with less invested in the blog revolution than most: since Labor day, he has bookmarked forty items in the shared bookmarking, four times the number of blog posts to his group blog SmartMobs. Still, comes up short. So far, it counts citations without qualification– a popularity contest. What if it did enable users to score articles among specific qualifications? I put together that concept back in January, and called it the Hearsay Network.

Ultimately, a social bookmarking service– scrap that, call it a shared intelligence service– may be able to best sort out those articles which meet certain quality criteria. And we can spend less time petitioning the Allisters. And more time clapping and saluting the people who should be saluted.