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Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social software consultant and writer who specialises in the use of blogs and wikis behind the firewall. With a background in journalism, publishing and web design, Suw is now one of the UK’s best known bloggers, frequently speaking at conferences and seminars.

Her personal blog is Chocolate and Vodka, and yes, she’s married to Kevin.

Email Suw

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson is a freelance journalist and digital strategist with more than a decade of experience with the BBC and the Guardian. He has been a digital journalist since 1996 with experience in radio, television, print and the web. As a journalist, he uses blogs, social networks, Web 2.0 tools and mobile technology to break news, to engage with audiences and tell the story behind the headlines in multiple media and on multiple platforms.

From 2009-2010, he was the digital research editor at The Guardian where he focused on evaluating and adapting digital innovations to support The Guardian’s world-class journalism. He joined The Guardian in September 2006 as their first blogs editor after 8 years with the BBC working across the web, television and radio. He joined the BBC in 1998 to become their first online journalist outside of the UK, working as the Washington correspondent for BBCNews.com.

And, yes, he’s married to Suw.

E-mail Kevin.

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Monday, March 28th, 2005

Whuffie and the snowball

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

Doc Searls blogs about how these days he prefers to roll snowballs downhill instead of pushing rocks uphill:

Tell ya what. I’m fifty-seven years old, and I’ve been pushing large rocks for short distances up a lot of hills, for a long time. Now, with blogging, I get to roll snowballs down hills. Some don’t go very far. But some get pretty big once they start rolling.

See, each snowball grows as others link to the original idea, and add their own thoughts and ideas. By the time the snowball gets big enough to have some impact, it really isn’t my idea any more.

Anyway, at this point in my life I’d rather roll snowballs than push rocks.

He then quotes Steve Gillmor and Jay Rosen about getting ideas moving, and concludes:

I think Big Challenges start with conclusion, with finished opinions. That’s what makes them sysiphean. They are bodies at rest that are hard to put into motion, especially in an uphill direction.

But if you start with an idea, whether partly formed or whole, whether yours or somebody else’s, and push it in the downhill direction that all blogging (thanks to links and RSS) essentially goes, it’s bound to have some impact once it grows large enough. And as long as it keeps going.

The problem I have with Doc’s post is this - in order to get ideas rolling downhill, you need to already be uphill, you need whuffie. Firstly you need people to be reading your ideas, secondly they need to want to do something with your ideas (there’s always extra kudos and therefore motivation in doing something with the ideas of someone who’s got a bit of whuffie), and thirdly they need to tell people that they got their idea off you (so that your whuffie builds).

People like Searls, Gillmor and Rosen have whuffie in spades, and this is why they can start snowballs rolling downhill and why those snowballs grow as they go. If you have no whuffie, your snowball will just melt - no whuffie means few readers, no one gaining kudos off developing your idea, no whuffie coming back to you for having had it. The idea goes nowhere.

It’d be nice to think that it’s the quality of the idea that gets the snowball moving, but more often than not, that has nothing to do with it. Hugh Macleod, for example, has so much whuffie that all he has to do is fart and the trackbacks start rolling in.

I saw exactly the same thing when I worked as a music hack - it’s not the bands with the best music or the journalists with the best writing skills that make it, it’s the ones with the whuffie. Same in the film industry - doesn’t matter how good your script is, if you have no whuffie you aren’t going anywhere.

It’s no surprise that it’s the same in the blogosphere, after all, we all know that we have a small minority of bloggers who have all the whuffie. They stand at the top of the mountain, from where it’s easy to start an avalanche. Those of us in the foothills can throw snowballs all we like, but it’s not going to have the same effect.

The trouble is that there are a couple of whuffie Catch-22s going on: firstly, those who have whuffie get more whuffie and those with none find it hard to build up. Secondly, my own personal whuffie Catch-22 and one common to all those in the whuffie-dependant industries, is that I need to blog to gain whuffie so that I can get more work, but the things that pay the bills take me away from blogging thus preventing me from gaining more whuffie in order to obtain more work. That’s basis of the feast-or-famine self-employed life.

The answer? Find a ski-lift.

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18 Responses to “Whuffie and the snowball”

  1. jr Says:

    As Doc knows because he is continuously older than I am, whuffie is only a requirement for the young.

  2. Harold Jarche Says:

    Yup, sure could use a ski-lift. Know of any whuffie lifts around?

  3. Andrew Gray Says:

    I suppose the last part sounds less worrying if you rephrase it as “the only thing stopping me being able to get more work is work”. Sort of an employment-homeostasis system, to use a shoddy analogy.

  4. Suw Says:

    I think whuffie is mainly of concern to the young, but I disagree that it’s irrelevent to older people.

    Once you’re older, you either have a stash of permanent whuffie earnt through your past exploits which you can always draw on, or your activities are not whuffie-dependent any more. However, that’s more about your situation than your age per se. Some young people do not work in a whuffie-dependent sphere, so it’s irrelevent to them. Equally, some older people change careers and suddenly, whuffie is very important all over again.

    The thing is, people like Doc have so much whuffie, and have had whuffie for a long while, that it’s possible to forget what it’s like not to have whuffie, and that there’s a large percentage of the population who are whuffie-free. This is, i think at the root of the ‘diversity in the blogosphere’ debate that I’ve been steering clear of lately. Lots of women have little or no whuffie, and can’t see how they can easily build whuffie in order to compete with their whuffiefied male counterparts. Then there’s the whuffie glass ceiling - sometimes it feels like no matter how many good ideas one has, how hard one works, the whuffie’s not accruing. The whuffieocracy is not a meritocracy, same as the blogosphere is not a meritocracy despite everyone hoping that it would be.

  5. Suw Says:

    Andrew: Yes, it sounds a bit less scary when you phrase it like that, but the problem is that if you’re not getting work because you’re busy working, when the work you’ve got runs out you haven’t got anything to take its place. It’s an old problem faced by many small businesses and self-employed people - you don’t have time to do your pr and marketing whilst you’re running your business, yet you need to find the time somehow to do both at once otherwise the whole thing falls over.

  6. rick gregory Says:

    And you’ve just hit on the reason I don’t blog. Why should I when, in all probability, I won’t see my ideas discussed widely? Yes, I’m sure that I could get a few or a few dozen readers… but unless I can actually influence things, why put forth the hundreds of hours of effort it will take to build up a reasonable blog?

    Let’s face it, blogging does not empower people in a general sense since most people will never have their blog read or their ideas quoted/discussed. Yes, they can publish, but if no one reads their blogs, is there any point to publishing (aside from ego gratification)?

    Put another way, while the power of the press accrues to those who have a press and blogs allow us all to have a press, real influence accrues to those who can get people to read what comes off their press. With 8M blogs (according to Technorati), the odds that any one person can become broadly influential are pretty long.

    One consolation is that the long tail is fractal - if you want, you can still likely make a name among, say, food and wine bloggers. But amoung political blogger? Tech bloggers? Not without Suw’s Whuffielift…

  7. Harold Jarche Says:

    Whuffie effects older workers too. I’m 46 but when I left the military in 1998 I had no business whuffie - tough stuff. I’m still building my network, and am convinced that blogging helps.

    Rick: even a little guy like me, in the middle of nowhere, can use his blog for small business advantage. I’m not famous, but in one year I’m now up to +30K visitors per month. No direct work so far, but some referrals :-)

  8. hugh macleod Says:

    Eh. Ideas spread. Things grow. I remember when my website was getting 12-20 visitors a day, not that long ago, really, but I kept at it.

    So Doc Searls has more wuffie than us. Yeah, and we didn’t co-write the Cluetrain Manifesto, either.

  9. Suw Says:

    You’re missing the point, Hugh. I’m not complaining that Doc has too much whuffie, or saying that the amount of whuffie he does have is unfair. I’m not belittling him in any way and if you’re interpreting my post like that, then you need to go back and reread it.

    Doc was saying he likes rolling snowballs downhill, but I’m saying that you need to be uphill before you can do that - i.e. some of us don’t have the choice but to keep pushing rocks uphill.

    That’s life, true, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth mentioning. You may find no worth in it, but that doesn’t mean everyone else will also find it worthless. I’ve actually had a lot of feedback from this, here in the comments, on IRC and by email, so obviously this strikes a chord with other people and as far as I am concerned, that means it’s a worthwhile point to make.

  10. hugh macleod Says:

    Ermmmm…. What’s the point of getting a skilift if you don’t have a hill for it to go up ;-)

  11. Willful Exposé Says:

    The rich get richer and the poor get poorer!

  12. Phil Wolff Says:

    Desparation for whuffie leads to extreme behavior, precisely to capture whuffie. Think of terrorists who time their attacks to make the evening news. Or the lonely and alienated teens who shoot up their school. One of the highest rated LiveJournal posts: a girl murders her mother and writes about it. It’s only a matter of time before someone takes Scoble’s family hostage, demanding attention on the blog.

    A bit morbid for a Sunday evening.

  13. JamesJayTrouble Says:

    Suw,

    “Once you’re older, you either have a stash of permanent whuffie earnt through your past exploits which you can always draw on…”
    :
    “The whuffieocracy is not a meritocracy, same as the blogosphere is not a meritocracy despite everyone hoping that it would be.”

    Worse yet, it’s the opposite of a meritocracy, usually.

    :

    Rick,

    “Let’s face it, blogging does not empower people in a general sense since most people will never have their blog read or their ideas quoted/discussed.”

    That’s why there’s so much written by the whuffieKings and there minions about how the net is so egalitarian and how EMPOWERING blogs are.

    “Yes, they can publish, but if no one reads their blogs, is there any point to publishing (aside from ego gratification)?”

    Imv, not much and the ego gratification is the largest part of why the whuffieKings want to accumulate MORE whuffie… Not just (or mainly) the part about getting uphill of the rest of us.

  14. Suw Says:

    I think blogs *can* be empowering, in smaller scale communities, but once you get into metablogging, where so many people seem to want to be, it all breaks down. I think the most value to bloggers is actually in the long tail, and for bloggers who aren’t interested in the spike. There’s definitely a Dunbar number related barrier, I reckon.

  15. JamesJayTrouble Says:

    Hey again!

    What I can’t figure out is what blogs empower one _to do_, other than collect groupies like me. Not saying that’s the only value, but that seems to be the main one… And I don’t know Dr. Shirky’s Power Law well but it appears that the ones empowered are the whuffieKings more ‘n anybody.

    Iow, the long tail curves around are forms a Pundisphere.

    http://civilities.net/OtherSpheresOfMedia

    Again, I ask for who’s benefit? Imho, the Net and blogging in particular is the opposite of Democracy, it’s a Feudal society much more than anything… And I recall John Patrick writing writing his (and my) hope, couple years back, that blogging would allow voices that would n’t normally be heard to get heard somehow. That’s the rarest of exceptions.

    They get herded, not heard!

    “There’s definitely a Dunbar number related barrier, I reckon.”

    Had to look up, the 150 number… I do think that number is raised considerably by blogs, but what the interlocking social groups formed _mainly do_ is accumulate whuffie for the Dukes and Duchesses of the Blogdom, in my observation.

  16. Suw Says:

    I think you’re looking too closely at a small part of the blogosphere, which is fair enough considering that this is, after all, a metablog concerned with the whole business of blogging. But look beyond the metablogosphere for the value and you’ll find it.

    Take my friend Kate. Never interested in blogs until she became interested in stained glass. Now she has a blog, upon which she is collecting information about stained glass. http://owlwood.net/blog/

    Because of her blog she’s come across people she wouldn’t otherwise have come across, she’s found resources she wouldn’t otherwise have found, and she’s becomming a part of a community of online stained glass people. Her blog is new, but as it develops, so will her knowledge of stained glass and the people involved in that craft. To me, the empowerment there is obvious - the blog allows her to collate resources and connect to people in a way that she could not otherwise do.

    Look further than the metasphere, look in the long tail, and you’ll see people doing stuff with blogs that is truly useful, interesting and beneficial. You’ll find there the people who are truly empowered by blogs. It’s only around the spike, and amongst those who wish they were in the spike, that the whuffie feifdoms you talk of hold sway.

  17. JamesJayTrouble Says:

    Perhaps you grow weary of the metablogging, but it ties in with the Alister phenom.

    >> “Because of her blog she’s come across people she wouldn’t otherwise have come across, … To me, the empowerment there is obvious - the blog allows her to collate resources and connect to people in a way that she could not otherwise do.”

    I am, perhaps, over-utilitarian but I really prefer the idea of blogs that are subject-specific for that reason. Where the subject is other that getting-whuffie, that is.

    And, because I’ve been in computers for 30 years and reading blogs off and on for 4 or 5, this is the thing that bugs me the most: It is the bloggertude that blogging and interacting through the computers is THE BEST WAY TO DO EVERYTHING. (I think people could stand some rekindlement with people, because they’d be bitch-slapped for a mindset if they had a conversation once in a while…;-)

    >> “Look further than the metasphere, look in the long tail, and you’ll see people doing stuff with blogs that is truly useful, interesting and beneficial.”

    Useful and interesting is sometimes more of big time-drain than a benefit. That’s why I’ve likened blogs to the new high-brow infotainment like Public TV and Radio used to be.

    >> “You’ll find there the people who are truly empowered by blogs. It’s only around the spike, and amongst those who wish they were in the spike, that the whuffie feifdoms you talk of hold sway.”

    Imo/o (in my opinion/observation) the spikes get their power FROM the long tail, or the Alisters wouldn’t be pawning off the meme that “the value is all in the blogs with a dozen readers”. Why do they publish on a web of a billion then, instead of privately these Alisters a tale-enders, I wonder…?…;-D

    Anyway, I’ve waited for speech-to-text to broaden the base of the tail for a while, especially in workplaces (being the utilitarian), but haven’t seen a while lot…

    Anyhoo, keep the snowballs flying uphill, I allus say…;-D Iow, enjoying yer blog, shameless hypocrite that I am.

  18. JamesJayTrouble Says:

    aggg, I actually did prof that…;-D