One of the challenges you face when you start a new weblog is attracting an audience. Who is going to gather the pearls of wisdom that you offer to the world? It’s not that hard these days to find somebody you know who already has a weblog and would be willing to link to you; at the very least, by now your mom probably has a weblog and would be willing to do you a favor. But what then? How do you grow your audience beyond your circle of acquaintances? How do you get people who don’t know you to link to you?
Sociologist Mark Granovetter provides a clue in his oft-quoted classic paper “The Strength of Weak Ties.” Basically, Granovetter argues that people are more likely to get jobs through connections they have with people they aren’t so close to (e.g., your uncle’s golfing buddy or your brother’s girlfriend) than their close friends and relatives. The reason is that you probably already know most of the people that your close friends and relatives know. But there isn’t nearly as much overlap between who you know and who your casual acquantences know. So they are more likely to have access to somebody you don’t know who is looking to hire a bright young star like you.
Now, the tempting translation to the blog world would be to get your uncle’s golfing buddy to link to you in his weblog. But that’s not quite what I had in mind. The blogging world is already full of weak ties of that type; I link all the time to blogs of to people who I have never met and vice versa. No, in the blogging world, strong and weak ties (it seems to me) are more defined by content. The blog world tends to congeal into islands of federated interest. For example, probably 70% of the blogrolls on e-learning blogs link to the same handful of sites. It’s the other 30% that makes life interesting.
What you want to do in order to achieve your fame and fortune (well…fame, at least) is to be part of that 30% in one or more groups outside of your core content area. For example, in addition to writing about e-learning, I tend to write about issues in knowledge management, various academic theories, and various technology developments that are loosely related to teaching and learning online. I find that when, say, a KM blog or a blog about network theory links to my site, I get a large spike in readership which levels off after a while to a higher sustained plateau of daily visitors. I also tend to get links from more weblogs in that 70% of the blogroll from my new friend.
Of course, there’s a danger of going too far by trying to write to so many unrelated audiences that no one audience is interested in more than, say, 20% of what you have to say. When I find a new blog, I will typically subscribe to the feed for a week or two and see how many new posts actually interest me. If it’s not at least 30-40% then I dump the feed. My feed reader is overflowing with headlines as it is; I don’t have time to scan a site with a very low percentage of interesting pieces. I assume that my readers do the same, so I try not to venture too far away from my core content in online teaching and learning and, whenever possible, I consciously write to try and bridge any knowledge or culture gaps between pieces of my audience. Does it work? It’s hard to say, but so far it looks good. I just got a link from somebody in my aunt’s canasta club….