Monday, February 16, 2004

Organizing blogs

Semantic Compositions linked to a site (TTLB blogosphere ecosystem) that claims to organize blogs into a taxonomic hierarchy based on how many incoming links they have (blogs with more links being better/more successful). I was dismayed, however, to find that the site had decided on a classic evolutionary ladder style of classification. The most linked-to sites are "Higher Beings", then "Mortal Humans" and "Playful Primates." The list continues down in organism "complexity" until "Unimportant Microbes." These labels, however, simply reinforce the idea that humans are the goal of evolution, with all other species leading up to humans; this couldn't be further from the truth. At the very least microbes shouldn't be called unimportant, as without them life as we know it wouldn't exist.

Why is the evolutionary ladder idea wrong? It posits that humans are the most complex, successful (advanced, etc.) species on the planet, usually on the basis that humans can do things other organisms can't ("Who's ever seen a bacterium writing a novel, hyuk hyuk?"). Sure, bacteria can't write novels (that we know of), but they can live their entire lives at 106C, synthesize amino acids from gaseous nitrogen, live in 20% salt solutions, encapsulate themselves so they can be revived after more than 1,000 times their lifespan has passed, eat solely sulfur compounds, and so on. In the game of life (the real one, not the board game) the goal is to survive and reproduce, and thus any organism that is achieving those goals, regardless of how it is achieving them, is successful.

However, rather than rant on about the fallacy of the ladder interpretation of evolutionary phylogenies, I thought I'd suggest some slightly more biologically accurate alternate classification schemes for blogs.

Ecological roles: an organization scheme intended to categorize blogs by the amount of original content they produce.
  1. Nitrogen fixers, nutrient recyclers & other decomposers (primarily bacteria): These organisms are the most important groups on the planet; without them nothing else could thrive except under certain rare circumstances. Thus, I classify the network architecture and blog hosting services as this level of organism. All weblogs rely on this architecture.
  2. Producers (autotrophs: algae, plants, and some bacteria): The primary producers of content, these blogs (and other information sources) take in raw materials and process them into new and interesting forms. Most other blogs rely, eventually, on these autotrophs for food.
  3. Primary consumers (many animals, fungi, protists, and bacteria): Relying on the content provided by autotrophs, these weblogs process the material they consume extensively and provide much new information. They're often linked to extensively by other blogs but aren't as original as autotrophs.
  4. Secondary consumers (consumers of primary consumers, e.g. lizards, lions, praying mantises): These blogs consume and repackage material that's very similar to their own, though they often add their own flavor to the content.
  5. Tertiary and higher consumers (consumers of secondary or higher consumers, e.g. a cat eating a bird that had eaten caterpillars): These blogs post only content that has been much chewed over, and may often be lists of links.
  6. Omnivores (organisms that consume more than one other level): These blogs vary widely in their content, at times posting relatively new material while also posting well-chewed topics.
Other useful ecological divisions that could be used to subdivide the above categories:
  • Whether the blog is a specialist or a generalist, i.e. focusing narrowly on one topic or posting on a wide variety of topics
  • How invasive the blog is with new topics. Highly invasive blogs become spectacularly successful covering a new topic, stealing traffic from the topic's native blogs.
  • Interactions between blogs, i.e. mutualisms (e.g. circles of blogs that all link to each other), commensalisms (e.g. a blog linking to lots of other blogs; the original blog doesn't get much benefit), or parasitisms (e.g. a blog getting most of its material from another blog without providing source links)
  • How efficient the blog is at generating/processing material, etc.
The fun never ends when you apply ecology to blogs!

One neat conclusion of this ecological organization scheme: the higher level consumers are often the most ogled, yet the least productive (but all levels in this hierarchy are ecologically important and play an important role in maintaining the blogosphere). Also, as in ecology, much content is never picked up by the primary consumers and thus lost and recycled by the detritivores.

Species diversity: An alternate scheme would be to classify blogs by the number of times they've been linked to (as TTLB does), representing the number of links by the species diversity of the taxa the blog is placed in. The most linked to blogs would be described as being in the largest taxa (insects), since they've theoretically spawned the most progeny. Sure, it's not perfect, but it seems more biologically realistic than an evolutionary ladder.

The list would look like the following if we were to go by the current number of described species (data from Stiling's "Ecology", 1996):
  1. Insects (751,000 species)
  2. Plants (248,428 species)
  3. Non-insect arthropods (arachnids, crustaceans, etc.; 123,161 species)
  4. Non-chordate, non-arthropod animals (mollusks, nematodes, sponges, echinoderms, etc.; 115,600 species)
  5. Protists (algae, protozoans; 57,700 species)
  6. Fungi (46,983 species)
  7. Chordates (mainly vertebrates; 43,853 species)
  8. Bacteria (4,760 species)
Of note on this list is how low chordates are: they're the animals many people are used to seeing, but are far less diverse than most types of organisms. Using estimates of the actual number of species in each of these groups would be neat too, and would drastically change the list.

A final scheme would be to organize blogs into categories based on the total biomass of all taxa on the planet (equating the number of incoming links with the biomass of the taxa). Unfortunately I couldn't easily find any data on this, but it's quite appealing as a scheme.

1 comment:

Radagast said...

Importing comments:


I agree that there are vastly more species of Bacteria and Archaea in existence than are listed in the numbers above. I got these numbers from Stiling 1996, and, in Stiling's defense, I think he was only counting named/identified species.

Wow, a translation. How cool! Can you leave the permalink for it here when you're done?
June 5, 2005, 6:50:16 PM PDT – Like – Reply

I laughed my arse off reading this post! Your alternative "ecobiological" blogotaxonomy is a concept worth gold!

I agree with most of what you said about the naive view of "complexity" in the animal kingdom, but I found the figures you give for bacteria species
astonishingly low.
I don't have my doc here, nor the strength to browse for references, but it might be worth checking.
(c'mon Archea + Eubacteria, no more that a tenth of the Chordates? I ain't buying it.. for now)

I'm off translating a bit of your post to speak about it in my french-speaking blog...

Keep up the good work!
(pS: sorry that my english is not what it should be]
June 5, 2005, 3:52:09 PM PDT