Information addicts fuel new web phenomenon

The ever-changing Internet beast's most recent fad: the blog, is offering surfers a compelling new way to spend their time and cash, as Mahesh Shantaram discovers…

Many of us built our first houses, dealt in property, managed public utilities, and even went to prison for the first time well before we entered our teens. That was in the make believe world of Monopoly, of course. Money games are a great way to learn about the harsh realities of a capitalist world without going through the pains of bankruptcy, insolvency, mortgages, and other such concepts of advanced living.

Now that games have migrated from foldable boards to the Internet, the latest sensation grabbing the attention of netizens is BlogShares - an online stock market in which you speculate on the future of your favourite blogs.

But first, to put things in perspective, blogs (short for "web logs") are frequently updated web pages published by individuals and even companies to communicate with the world at large. Blogging has attained such popularity the world over that it is often referred to as "a phenomenon." The sphere of influence a blog enjoys is generally gauged by the blogs linking to it. That means a blog's importance grows if several other important (well-linked) bloggers lend it credibility by linking to it. It makes sense because this is how we work in real life too: we are known by the company we keep. And what are blogs but an online extension of ourselves or our business?

In many ways, BlogShares simulates the workings of a real stock exchange. Blogs are to BlogShares what companies are to stock markets, and links are the assets that drive valuations. Every player gets $500 BlogShare dollars upon signup. From that point onwards, there are thousands of virtual dollars to be made in the BlogShares market as long as you stick to the thumb rule of dealing in stocks: buy low, sell high.

How you play BlogShares depends on what you want from it. For some, the objective is to get their blogs on the Top 100 Index. For others, it's about being part owners of the world's best blogs.

"I think it's important to stress here the part about not needing a blog to play. This game is mainly about one thing: your user portfolio," advices Jay Allen, a blogger from Budapest, Hungary, who’s got it all worked out.
"The aim is solely to be the one lying on the beach on a south Pacific island sipping sweet drinks from a coconut and making sure that the umbrella doesn’t poke you in the eye."

In the rare case that you're not able to expend all your free time blogging, now you have whole markets to track. And be warned; it's addictive.

"Blogshares will be my downfall. I have spent more time managing my portfolio than I have ever spent in the bank all my life," says Prema, who trades from her home base in Cyberjaya, the hi-tech city near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

It doesn't help there's no "end of day's trade" in this market.

While you can invest in shares of any blog, it's a different experience to be answerable to demanding shareholders. Seyed Razavi, the programmer and thinker behind BlogShares, observes: "On the first level we have role-playing. Some players play their role as a CEO of a company. Their inclination to demand accurate metrics for their company is indicative of how seriously they take things already and is not surprising given most web logs are a projected persona of the person involved. We also have observed behaviour modifications… because the game is a psychological phenomenon worth measuring."

The phenomenon in question is Pareto's law of income distribution that was recently applied to blogging by Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor in the interactive telecommunications program at New York University. In his essay on "," Shirky examined why a few blogs hog all the attention on the Internet: something that has been bothering the majority of bloggers who find it increasingly difficult to enjoy their 15 minutes of fame under the blogging sun. It inspired Razavi enough to create BlogShares to function as an interactive model to illustrate the law within what he calls: "the attention economy".

Heavy stuff indeed, but academics aside, BlogShares is a game of fame and not fortune, which is what makes it different from a real stock market.

"For it to have any profound effect, we need to play with real money," says Mumbai-based blogger, Yazad Jal, who has been busy "making a killing" in vain.

And then there are the critics. Engel Cox, blogging from Washington, DC, wants no part of this madness. "What concerns me is that they are only tracking links to other blogs… There’s already enough of a cult of personality surrounding this medium that having a fantasy market to encourage it seems not only unnecessary, but counter-productive," he reasons.

One financial writer and market critic has spent time poking at the system and might have hit upon a way to snap up dozens of blogs and drive prices up. "Once we have acquired control of several Internet properties, could we force a merger? It''s only natural that we'd start looking for "synergies," and try to replace ten bloggers with one semi-literate goof in the hopes that readers won't notice," he speculates, true to the spirit of playing the markets. Can it get any closer to real life than this?

Before BlogShares officially opened on May 1, there was a three-week period of beta testing during which time a staggering 40,000 users were listed on the market. Over 5,000 active players carried out thousands of transactions every day, sending valuations of some blogs to dizzying heights. It comes as no surprise the most famous names in blogging: MovableType, Blogger, Scripting News, and Doc Searls Weblog are already beyond the reach of the common blogger.

However, with promising new blogs being born every minute, there will always be an opportunity to fish at the bottom of the market and rise to the Top 100. Take your place at the terminal, for trading hours have begun.