I hear you say “Enough already!” to the A-list-blogger-as-gatekeeper debate; so no more on the subject.
What I’d like to do instead is open up debate on a question that kept bugging me throughout that debate:
If we believe in a Long Tail World, then why do we insist on looking at that Long Tail World through the eyes of a Hit Culture?
Discussions about ranking are in some form or shape related to a Hit Culture. Ever since search engines have been available, I have seen papers suggesting that Big-Gets-Bigger or Rich-Get-Richer. If you’re popular, then you get to the top of the rankings, which makes you even more popular. And so on and so forth.
That was the received wisdom. But something about it didn’t make sense to me. Soon after reading Cluetrain in 2000, I’d had the pleasure of meeting Chris Locke in Bangalore and again in London, and he was talking about communities that did “left-handed organic gardening” as being an intrinsic part of web communities and of the nascent blogosphere.
Around the same time, I started following Amy Jo Kim’s work on web communities, directly as a consequence of reading her book, Community Building On The Web. And she in turn influenced a lot of my thinking about how web communities work; I was particularly intrigued by her discussions on how subgroups emerge and why they should be encouraged to emerge. I quote from her site:
- If your goal is to build a robust, large-scale community, then fostering member-run subgroups should be an integral part of your community strategy. Whether they’re set up by the community staff, or created by the members themselves, these small groups are where people will form their deepest relationships and strongest loyalties. That’s why it’s crucial to understand how these groups evolve, and make sure that you cultivate a fertile environment within which they can take root and grow.
I took these member-created subgroups to be the same thing as Chris’s Organic Gardening sites; micromarkets with microconversations involving people who had a very specific narrow-focus interest binding them together.
By this time, I’d already become a fan of Steven Johnson’s after reading Interface Culture in 1997, so by the time Emergence came out, aided and abetted by Lazslo-Barabasi’s Linked and Bloom’s Global Brain (both, incidentally, referred to me by Gary Casey!), I was getting very comfortable with the idea that lots of little and specific and healthy markets were where the action was, and that all this represented the disaggregation of the Hit Culture.
You can see that I was ready for The Long Tail, especially since I’d also been exposed to power laws and Zipf curves a few decades earlier while at university.
Yet I kept seeing Hit Culture attitudes, particularly to do with search engines and ranking, and more recently in the A-list gatekeeper discussions. This intrigued me, and continues to intrigue me. [Which is why I do apparently strange things like look at Youtube’s Most Linked, Most Viewed, Most Discussed and Top Rated All-Time video lists, to see what’s happening. And for sure I see Long Tail and not Hit Culture.]
Bearing all this in mind, I was fascinated by an article in the New Scientist. Headlined Internet Search Engines Go on Trial, what was of particular interest to me was a study it cited, done by researchers at Indiana University. You can access elements of the study here.
I quote from the excerpt to the study, titled Topical Interests And The Mitigation Of Search Engine Bias:
Search engines have become key media for our scientific, economic, and social activities by enabling people to access information on the web despite its size and complexity. On the down side, search engines bias the traffic of users according to their page ranking strategies, and it has been argued that they create a vicious cycle that amplifies the dominance of established and already popular sites. This bias could lead to a dangerous monopoly of information. We show that, contrary to intuition, empirical data do not support this conclusion; popular sites receive far less traffic than predicted. We discuss a model that accurately predicts traffic data patterns by taking into consideration the topical interests of users and their searching behavior in addition to the way search engines rank pages. The heterogeneity of user interests explains the observed mitigation of search enginesâ€™ popularity bias.
Surprisingly, I could not sign up to a full subscription to PNAS online, there is a forced offline step and associated time delay. [Which gives me time to figure out whether I already have access as a result of some other academic/professional body.] So I cannot claim to have read the entire article. But I will, soon.
I am truly fascinated by this, because it allows me to get rid of one of those things that made me Confused.
And I genuinely believe that is how the blogosphere tends to work. Not hits, not ranking-linking-vicious-circles, but heterogeneous long-tail interested communities. Comments welcome.