Musing about Information and Long Tail and Publish-Subscribe

I’ve been learning a lot from the whole Twitter phenomenon. How, despite its frailties and weaknesses, it continues to attract followers. How, despite it being “down so ***damn long, that it looks like up to me” people continue to build Twitter ecosystem tools. And how it spawns an entire industry around the Fail Whale: the Wikipedia article, the official site and fan club, the Facebook page and even the merchandising sites. And even a Flickr group, where this one, from FactoryJoe, remains my favourite:

So why is Twitter so popular? As I’ve said before, I think it’s about the pub-sub model. People do not want information on a “Hit Culture” basis, they want it on a “Long Tail” basis. Talking about Long Tail, there was a great review of Chris Anderson’s book by Steven Johnson some time ago. Some of the things he said in that article are germane in the context of stuff like Twitter:

It occurred to me reading The Long Tail that the general trend from mass to niche can explain some of this increased complexity: niches can speak to each other in shorthand; they don’t have to spell everything out. But at the same time, the niche itself doesn’t have to become any more aesthetically or intellectually rich compared to what came before. If there’s a pro wrestling niche, the creators don’t have to condescend to the non-wrestling fans who might be tuning in, which means that they can make more references and in general convey more information about wrestling — precisely because they know their audience is made up of hard core fans. But it’s still pro wrestling. The content isn’t anything to write home about, but the form grows more complex. In a mass society, it’s harder to pull that off. But out on the tail, it comes naturally.

Niches can speak to each other in shorthand. I do like that turn of phrase. Now Steven, one of my favourite authors, wrote that some time ago. As technology improves, I think the capacity for niches to carry and embed context in their shorthand also improves. Take for example the audioscrobbler to FoxyTunes to TwittyTunes to Twitter chain: you listen to something, audioscrobbler scrapes the song title and artist(s), FoxyTunes picks it up and creates a mash-up including the song lyrics, the web site, the MySpace or Facebook page, the Google returns, the Wikipedia entry, tracks for sale at Amazon or emusic, and so on. TwittyTunes then takes the url for the FoxyTunes mashed-up page and crunches it into a tinyurl or similar, then posts it as a tweet from you.

That’s just one example. The process itself is there to be repeated for many others, ranging from stocks and shares to planes and trains and automobiles.

Capillary conversations are here to stay. Niches will speak to each other in shorthand. Enabling technologies will get more and more robust. People will learn more about the use of publish-subscribe models. [An aside: there are a lot of people who pooh-pooh pub-sub, claiming that it doesn’t scale. The way this pooh-poohing is done, it reminds me of the way people used to say that Linux wouldn’t scale. Dinosaur death throes.]

Yup, capillary conversations are here to stay. And the sooner we understand that, the better.

9 thoughts on “Musing about Information and Long Tail and Publish-Subscribe”

  1. “Tweeto, Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum”: pooh-poohing is a national sport!
    JP, you put it well about a whole menu of pub-sub-cap-niche conversations. I believe it is already taking off in Enterprise 2+, for the good.

  2. Regarding Long Tail… if you haven’t seen the article linked in below already, it’s a must read adding to the long tail meme / conversation. As with so many things, there doesn’t seem to be an answer to “this or that is right.” (Nor should there be.) Just another example that point of view includes both what you’re looking at and your initial perspective. Or maybe the latter informs the former. Whatever; this is hardly a new concept. But the HBR article below does offer a fresh perspective on the tail. (And for that matter the head. I actually like calling it the “Short Head’ which seems to make sense if there’s such a long tail.)

    The full HBR article is here:


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