Wednesday, February 16, 2011
How Does The Tail Swing? For the Common Good, or Money?
Yesterday's post got be thinking about the "long tail" of the internet. As of now, most work concerning this distribution has been directed towards the study of various business applications. large corporations like Amazon and cottage industry alike make use of this concept. Zeynep, of http://www.technosociology.org expanding from the work of Shirky & Anderson, has also studied such a distribution in terms of nodal popularity over the internet.
This view makes the internet mostly "flat," as per Thomas Friedman, excepting those instances when there is a spontaneous spike in popularity. Zeynep, wishes to apply this explanation to the emerging leaders of the revolution; however, there seems to be no reason to not expand this further and apply it to the entire revolution.
It all sounds a bit odd, if strangely true, to state that, "things are flat, except when they're not." Yet this is how the online world seems to work. You are either held in esteem or you're not recognized at all. I am most interested in what factors lead to the selection of a topic as popular. I relate this to my previous post on website censor's (webmasters).
The selection of content as censored per the webmasters is the only material from which "popularity" can be drawn. Up until Facebook successfully managed to place a part of its website on others (the "like" button), people "liked" sites by visiting them (the classic page view counter of the 90s). And as people browsed the web they could rely on only two means to expand their knowledge: existing cross-referenced hyperlinks, and search engines.
The only way to visit a site is to either search for content or to link to the address. The fact the internet has no roads has led to the extreme importance of the search engine. The search engine fulfills a similar, but not an equating, function to a concrete road. A search engine does not fully overcome the existing censor problems inherent in a website. Rather search engines are relied upon for the power of their censor. We want a search engine to censor out all irrelevant content. The method and manner of this, and the way money might affect this process is of great importance.
Now it is easy to see how the issue of money might tip the distribution in favor of itself. If money or its secondary effects, buys you a higher spot on the listings the company with money is bound to have an increase in hits. Zeynep has identified three separate mechanisms of possible popularity rankings growth: Random, Meritorious, and Preferential Attachment. In theory the search engine promotes just meritorious growth. However, I suspect that in practice that it, as any website, supports all three.
So what conclusions can we draw from this? Money, if applied correctly should naturally raise the popularity of certain and specific information. These moneyed outlets serve as major reference points for the rest of the information on the web. Thus the choices that Google and Yahoo! as well as the Mainstream Press make have great potential to affect the outlook of people who uses a search engine's services.
The effects might appear subtle, yet they are are far reaching. Any decision to limit search terms no matter how slight is not technically held as a matter of public trust. Google is company, not a government, and as such it behaves not for the good of the public but for its own interest (no matter their propaganda or rhetoric). Such is the trade off that people make, as they distrust their government more then they distrust private businesses. This is another example of what I mean when I say there are no commons online.
It is a bit bittersweet then, that the search engine is the closest online equivalent to a "commons" and that there is no law except Google's law. Now many might mention the Creative Commons here as a counterpoint. In many instances it would be relevant; however, in this case it is not because I am not interested in what constraints are placed on the use of the information, I am only interested in "how" the data was located. And in this way the internet becomes a powerful shaper of perception in ways so subtle that people may never notice. And only in rare instances will the population's mass, as a whole, focus on an issue long enough to temporarily disrupt the status quo.
So we can see that websites and information may start low down on the tail, but after climbing so far a certain amount of money (or a certain amount of grassroots action) must be infused in order to sustain its position. The more money, the easier it is to climb higher on the information stream. The more money the easier it is to acquire more "property" (Web-space), Ads, rankings and other cross-referential traffic drivers (or more local participants) This is why we must ask ourselves, just how does the tail swing? For the common good, or towards the money?