Winner Takes All, Long Tails And The Fractilization Of Culture

from the rethinking-the-niche dept

Reader Eileen points us to a thought-provoking article by Joshua-Michele Ross discussing the idea that, rather than a diverse "long-tail" culture, we're actually being driven to a homogenized "winner-take-all" culture thanks to the rise of our robot overlords, better known as online recommendation engines. Or something like that. It's a nice theory, with some interesting statistical modelling behind it. And, I've always been interested in "winner takes all" economies, since the guy who taught me Econ 101 literally wrote the book on "winner takes all" economics.

That said, I think this really only tells a part of the story -- and maybe not the most important or most interesting part. That's because (and, again, this may be due to my own econ education) it doesn't surprise me in the slightest that we'd see hits follow a winner takes all approach (that's how hits work). Nor is it a surprise that the effect would seem stronger as the world globalizes and borders and barriers become less of an issue. So, yes, of course there will be a "globalized" winner takes all situation at the hits level. But is that all?

What's much more interesting to me is what happens beyond the hits. And, as you start to dig down into subsectors or subcultures, you begin to notice an interesting pattern there as well: that those subsectors and subcultures follow that same power law pattern themselves. The big name bands in a subculture may seem "small" in the wider world, but they're huge within the subculture. Within that subculture, they're the winner who took all -- but from a more limited population.

In some ways, it's the fractalization of culture.

Just as a fractal repeats its same pattern as you zoom in and look closer on the smaller segments, so do cultural subsegments. And those segments continue to thrive, despite the recommendation systems just pushing people to the hits. Part of that may be that once you've begun exploring those subcultures, the recommendation engines and collaborative filters drive you towards the "hits within" the subculture -- or it may be that the impact of algorithmic recommendation engines isn't quite as dominating as some make it out to be. Yes, people do rely on those recommendation engines... somewhat. But they trust people they know even more. And once you get involved in a subculture you quickly find other people already involved in that culture who act as guides who point you both to the "hits" but also to the interesting and "diverse" long tail places to go as well.

So, yes, there is a winner take all effect found in the recommendation engines, but it hasn't resulted in less diversity within our cultural output or our cultural consumption -- and that's because people don't just follow that limited algorithmic overlord to find the content they want to consume. In fact, the original statistical model highlighted above more or less makes this point. Basically, it shows that even if each individual sees a more diverse culture, it can still end up with a more homogenized culture -- but really only among the hits. Basically, because the world is global, the really big hits go global and become winner-take-all in a much larger market. But, at the same time, the niches thrive as well.
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Filed Under: algorithms, culture, hits, long tales, recommendation systems, winner takes all


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  1. icon
    Griff (profile), 20 Nov 2009 @ 2:21am

    Minimum scale

    I guess Amazon aren't going to take on a 3rd party vendor who could not ship enough goods to satisfy their likely orders once publiscised globally. So in that respect certain types of minority goods will remain out of the mainstream promotion (and hence in the slow lane) due to being too small an operation.

    But for the Amazon recommendation engine as it applies to digital goods, it is not a zero sume game (who ever ran out of downlod stock ?). What I mean is, if Amazon recommends an unheard of indie band and people buy and like the album, it doesn't cannibalise Amazon's Britney Spears sales. They just sell more.

    But of course it is self feeding - you have to be recommended in the first place to even get started.

    But we all know Amazon (for example) "seed" these engines to get things moviong. There was a story when they first started selling clothes that people were getting recommendations like "people who read this book also liked these socks". It is in Amazon's interests to widen the public's taste, even if it means artificially nudging the envelope.

    So is the writer claiming that recommendation engines narrow the field as an accidental consequence of their design or as part of a ClearChannel-esque deliberate policy ?
    The benefit of Amazon being the recommender (rather than a radio station) is that
    - they have no preference what you buy, they can make a buck off anything
    - they aren't resource limited in their own discovery of what to recommend
    - they are not linked to the labels

    I think a true analysis will show that more new music gets discovered with these engines than without. The 30-50 demographic with all the cash do not frequent grungy record stores or listen to seriously avant garde radio stations, (IMHO) so they have to discover stuff somehow and this is as good a route as any.

    Less appealing is something like Last.fm which (though excellent) may have a narrow focus if (as I believe) it is owned by major labels.

    And even less appealing (to me) are the recommendations of my facebook friends. Take DVD rentals. I have rented DVD's on the recommendation of good friends and been seriously disappointed, but far less so with automated recommendations. Not all my friends have taste ;-)

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