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.

Filed Under: algorithms, culture, hits, long tales, recommendation systems, winner takes all


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  1. identicon
    Russ801, 20 Nov 2009 @ 8:27am

    I would say your fractionalization doesn't go far enough, the end state will be total fragmentation to the individual.

    I am sure that Amaazons recommendation lists are unique to the individual, even if they may fall with in a larger set of similar subcultures.

    I am a SF fan, the NYT best seller and Oprah are worthless to me even if they create 'winners'. I have discovered many authors through the recommendations that I would have passed by in the store.

    I think the author also misses the point that the biggest problem for marginal goods is distribution. The recommendation engines increase distribution, not limit it.

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