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.
Hide this

Thank you for reading this Techdirt post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis.

While other websites have resorted to paywalls, registration requirements, and increasingly annoying/intrusive advertising, we have always kept Techdirt open and available to anyone. But in order to continue doing so, we need your support. We offer a variety of ways for our readers to support us, from direct donations to special subscriptions and cool merchandise — and every little bit helps. Thank you.

–The Techdirt Team

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


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  1. identicon
    Rasmus, 20 Nov 2009 @ 4:50pm

    fractionalization

    For those readers who wonders what fractionalization means its a mathematical term explained in the link below.

    But don't read the text in this wikipedia article unless you are used to reading mathematical texts. Instead just watch the PICTURES and read the short texts accompanying each picture. That way you will easily understand what a fractal is and what fractionalization means.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fractal

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Make this the First Word or Last Word. No thanks. (get credits or sign in to see balance)    
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Insider Shop - Show Your Support!

Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Recent Stories

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it
Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.