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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    Tor (profile), Nov 20th, 2009 @ 2:15am

    I really like this post and believe there's a lot of truth in what you say (being involved in a quite narrow music segment myself). "Fractalization" is a useful term indeed.

    The reason why we see some stars in each segment and on each level is not only because some artists are more talented than others and appeal to more people. It's also because of the social importance of sharing experiences and tastes with other people. It is a matter of how personal identity is formed.

    At the same time as we have the globalisation which on the surface seems to lead to a more homogeneous culture we also see a technical development that makes it easier for individuals with similar interests and tastes to find each other and form groups and subcultures. So overall I don't think we will see this shift to homogenization because of that.

    It's also a fact that people both want to be part of a group where they share experiences and want to feel special. For example if Britney Spears is your favourite artist you may be able to share your experiences with many people, but it will not say anything special about your personal traits. I think this sociological aspect is also something that speaks against a total homogenization.

     

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    Griff (profile), Nov 20th, 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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    Griff (profile), Nov 20th, 2009 @ 2:28am

    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 ;-)

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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    Russ801, Nov 20th, 2009 @ 8:08am

    I think the effect is almost the opposite. Although it may be winner take all for a particular recommendation, each search is more and more personalized. Therefore the recommendations become more diverse, not more monolithic. the recommendations always have a fair number of 'undiscovered' results although the more data the recommendation engine has the less chance of it recommending something completely different than you have already seen.

    I am a SF fan, the Times Best Seller list is worthless to me but Amazon sends me recommendations that are consistent with my tastes. There is always a new author that interests me.

    I would also like to point out that the recommendations are based on the individuals tastes, if the individual as monolithic tastes, the recommendations will be monolithic, if the tastes are diverse, the recommendations will be diverse. Blaming the recommendation engine for that fact has it backwards. As with any automated tool, the results are only as good as the data provided.

     

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    Russ801, Nov 20th, 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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    Jesse, Nov 20th, 2009 @ 10:12am

    yes I could wikipedia it, but short definitions of the jargon would really enhance the article. no economics background here.

     

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      Mike Masnick (profile), Nov 20th, 2009 @ 11:08am

      Re:

      yes I could wikipedia it, but short definitions of the jargon would really enhance the article. no economics background here.

      Hi Jesse, which jargon is confusing? There really isn't too much econ jargon in the post. "Winner take all" is about it, and that's basically self-descriptive. It's the argument that in particular markets, the leader has a disproportionate share.

       

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    Rasmus, Nov 20th, 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

     

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    Gene Cavanaugh, Nov 21st, 2009 @ 9:18am

    Techdirt articles

    I would like to see techdirt divided into two blogs:

    One would be on legislation and developments in the world and the US that matter. We might call it "stuff that matters???".
    The other would be labeled, for example, "trivia", and would cover the entertainment industry and "content innovation" from "artists".

     

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    tomslee, Nov 21st, 2009 @ 10:14am

    Not fractal at all

    If you are asserting that one big power law is the sum of many little power laws, then that's not actually a fractal relationship, so no one has to go and look up fractal in wikipedia. Introducing the term, as Chris Anderson does in his sloppy Long Tail book, simply confuses the matter and gives an undeserved impression of sophistication to the argument.

    So what you are left with is saying that big markets are made up of little submarkets, each of which have their own hits and misses. You've got your best-selling cookbooks, best-selling science-fiction novels, best-selling books about fractals, whatever. True enough, but so what? I fail to see that the Internet has helped the number of such submarkets to grow. I'd be interested in evidence that it has.

     

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