Thursday, July 27, 2006


long tails need organization to happen

Okay, I haven't yet read the best seller of the moment, The Long Tail, but I am skeptical. Lee Gomes writes in today's Wall Street Journal (subscription required) that evidence from nearly all quarters shows that the Long Tail isn't real -- people won't buy stuff just because it is there. Whether Amazon, Netflix, or the iTunes Store, most revenue comes from hits, and vast amounts of music, books, and other digital content are never downloaded at all. The same can be seen in the noncommercial world, where thousands of academic articles are never read except by their authors, and presumably, their editors and reviewers.

Like many ideas spawned by Wired magazine, the Long Tail is a vaguely libertarian notion that all anyone wants is unfettered access. Give people access, and the Tail will emerge spontaneously. The concept is argued on the basis of idealized statistical behavior and supposed transaction cost economies of data servers. From the perspective of user centered design, I find the Long Tail concept a bit naive.

Why are hits so powerful, despite the very real phenomenon that consumers have access to an ever broader range of content? The constraining factor has little to do with computers and economics, it has to do with human attention, both cognitive and psychic.

Cognitive attention is challenged the more stuff that is available. Computers have no trouble storing millions of records, but humans have trouble making sense of them. Browsing, scanning and searching are increasingly difficult the more records available. I don't want to discount the impressive progress in information architecture over the past decade, but I feel the solutions developed are still primitive compared with the needs posed by millions of records. Consider the "subject" taxonomy in Amazon's book store: it is simply too broad to be helpful in view of the millions of records. No one has developed any universally meaningful way to describe music genres that reflect the narrow-casted development of styles and approaches.

What I am calling psychic attention is grounded in the many facets of social psychology. We are drawn to things other people are buying for numerous reasons. People feel comfortable buying products that are already accepted. It is "rational" in terms of expected effort expenditure to buy something others have already tried, and presumably found useful or enjoyable. People experience social validation, extend trust, and have a basis for social connection when going for popular options. Information management has addressed the social dimension through behavioral data mining, showing connections between the purchases of different items, and through recommender systems, where people suggest items of interest, rate items, and rate each others ratings. These systems can reinforce the popularity of already strong sellers, working against the Long Tail.

There has been enormous progress in giving form to the mountains of records, but behavior and recommender systems often externalize the contradictions of individuals (especially in the low volume end of the Long Tail). Take someones "my favorite's" list: it may contain list of seemingly random items, books and CDs on unrelated topics or styles. Or people mean vastly different things by common words -- as an experiment type the word "liberal" in Amazon's Listmania. You will find recommendations for books that are far from your personal preferences (whatever they are), because people use the term in so many ways: as a positive term for either Left or Right wing politics, a derisive term for the same, as a theological orientation for various religions, etc. Sales behavior and recommendations are also not logically correlated, pointing to some gaps in behavioral classification. One Amazon reviewer noted that nearly everyone (several hundred reviewers) gave an Anti-virus software package the lowest possible rating, but it showed up as the most popular seller. A conversation with your next door neighbor might explain such a contradiction, but the user interface doesn't.

To navigate through and evaluate the long tail, people must rely on logical organization or social organization (the opinion and behavior of others). If theorists who argue that humans relate to concepts in ways similar to how they relate to people are right, then information organizations need to be smaller. You can't know everyone in a big person organization well, which is one reason organizations divide and splinter. The same may need to happen with the Superstore websites. Narrowcast marketing presumes people have a some intention behind their interest in a product, band, hobby or lifestyle. The superstores try to infer that intention by observing expressed opinions and behavior, but miss the organic aspect of collective intentions. Intentions are consciously formed, and microsites have much greater coherence in their offerings. Meaningful information management is not inherently self-organizing. When "everyone" (either the broader public or a data mining computer) tries to conceptualize and interpret the meaning of something that has resonance to a core group, the meaning gets lost.

Very interesting entry and highlights one of the major stumbling blocks of any data mining project.
Firstly, we need to understand what data mining is really about. Strangely it's all about finding useful patterns in data, but "Who decides there are interesting?" There's the rub, the computer can’t work it out without a human explaining what is useful and what is not.

Well we are back to your point, how can any of these search facilities ever give us the answer to a very fussy question with 40+ years of learning and social interaction. Even then it may only be able to conserve clearly with a small group based on its up bringing.

Your other point ref the long tail. To me the ideal is simple that even Amazon doesn’t control the entire market just a large portion. The sum of the small outlets would exceed that of Amazon.

Very simplified, but nail on the head?
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