Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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Diverselessness

A few months ago I was having an email back and forth with Chandler from The Barbarian Group about my postmodernism/economics post. One point he made in particular has been sticking around in my head ever since. I wrote, “As the site [brand tags] illustrates, everyone has a different idea of what a brand is, shaped by an infinite number of factors (when they were introduced, how they were introduced, whether they’ve actually experience it, etc.) and every single person, no matter how different their perception is, is equally right.”

His response to the whole post was great, but this part in particular stuck out for me:

I disagree that what brand tags shows is that “everyone has a different idea of what a brand is”, but rather that most people have the same idea of what a brand is (at least to the extent to which they hired a good agency), despite the fact that there is no authority for what a brand means, you can’t look these things up in a dictionary. This is why folksonomy works, because it leverages the discursive nature of concepts, or if you will “reality”. Maybe this is an easier pill to swallow when thinking about something amorphous like a brand, but again the crux of postmodern thought is that this is how all “truth” works, even the truth about planets and air.

His point is a good one, the easy way to explain these things is that everyone has a different take on them, but the reality is that most people have the same take. In fact, it kind of reminds me of something my friend Abe wrote a few years ago about the long tail:

But the long tail, is not a neutral description, rather much like the stances of both sides in the abortion debate it is a deep ideological one. Much the way the abortion warriors are fighting to control the terms of the debate, the long tail is about controlling what the power law distribution is about. “Pay no mind to the 20% with all the power, what’s really interesting is what’s happening over here under this long tail…”

I think both Chandler and Abe’s response include two important similarities. First, they both point to the importance of the way a concept is framed to your understanding and reaction. But secondly, and maybe more importantly, they point to the way we’ve been trained to assume the power of diversity on the web, when in fact what we’re experiencing is actually a lack thereof.

Just recently Michael pointed to a super interesting piece of research highlighting the actual diversity of products offered up by recommendation systems like those at Amazon and Netflix. These systems, of course, have been made famous by the likes of Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail which pointed to their ability to drive individuals to super obscure titles (this is what Abe was referring to in the quote above). When comparing the actual diversity customers experience in an offline and online shop, you’ll be surprised to find out that the offline actually wins out. Here’s the gist of it:

While each customer on average experiences more unique products in Internet World, the recommender system generates a correlation among the customers. To use a geographical analogy, in Internet World the customers see further, but they are all looking out from the same tall hilltop. In Offline World individual customers are standing on different, lower, hilltops. They may not see as far individually, but more of the ground is visible to someone. In Internet World, a lot of the ground cannot be seen by anyone because they are all standing on the same big hilltop.

In other words, the web is actually working against the diversity with it’s networked functionality. The ability to quickly generate massive amounts of attention in a single direction means that while we’re seeing more, we’re also moving far more in lock-step since we’re dependent on the decisions of others.

So, what does this have anything to do with anything? Well, to be honest I’m not entirely sure. I was having lunch a few weeks ago with Tim from Roflcon and we were talking about a bunch of stuff, including the idea of success and failure on the web. Tim made an awesome point, which was that everyone always uses the same few examples for every question about successful internet companies (Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Netflix at the moment). This happens in every industry, actually, just ask someone to name the best brands and I’ll give you $1 if Nike and Apple aren’t on the list. But let’s put brands aside for a second and focus on the web. The number of successful large scale communities out there is quite small. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s the reality of the situation. So maybe, just maybe, that’s not what the web is built for. Maybe it’s built for small scale communities. Maybe we need to reframe the way we think about this stuff and worry less about “scalability.” (I would guess that there really isn’t any such thing as scalability within a community since culture is bound to change as the size increases, meaning you are left with a totally different community which you hope is only somewhat less good than the original.)

April 5, 2009