The dark side of the Long Tail

The dark side of the Long Tail

Sunday, September 14, 2008

tagged: videos, google, longtail, news

Photo Credit: jurvetson

I've been watching the excellent BBC World Debate. I'm several episodes behind, but today I watched the debate on worldview. Specifically, the question was of news. Are people's perceptions and well-informed by media sources? The panel included Sergey Bring ("new media" - co-Google) and Carl Bernstein ("old media" - Woodward & Bernstein, Washington Post, Watergate) among others. At one point, the moderator threw out this gem:

all that does is reinforce your prejudice.

They were talking about media & news being on-demand & selectable by a consumer. That's the long tail, in a nutshell: if you have a method for people to select what they want and infinite variety (so that what they want is available), then a large portion of the selection will actually be a very large number of one-off selections.

Put simply: if people can buy 1 song at a time and put a million songs on their iPods, then 80% of their music may be similar across a range of people (popular) - but the other 20% is going to be very different for each person (the long tail).

But, it was much discussed, in a world of long tails, people will choose the things they like - and what they like may not be educational, helpful, or beneficial. In that sense, applied to media, the long tail reinforces prejudices.

Democratization of News

Most would argue that having more news outlets and more options for news isn't a bad thing. And I agree, to a certain extent. People should be able to make their own choices about news, just as they can about so many other things.

In a previous post, I mentioned a Wired magazine survey where they measured political knowledge over the last 18 years - and found that it had, on the whole, decreased. However, there were a few items that had upticked in the general consciousness. I argued that this was due to people having more choices about their news: fewer people consume the major news outlets (newspapers, CNN), but more total news pieces are being consumed (when you Google News, NPR, etc.).

The trouble comes when, as suggested above, people select poorly. Then we just reinforce our limited worldviews and don't learn. This is also true and is the ugly side of the long-tail.

The psychologist on the panel was particularly insightful in making comparisons between news and food: people consume whatever food they want, and it's up to nutrition labels to provide them with the needed information to make intelligent selections. But, by and large, people select fatty & sugary food - junk food. So too, they select junk news1.

Yes and No

I do agree that the trends of the long tail (and enabling technologies), in making it possible (or easier) for people to select what they see makes the problem of getting stuck in one's own worldview worse. Like most technologies it is neutral: it can make good or bad things happen, depending on how people use it.

While the suggestion of government food labels is interesting, it's likely not possible: who would do the rating? Where would ratings be posted? (e.g. would it be required for radio news to read off their ratings?) How granular would we have to rate for? (a whole show or each news segment?)

Further: people still make the final decision and, so long as there is fast food available (even with ratings available), people will consume it. In many ways, we get the news that we deserve. What we consume, will be provided to us in larger and larger doses. It's the free market.

Let's take this self-selection to a conclusion, assuming the worst. The news outlets continue to follow the decisions of the masses who give their attention. Annually, our news gets poorer and poorer. We know increasingly more about whatever pet and purse celebrities are carrying and less and less about world strife, global climate change, and social injustice. A world of uneducated people leads to inaction on important issues.

What has history taught us happens when we, as a world or culture, get too far in any direction? I am not a history major, but it seems that a revolution is usually what happens. A few people start thinking differently and voicing their opinions (regardless of whether the majority officially allows this voicing). There is some measure of internal compass that guides enough people to follow in a better path. And eventually, there are enough people that violently, or less-so overthrow the status quo.

Now, in this case, it may not be a revolution in the sense that we normally think about it. But likely there would be some backlash, possibly in the form of a political party that would form, gaining momentum, spreading ideas.

Surely that is not ideal. But, aside from getting all "big brother" or trying some Draconian ratings systems, it seems that all we can do is make our choice by ourselves - and possibly try to influence those around us.

Links & References

  1. He also had another very interesting idea: we as humans are very adept at tuning in to power structures and things that scare us: these are survival instincts. Therefore, we shouldn't wonder that fear (of war or of dangerous groups) and celebrities (at the top of the social hierarchy) are well-consumed news.
  2. The BBC World Service Trust page on the debate:
  3. YouTube search for BBC World Debate
  4. The African Journalist on the panel gave a speech at TED 2007:
  5. Extra bit: apparently there was some technical glitch that delayed the debate. Robin Williams took over the stage while people scrambled in the background.
  6. More Special Debates from BBC World Service:
  7. BBC World News page on this debate (with video links):
  8. BBC World News Page on "The World Debate:"

Sunday, September 14, 2008, 12:00 AM

tagged: videos, google, longtail, news