Crash of the longtail and the attention economy, and the solutions

I have about 20 rss feed subscriptions. That's how I get information about what's going on around the world. But it's hard to keep up with the pace of information coming out of them. In terms of writing, I have this blog, which I don't regularly write posts.

Amazingly, there are people who actively manage, in addition to reading and writing blogs much more than I do, all sorts of other web app accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Friendfeed, and so on). The result is that they produce and consume more and more information. And it seems that they are beginning to feel the pain to keep up.

I expected this crash of the longtail and the attention economy was coming. In plain words, it is a conflict of increasing variety and the scarcity of our mental capacity. I have a slide that I have been using for 2 years, which you can see here (note that the chapter itself is a mess and to be written and organized).

The long tail itself is a good thing. We'll have more choices. However, like all changes in human life, it brings some negatives as well. When you have more choices, you have to use your brain more to process the information and you have to make more decisions on what to consume and what to discard. And that can be very very painful.

The pain of decision making is so severe that the human society created a full-time job for decision making, the CEO (and other leadership positions at organizations). So, how should we deal with this growing pain? How should we handle variety overload (information overload being the most immediate for the Internet community)?

There are three solutions, as you see in my slide.

The first is to fractionize the consumption unit. That is, make the unit of consumption smaller. It happened in music (from CD albums to MP3 singles) and in video (from 2-hour movies to 2-minute YouTube videos). Though less apparent, it seems happening around the book (from 300-page books to 1-page blog posts to 1-line twitter messages). The purpose is for you to consume more variety, just like a buffet restaurant. We will see this happening in much more categories.

The second is to improve filtering. Google and Amazon use algorithms for filtering, and there are attempts to make even better algorithms. However, as we have more and more variety, people will look for more human filtering. Digg and Delicious are more human filters, and, more narrowly, crowd filters. Yet, another form of filtering will be also needed, which is the expert filtering. I often read only Techcrunch among web2.0 blogs and news, when I don't have much time. When I do so, I am trusting that TC must have done a good job of selecting the right news.

This is a bit strange. The information is increasing exponentially so that any individual expert could never compete with algorithms or crowds. But the reality is that overwhemled by information overload, people seem looking for experts more. Though they can always find the best books about innovation, I am very often asked to recommend books about innovation.

The two solutions above help people be more productive. They make you enjoy more variety and filter out less important things. Wouldn't these two be enough, especially now that contents are getting smaller and smaller and there are many new approaches in filtering? No, I don't think so.

The ultimate solution will be simply to slow down. As a human being, your brain have certain limits no matter what tools you use. You will realize this sooner or later, and then have to rethink what your focus area should be.

I think the reason why many people try to keep up with a lot of information is that we have not adjusted to the variety economy yet. Our economic life in 20th century was governed by the Mass Production model. We did not have much variety in products and information. In this age, an educated person was supposed to know 'all that's important'. If you were a college-educated professional, you were expected to know the headline news of the day, to have read the best-selling book that other professionals all seem to have read, and to have watched the movies of the year.

A lot of tech leaders, as Alexander van Elsas wrote, may be the best examples of this symptom. They seem to think they should know whatever is being said in the tech world. They are living the web2.0 longtail world with the mentality of 20th century professionals. I don't mean they are doing wrong things. Their paranoid makes them good human expert filters right now. I just mean that they represent stressed 20th century info worker adopting to 21st century variety economy. I feel that, too. I try to calm myself down saying that I am normal. But inside of me, I often feel I am not doing the homework.

But sooner or later, all these busy bloggers will have to redefine their coverage if information increases at this pace. You just cannot keep up. To help people to define coverage narrowly, I predict that there will be more niche aggregators. At the moment, we have a lot of general aggregators, equipped with powerful filters. You start at Google or Yahoo, and try to read all the important news there, and search and browse to your areas of interests. But if you already know that you are interested in Japanese Manga, why not start at an aggregator specialized in Manga?

There is another (and the last) reason why we should slow down. By slowing down, we will recover depth. At the moment, information is like disposable cameras. They are consumed once and forgotten (by the writer as well as readers). This is too much waste and in a way non-sensical. You write everyday, because people won't read your post a day ago. You produce more, just because you will throw away more. By following that trend, we lose depth. We become shallow and trendy. It is true that the world is changing faster so that the shelf life of information is decreasing. But does it apply to all information? Of course not. But because of this trend, because there are more innovation for fast-pace tools, we seem to treat information that are worth staying longer just like daily news.

This is partly why we started paragraphr and rankrz. They are tools for revision and updates. They are tools for slow writing and reading. We don't know whether and how these will be used, but I am very confident that the world needs to do something for slow and deep writing, reading, and thinking.


Internet is not free

An AT&T excecutive said that due to surge in online content, expecially video, the Internet will hit full capacity by 2010. According to him, $130 billion is needed to improve the global Internet infrastructure.


Certainly, the Internet is not free. The marginal cost argument ("as the marginal cost approaches zero, the product will naturally become free") misses a basic truth in business and economics.

Let's assume the marginal cost of operation is zero, as pro-free people seem to argue (which can never be true by the way). Even at the zero marginal cost, you cannot price the product zero, because then you cannot recover your investment.

A roller coster in a theme park requires a large investment to build, but once it is built the marginal cost of running it another round is almost zero. So, the theme park should take customers for free? Of course not. (If you can make money elsewhere, you might do this. This is another area where pro-freers are misleading, which I want to talk about some time.)

The Internet economics cannot be understood correctly if you only look at the marginal cost during the operation stage. Whether you are an ISP, a web service, or a content provider, your cost is concentrated in the investment and fixed costs as opposed to the marginal costs. And when you were deciding to invest in it or not, you certainly assumed some revenue. Don't forget that.


The Tipping Point vs. The Wisdom of Crowds

(A comment on a ReadWriteWeb post titled "Study: There is No Tipping Point, Blog Readers Are Skeptical". I think I just found out what was wrong with my cocomment setting. Hopefully it will work from now.)

"Gladwell's arguments in the 2000 book The Tipping Point had reached levels of cliche approaching The Wisdom of Crowds, in large part because of its seductiveness to marketers."

I find the statement very misleading. It should be the other way around. The Wisdom of Crowds was published a few years later than The Tipping Point. And it has not made people think and debate as much as The Tipping Point has.