YouTube, Power Laws & the Persistence of Media Inequality

by on July 9, 2009 · 31 comments

“Liberty upsets patterns.” That was one of the many lessons that the late Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick taught us in his 1974 masterpiece “Anarchy, State, and Utopia.” What Nozick meant was that there is a fundamental tension between liberty and egalitarianism such that when people are left to their own devices, some forms of inequality would be inevitable and persistent throughout society. (Correspondingly, any attempt to force patterns, or outcomes, upon society requires a surrender of liberty.)

No duh, right? Most people understand this today–even if some of them are all too happy to hand their rights over to the government in exchange for momentary security or some other promise.  In the world of media policy, however, many people still labor under the illusion that liberty and patterned equality are somehow reconcilable. That is, some media policy utopians and Internet pollyannas would like us to believe that if you give every man, woman, and child a platform on which to speak, everyone will be equally heard.  Moreover, in pursuit of that goal, some of them argue government should act to “upset patterns” and push to achieve more “balanced” media outcomes. That is the philosophy that has guided the “media access” movement for decades and it what fuels the “media reformista” movement that is led by groups like the (inappropriately named) Free Press, which was founded by neo-Marxist media theorist Robert McChesney.

Alas, perfect media equality remains an illusive pipe dream. As I have pointed out here before, there has never been anything close to “equal outcomes” when it comes to the distribution or relative success of books, magazines, music, movies, book sales, theater tickets, etc.  A small handful of titles have always dominated, usually according to a classic “power law” or “80-20″ distribution, with roughly 20% of the titles getting 80% of the traffic / revenue.  And this trend is increasing, not decreasing, for newer and more “democratic” online media.

For example, recent research has revealed that “the top 10% of prolific Twitter users accounted for over 90% of tweets” and  “the top 15% of the most prolific [Wkipedia] editors account for 90% of Wikipedia’s edits.” As Clay Shirky taught us back in 2003 in this classic essay, the same has long held true for blogging, where outcomes are radically inegalitarian, with a tiny number of blogs getting the overwhelming volume of blogosphere attention.  The reason, Shirky pointed out, is that:

In systems where many people are free to choose between many options, a small subset of the whole will get a disproportionate amount of traffic (or attention, or income), even if no members of the system actively work towards such an outcome. This has nothing to do with moral weakness, selling out, or any other psychological explanation. The very act of choosing, spread widely enough and freely enough, creates a power law distribution.

The latest proof of the persistence of power laws in the media world comes from Slate’s Chris Wilson, who recently analyzed traffic distribution over on YouTube to answer the question: “Will My Video Get 1 Million Views on YouTube?” Alas, YouTube proves every bit as anti-egalitarian as every other media platform throughout history:

This is the great promise of YouTube: Your video can soar in popularity through sheer word-of mouth—or rather, click-of-mouth—until eventually people are making T-shirts about it. No one ever said this was going to happen for everyone. So, what are your chances of achieving YouTube stardom? I crunched the numbers to find out what percentage of YouTube videos hit it big, cracking even 10,000 or 100,000 views. The results: You might have better odds playing the lottery than of becoming a viral video sensation.

And after he runs the numbers to show how such a small percentage of videos dominate YouTube, Wilson goes on to note:

These figures certainly don’t ratify the grand promise of social media. Not everyone uses YouTube to launch their showbiz or political career, but the potential to do so is central to the Web 2.0 narrative that figures in so many newsmagazine panegyrics. When the odds of even 1,000 people viewing your video in a month’s time are only 3 percent, however, it’s tough to argue that hitting it big on YouTube is anything more than dumb luck. You could argue that this is the way it’s always been in show biz, and you’d be right. But wasn’t the Web supposed to change all that?

Indeed, why is that?  After all, as Wilson suggests, the Internet, blogs, social networks, Twitter, YouTube, and so on, were the revolutionary platforms that were supposed to democratize all media and give everyone a fighting chance to be heard.  Instead, power laws and media inequality have proven relentlessly persistent.  Here’s how I explained why this is the case in an earlier essay:

There are several reasons that power laws always exist in all media contexts. We used to think it was because the economics of media are quite different than most other industries. Namely, media industries typically exhibit “public good” qualities; high fixed (production costs), but lower distribution costs.  But the primary reason why power laws are probably more prevent in media industries than other sectors of the economy is because the creation and consumption of news and popular culture is a truly social phenomenon. Think of it as the economics of popular choice and the sociology of fashion and fads. People (and consumers) react to what others are reading or watching. Word-of-mouth counts. Bandwagon effects exist. First-mover advantages are significant. And so on.  The end result is a hopeless imbalance of outcomes or outputs.  Media egalitarianism is simply an impossibility.

OK, so now that I’ve said all this and rained on the New-Media-Will-Produce-Perfect-Outcomes-Parade, let me explain why NONE OF THIS MAKES A DAMN BIT OF DIFFERENCE.   What is really important is equality of media opportunity, not equality of media outcomes.  A focus on the latter is both foolish and destructive. It is foolish because media equality is an impossibility absent extreme measures, which in turn explains why it is destructive. We would need totalitarian government controls on media outputs and consumption in order to achieve anything remotely close to “balance” or “equality” in terms of media results.

Again, all that really counts is that people have a chance to be heard, not whether millions are listening.  New media platforms really do change some things for the better because at least we now all have an equal chance to make a go at it and grab a bit of that audience. That’s certainly more than could be said back in the old analog media world, in which we suffered from outlet scarcity and information poverty. Today, by contrast, will live in a wonderful world of media abundance, where every man, woman, and child really does have a soapbox on which to stand and speak to the world.

Of course, no one may be listening.  And there will always be someone else who will nab greater audience share than you.

Get used to it. It is the way the media world has always worked, and it is the way every media platform will work until the end of time.  So long as citizens are free to choose, media inequality is inevitable.

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