Cuban on Fragmentation & Attention in the Blogosphere (or Why Power Laws Really Do Govern All Media)

by on June 1, 2009 · 14 comments

Mark Cuban penned a sharp piece over the weekend entitled “Who Cares What People Write?” in which he explains why people shouldn’t get too worked up about what they might read about themselves (or their organizations) online since, chances are, very few people are ever going to see it anyway.  To explain why, Cuban identifies two kinds of “Outties” (which is shorthand for someone who publishes on the web): (1) “professional outties” (or “Those that attempt to publish in a limited number of locations to a maximum number of readers or listeners, with a reasonable expectation of building a following.”) and (2) “amateur outties” (“Those that attempt to publish in as many places as possible hoping they are “discovered.”)  But those “amateur outties… really [have] no impact on 99.99pct of the population,” Cuban argues, “[and the] vast majority of what is written on the web goes unread and even that which is read, is quickly forgotten.”  Moreover, “even when something is heavily commented on, it  is usually just an onslaught by the ‘amateur outties.’”

Thus, Cuban concludes:

Fragmentation applies to 100pct of media. We have gotten to the point where it is so easy to publish to the web, that most of it is ignored. When it is not ignored and it garners attention, the attention is usually from those people, the amateur outties, whose only goal is to create volume on the web in hopes of being noticed.

That’s not to say there are no sites that people consume and pay attention to. There obviously are.  That’s where the “professional outties” come in. They are branded. They have an identity that usually extends beyond the net.  They are able to make a living publishing, even if its not much of one.  They are the sites that people consume and may possibly remember.

The moral of the story is that on the internet, volume is not engagement.  Traffic is not reach.  When you see things written about a person, place or thing you care about,  whether its positive or negative, take a very deep breath before thinking that the story means anything to anyone but you.

This is an important insight and, in a roundabout way, Cuban is basically reminding us that “power laws” govern all media, especially online media. Power laws, which are also sometimes always referred to as the “80-20” principle or the “Pareto principle,” refers to an uneven distribution of outcomes in which a small percentage of inputs or causes result in a very large percentage of outputs or effects.  This is where Chris Anderson got his famous “Long Tail” theory [more on that in a moment].

But, again, here’s the really important thing to remember: Power laws rule all media, and with a vengeance. There’s never been anything close to “equal outcomes” when it comes to the distribution or relative success of music, movie, book sales, theater tickets, etc.  A small handful of titles have always dominated, usually according to an 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” media like blogs.

Back in 2003, in one of my all-time favorite web essays, Clay Shirky popped the over-hype bubble that was developing around blogging by pointing out just how horrendously anti-egalitarian blog traffic was, with an infinitesimal number of blogs getting the overwhelming volume of aggregate 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.

And that’s not only true for blogs and traditional websites, but also for Wikipedia and Twitter, too.  New research reveals 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.”

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.

And despite what Chris Anderson said in The Long Tail, the “future of all business” most definitely does not lie mostly in the 80% part of the tail.  While the long tail of the curve certainly is more profitable than in the past, that “fat head” of the tail is still where most profits (or at least eyeballs) are at.  And this also explains why Cuban says you need not worried about what the “amateur outties” have to say.

Importantly, however, as I pointed out here before, all this misses a very important point: More citizens than ever before are now engaged in an ongoing conversation. Much of that conversation is simple editorializing, but much of it represents a new and distinct form of “informational inputs” that were simply not available to us in the past. That’s a good thing. We can have the best of both worlds. In other words, inequality is not that big of a deal. At least everybody now has a chance to be heard, which is more than we could have said even just a decade ago.

However — and getting back to Cuban’s insight and why he may be a little bit off-the-mark (excuse the pun) — the other differentiating factor between media now versus then is that modern digital media is highly persistent and retrievable. I remember the first time my Dad had a letter to the editor published in our local paper back in the 1970s. It was such a big deal to “see his name up in lights” that he clipped the letter and saved like it was something truly valuable.  He’d even show it to neighbors and friends when they came over. I know it sounds pathetic now, but that’s how hungry we were to have our views heard back then.  (Of course, this was Indiana and we were all dumb hillbillies!)

Today, by contrast, we have moved from a world of information scarcity to one characterized by information abundance.  And not only does everyone have a soapbox that they can stand on to preach to the world or fire off daily equivalents of letters to the editor, but all their views are fully searchable and will be for many years to come.

Thus, in a world of cheap data storage and instantaneous information retrieval, one could argue that Cuban’s insight holds less weight. That is, perhaps people should care about what others write because even if it does not affect them today, it could come back to haunt them in the future as it becomes easier to tie many diverse comments and conversations back to haunt a person when they or others search for their name.

That being said, my general sympathies lie with Cuban for other reasons: (A) People just need to grow a thicker skin; and (B) People have plenty of ways now to respond and set the record straight.  As always, the best respond to “bad speech” is more and better speech.

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