Monday, October 24, 2005

Three Postulates: The 'Long Tail' <> User-Created Content

At this point, anyone who is reading this blog has seen Chris Anderson's 'long tail' graphic so many times that I can *not* post a link to it, and say, "the yellow kind of clashes with the red/pink background, don't you think?" and you'll all be able to bring up a mental image in your head.

Let me tweak your memory further. Remember Chris' examples? The two key ones that stick in my mind were Amazon's catalog, with that fantastic quote to the effect of, "half the things we sell in a given day, we only sell one of"; and Netflix's movie rental business, where 'infinite shelf space' enables even the most obscure movies to add to the bottom line of the business.

Sure, Ethan. So what's your point?

Well, may I humbly point out that pretty much none of the items for sale on Amazon, or for rent on Netflix, are user-created in the sense that all we Web 2.0 junkies think of user-created content. None of them are user-created in the way that blogs are user-created. They're all commercial movies, or commercial books or toys or power tools, that may be rare and obscure, but were created by some professional organization with commercial intent. You do not see things like Harry Potter Fan Fiction making up even a small part of Amazon's long tail. Why is this? Not to be mean or anything, but intellectual property issues aside, there's an obvious grammatical error in the first nine words of the top-rated Harry Potter story on that site, and it doesn't get much better after that.

Let's look at another bastion of user-created content, Slashdot. Slashdot works like this: It has a home page, and a set of topical sub-pages, which are run by editors. They choose what stories make it on to those pages, and then all and sundry comment on the stories, and moderate each other toward nirvana or oblivion. Note that the stories are a) written by someone who is not a Slashdot reader and b) edited / selected by someone who is not a Slashdot reader. Slashdot readers then, with either great enthusiasm or great skill, but rarely with both, comment on the articles, adding a valuable corona of information around the core star of the article.

Are crowds wise? Sure they are. But we all agree that committees are stupid, and isn't a committee just a small crowd?

Ethan's First Web 2.0 Postulate:

"The most successful new businesses will not be built on user-created content, but will utilize it extensively."

Google is a perfect example of this postulate in action. They crawl the web extensively, and aggregate everything they can find. They then apply relevance algorithms such as hubs + authorities to decide which pages to serve up. These relevance algorithims are, as several people have recently twigged to, social software -- aka user-created content. (Note: I blogged about this in late June -- I guess I need more readers!) However, the content which we are seeking via Google - the stuff which the users are ranking through their links -- is almost always professionally created content with commercial intent, although much of it comes from the very long tail of obscure professional content.

Interesting, huh? Google takes on the one hand, an index of all the content out there (most of the useful stuff professionally created) and then adds a relevance algorithm based on what a bunch of users think of that content, and voila! market-leading search. Then they add a bunch of professionally created ad content, and add a relevance algorithm based on what a bunch of users actually think of those ads, and voila! A $106 billion in market cap.

Does this story sound vaguely familiar? How about Amazon's professional-content store, with a heavy wrapper of user opinion and review? How about eBay's professional content marketplace, with a heavy wrapper of user opinion (seller and buyer ratings) plus user-specified value algorithms in the form of final auction prices? I think I see a trend.

Ethan's second Web 2.0 postulate:

"The number of users who will usefully comment or vote upon a topic is one to two orders of magnitude greater than the number of users who will usefully create content for that topic."

Since we all know about Metcalfe's law and its new-meme supercharged cousin Reed's law, which Fred Wilson has been talking about, it's clear that if we want to build highly scalable value in the network, we might be better off focusing on capturing user opinions at scale, rather than capturing user content at scale.

Huh. I kind of think as I write these (snarky readers will respond, "We can tell, Ethan," while super-snarky readers will respond, "Not that we can tell, Ethan"), and I've just realized Ethan's Third Web 2.0 Postulate:

"Every time I think hard about where the web is going, seems right in the middle of it."

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