“A centripetal force is that by which bodies are drawn or impelled, or any way tend, towards a point as to a center.” -Isaac Newton
When I started blogging, back in the spring of 2005, I would visit Technorati, the blog search engine, several times a day, both to monitor mentions of my own blog and to track discussions on subjects I was interested in writing about. But over the last year or so my blog-searching behavior has changed. I started using Google Blog Search to supplement Technorati, and then, without even thinking about it really, I began using Google Blog Search pretty much exclusively. At this point, I can’t even remember the last time I visited the Technorati site. Honestly, I don’t even know if it’s still around. (OK, I just checked: it’s still there.)
Technorati’s technical glitches were part of the reason for the change in my behavior. Even though Technorati offered more precise tools for searching the blogosphere, it was often slow to return results, or it would just fail outright. When it came to handling large amounts of traffic, Technorati just couldn’t compete with Google’s resources. But it wasn’t just a matter of responsiveness and reliability. As a web-services conglomerate, Google made it easy to enter one keyword and then do a series of different searches from its site. By clicking on the links to various search engines that Google conveniently arrays across the top of every results page, I could search the web, then search news stories, then search blogs, then (if I was really ambitious) search scholarly papers. Google offered the path of least resistance, and I happily took it.
I thought of this today as I read, on Techcrunch, a report that people seem to be abandoning Bloglines, the popular online feed reader, and that many of them are coming to use Google Reader instead. The impetus, again, seems to be a mix of frustration with Bloglines’ glitches and the availability of a decent and convenient alternative operated by the giant Google. The first few comments on the Techcrunch post are revealing:
“switching temporary (?) to google reader, bloglines currently sucks too much”
“I got so fed up with bloglines’ quirks that I switched over to Google Reader and haven’t looked back”
“I’ve finally abandoned Bloglines for the Google Reader”
“Farewell, dear Bloglines. I loved you, but I’m going over to the dark side. I don’t love Google Reader, but at least I can get my feeds”
“Bloglines, please stop sucking. It’s been a couple of weeks now. I don’t want to have to move to Google Reader. Sigh.”
“Thanks for the tip about exporting feeds to Google Reader. I made the transition too. Goodbye Bloglines.”
During the 1990s, when the World Wide Web was bright and shiny and new, it exerted a strong centrifugal force on us. It pulled us out of the orbit of big, central media outlets and sent us skittering to the outskirts of the info-universe. Early web directories like Yahoo and early search engines like Altavista, whatever their shortcomings (perhaps because of their shortcomings), led us to personal web pages and other small, obscure, and often oddball sources of information. The earliest web loggers, too, took pride in ferreting out and publicizing far-flung sites. And, of course, the big media outlets were slow to move to the web, so their gravitational fields remained weak or nonexistent online. For a time, the web had no mainstream; there were just brooks and creeks and rills and the occasional beaver pond.
And that landscape felt not only new but liberating. Those were the days when you could look around and easily convince yourself that the web would always be resistant to centralization, that it had leveled the media playing field for good. But that view was an illusion. Even back then, the counterforce to the web’s centrifugal force – the centripetal force that would draw us back toward big, central information stores – was building. Hyperlinks were creating feedback loops that served to amplify the popularity of popular sites, feedback loops that would become massively more powerful when modern search engines, like Google, began to rank pages on the basis of links and traffic and other measures of popularity. Navigational tools that used to emphasize ephemera began to filter it out. Roads out began to curve back in.
At the same time, and for related reasons, scale began to matter. A lot. Big media outlets moved online, creating vast, enticing pools of branded content. Search engines and content aggregators, like Google, expanded explosively, providing them with the money and expertise to create technical advantages – in speed, reliability, convenience, and so on – that often proved decisive in attracting and holding consumers. And, of course, people began to demonstrate their innate laziness, retreating from the wilds and following the increasingly well-worn paths of least resistance. A Google search may turn up thousands of results, but few of us bother to scroll beyond the top three. When convenience meets curiosity, convenience usually wins.
Wikipedia provides a great example of the formative power of the web’s centripetal force. The popular online encyclopedia is less the “sum” of human knowledge (a ridiculous idea to begin with) than the black hole of human knowledge. At heart a vast exercise in cut-and-paste paraphrasing (it explicitly bans original thinking), Wikipedia first sucks in content from other sites, then it sucks in links, then it sucks in search results, then it sucks in readers. One of the untold stories of Wikipedia is the way it has siphoned traffic from small, specialist sites, even though those sites often have better information about the topics they cover. Wikipedia articles have become the default external link for many creators of web content, not because Wikipedia is the best source but because it’s the best-known source and, generally, it’s “good enough.” Wikipedia is the lazy man’s link, and we’re all lazy men, except for those of us who are lazy women.
Now, it’s true, as well, that Wikipedia provides some centrifugal force, by including links to sources and related works at the foot of each article. To its credit, it’s an imperfect black hole. But compared to the incredible power of its centripetal force, magnified by search engine feedback loops and link-laziness, its centrifugal force is weak and getting weaker. Which is, increasingly, the defining dynamic of the web as a whole. The web’s centrifugal force hasn’t gone away – it’s there in the deliberately catholic linking of a Jason Kottke or a Slashdot, say, or in a list of search results arranged by date rather than by “relevance” – but it’s far less potent than the centripetal force, particularly when those opposing forces play out at the vastness of web scale where even small advantages have enormous effects as they ripple through billions of transactions. Yes, we still journey out to the far reaches of the still-expanding info-universe, but for most of us, most of the time, the World Wide Web has become a small and comfortable place. Indeed, statistics indicate that web traffic is becoming more concentrated at the largest sites, even as the overall number of sites continues to increase, and one recent study found that as people’s use of the web increases, they become “more likely to concentrate most of their online activities on a small set of core, anchoring Websites.”
Chris Anderson’s “long tail” remains an elegant and instructive theory, but it already feels dated, a description of the web as we once imagined it to be rather than as it is. The long tail is still there, of course, but far from wagging the web-dog, it’s taken on the look of a vestigial organ. Chop it off, and most people would hardly notice the difference. On the web as off it, things gravitate toward large objects. The center holds.