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The centripetal web

October 19, 2008

"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.

Comments

My internet usage has narrowed as it's increased. I suppose as it's become a bigger part of my media intake I turn to it for more and more "normal" information. But I doubt that your anchor sites are the same as mine, let alone someone in Brazil or China.

Google & similar will not be the only ones who can run large web applications. Especially now much of the "heavy" infrastructure can be rented, rather than being capex.

Posted by: Thomas [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 19, 2008 06:22 PM

Call me a Luddite, but I still find a trip to the library and a lonely sojourne down the ailes between the stacks of books of the subject of my research a valuable source of information that NEVER seem to find on Google. Call me crazy, but I can feel the combined wisdom of the authors whispering to me to reach out and open that book... maybe ....

Posted by: Linuxguru1968 [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 19, 2008 09:36 PM

Reading the Compete article you linked to, it struck me that the actual websites in the top 10 had shifted dramatically over the 5 years from 2001 to 2006. Fully half (5/10) of the top 10 websites in 2001 were not there in 2006.

So it is true on the web that the big get bigger, and that there is a centripetal force driving that process. But it is also true that there has been a tremendous amount of mobility among even the biggest websites.

Google's dominance seems unassailable now, and I certainly would not bet against them. However, I would bet that the top 10 list in 2013 will include perhaps 4 websites that are not on the list right now.

Posted by: Ted Murphy [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 19, 2008 10:01 PM

Of course, you are right about this. And you want to know the really bad thing? People don't care...

I try to get my own kids to explore the web/their minds/the world. What do they tell me? "I don't want to see/hear new things." At 13 years old that scares me. What do they do online? Hyves (facebook in the netherlands), youtube (always the same damn music - never anything they don't know) and maybe 2 or 3 game-sites. That's it.

They are the first generation that can have it all - all the information you might want. But they don't want it...

Lazy? Indoctrinated by all the crap they see in magazines/tv? I don't know...

Posted by: profke [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 20, 2008 05:14 AM

profke, that's scary stuff. It would be interesting to learn more about Internet use by kids and adolescents.

Posted by: Sergey Schetinin [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 20, 2008 06:09 AM

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 20, 2008 08:19 AM

I think the long tail may well continue to apply to retailing -- e.g., books sold through Amazon. It will not necessarily apply to retailers; they will operate *through* Amazon.

Posted by: George Geist [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 20, 2008 02:12 PM

I'll admit, I used a lot of the stuff at the center. But it's good to know that the unusual and unpopular stuff is out there, if I should ever need it. And it's good to know that much of this long-tail content is provided for free by people who do it for whatever passion they have. So it won't get killed by beancounters at some meeting this month.

Posted by: Steve Baker [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 20, 2008 03:03 PM

Think of the web as a new geography. It is good to remeber that real geography also revolves around cities where most exchanges are done and value created.

I think the web will also organize around the places where most of the exchange is done and value created. At the fringes, risk takers (with some free time), will be able to find sources of creativity, new ideas, innovation, ...

And some regulation will be needed so that blogs and websites that are not maintained are not just discarded but that they remain alive and can be explored by future explorers.

Posted by: Luis [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 20, 2008 04:56 PM

Nick,

Very insightful discussion. However, i still believe that in general the centrifugal force on the Web is still greater than the centripetal force because the Web is expanding, even during the dotcom bubble. The only difference is the speed of expansion.

As you said, we are now in a comparative contraction period, i.e., the centripetal force on the Web is temporarily greater than its normal magnitude. But still, we may need to call for the regeneration of the centrifugal momentum to avoid us from being truly trapped into a real recession of the Web.

Yihong

Posted by: Yihong Ding [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 20, 2008 06:27 PM

Nick:
Rather than be in orbit around it, could we get sucked in? Instead of centripedal motion how about a vortex or technological singularity. Could the Internet evolve into a new order of intelligence or just an information toliet?

Posted by: Linuxguru1968 [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 20, 2008 07:50 PM

Nick, aren't you just describing "network effects" or "network externalities" or "the law of increasing returns" as it applies to content? This is the #1 rule of the network economy. It has been operating on the web from day one, and is the major driver of the shape of the web. And it has gotten a lot of attention. I am not sure how centripetal is different.

The long tail feeds the increasing returns of the center. The long tail also (collectively, and less intuitively) steers the center.

Posted by: Kevin Kelly [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 21, 2008 02:33 PM

Interestingly, people "who should know" think this is partly due to google's own algorithms.

http://seoblackhat.com/2008/09/11/roll-your-own-black-hole/

Posted by: Thomas [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 22, 2008 09:45 AM

Google is an interesting case, because in some way is pulls the internet together as well as pulls it apart. It's a rich area to think about.


Ken Werbach, a law prof from UPenn is writing on similar ideas, but looks at it from the perspective of infrastructure. I read an working version of his paper.

The Centripetal Network: How the Internet Holds Itself Together, and the Forces Tearing it Apart (UC Davis Law Review, forthcoming 2008)

and wrote a reaction to it,

http://flowtv.org/?p=850

which basically tried to look at how as more media continues to shift towards being delivered via the internet, (tv, journalism, music) it's important to think about how decentralizing and centralizing forces are working for and against each other.

Posted by: weatherpattern [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 23, 2008 10:40 AM

Weatherpattern: Thanks for the link. I look forward to reading Kevin's (not Ken's) paper. Nick

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 25, 2008 05:59 AM

While the notion of "the destruction of long tail via the inherent inefficiencies of search, the laziness of users, and information overload" might be an intriguing idea, unfortunately it is completely false.

As you yourself have previously noted, this notion has been disproved before:

http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2006/12/sharecropping_t.php

And while I can appreciate that you still fancy the notion, this post provides no new proof other than anecdotal whimsy.

Truth be told, the long tail will not die until:

1) Our tastes and desires as human beings converge to the point that we become clones of each other


2) Location/geographical based needs/promotion/selling in the real world is eliminated

Unfortunately for your argument, none of these are likely to happen anytime soon.

The emergence of companies that try to be everything to everyone (Amazon, Google, Walmart, Wikipedia) cannot be taken of proof of anything other than the desire that these entities have to actually harness the long-tail that you falsely claim is now vestigial.

Their business models rely on them trying to service the tail, and to be perceived in the marketplace as doing so in order to draw customers from competitors.

The fact that big companies with big ad budgets tend to grow and gobble up small companies is again no proof of anything. That does not rob the overall marketplace of its diversity. Even Microsofts are aware of that.

The last thing I'll mention for now is that the final two studies that you cite are contradictory to your argument or irrelevant. The first one shows that the growth of the top sites' traffic relative to the overall growth of internet traffic has stayed the same. In otherwords, long tail traffic has not diminished. The second study is irrelevant, because it says nothing about which sites people tend to settle into over time, top domains or niche sites.

I apologize but your arguments really need some real data to support them. Otherwise claims like "long tail is dead" simply look like hyperbole.

Posted by: VoiceOfReason [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 18, 2008 07:58 AM

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