the top 20 vs. the long tail

During a bout of chain-watching those oh so addictive TED Talks, I saw this talk by Clay Shirky (who, incidentally, I mentioned a previous post on a similar topic) about the imminent decline of institutions:

The Long Tail

He talks about the power law distribution, which maps to the distribution of any given type of work by a large number of people, and the 80/20 rule (aka Pareto’s Principle), which states that 20% of people contribute about 80% of the work in any given instance. Institutions hire out of that top 20% (these are the professionals) to maximize what they can get out of their employees, but because of limiting costs, they essentially ignore the 20% of possible contributions from the long tail, some of which could be very valuable.

His example is photos of Iraq on Flickr, but this applies to anything that the web has now opened up for anyone – for example, open source projects like Linux, or journalistic blogging. Referring to Judith Miller, he says:

The shield law, as much as we want it – we want a class of professional truth tellers – is becoming increasingly incoherent because the institution is becoming incoherent. There are people in the states tying themselves into knots trying to figure out whether bloggers are journalists. The answer to that question is it doesn’t matter. Because that’s not the right question.

Journalism was an answer to an even more important question, which is how will society be informed, how will they will share ideas and opinions? And if there’s an answer to that happens outside the framework of professional journalism, it makes no sense to take a professional metaphor and apply it to this distributed class.

The advantage of crowd sourcing is that people can make an one-off contribution of value – it allows you to mobilize the long tail, all that amateur knowledge and effort, without the concomitant costs of doing it in an institutional framework and perhaps ultimately more importantly, without the need to devote time, money and energy to institutional self-preservation, a goal that is not relevant to the cause or purpose of the organization. Before the net, it was very difficult to gather these sorts of contributions, but Shirky believes this is the way we will eventually go. He predicts

50 years in which loosely coordinated groups are going to be given increasingly high leverage, and the more those groups forgo traditional institutional imperatives like deciding in advance what’s going to happen or the profit motive, the more leverage they’ll get. And institutions are going to come under an increasing degree of pressure, and the more rigidly managed and the more they rely on information monopolies, the greater the pressure is going to be.

The Physical Workplace

I’m not sure that making plans plans is a bad thing or that profit will ever cease to be a potent motivator, but I do think that information monopolies will soon be a thing of the past. However, if information itself no longer brings in as much of a premium, what do we charge for? How do we assign value and distribute compensation in the new system? We still haven’t figured out a way to pay non-professionals in the long tail, hence why most crowd-sourced contributions are made for free and gotten for free or relatively ittle, but it’s interesting to think of a system in which fewer people have a primary means of making a living and instead many capitalize on a variety of skills to make a living.

The most interesting question for me is, in this model, is a workplace where employees gather as necessary as it is now? In many fields, the internet would be the gathering place and there would be less overhead costs. This would do away with our insane habit of building a private living space as well as a workplace for everyone. It’s a crazy way of living – you pay a lot of money to maintain a space you do not live in for most of your waking hours.

Unless you have a stay at home spouse, during the time you are gone, nobody else can use that space, and it becomes a glorified storage closet for your possessions, of which we have more than ever. Everyone has a ton of stuff, everyone wants their own place, nobody wants to live with their parents, so these days we need more space per person than ever before. If more people could work from home, or if we rethought the concept of a separate workplace, competition for space would decrease and eventually the cost of space would decrease. I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but that is my idea.

Competitive Rates

That said, we’re still far from anything like this. I attended a panel talk (Covering the Economic Crisis) featuring Diana Henriques Sr Financial Writer at The New York Times, Alan Murray, Deputy Managing Editor of The Wall Street Journal, Steven Pearlstein, Business Columnist for The Washington Post, and Stephen Shepard, Former Editor in Chief of Business Week. The topic was the failure of our news outlets to cover the build up to the financial crisis in a critical or predictive way in any sustained or widespread fashion. An audience member asked about the blogosphere and Henriques pointed out that unless you pay for work, you will never get the best people in a competitive economy.

I’m not sure that this is true for one-off long-tail type contributions any more, or that it needs to be true. You need to pay someone a competitive rate if you want them to work full time on a project in an economic climate when people are struggling, but if middle America didn’t have to spend most of their time worrying about barely getting, it makes sense that they could turn their efforts to something else. This is after all, the reason behind the relative success of agrarian over hunter-gather societies. Granted, the vast majority will watch more TV or go on vacation, but I’d like to think that a small percentage of them would devote time to useful projects.

At any rate, it was an interesting talk, and I believe it was recorded for the purposes of internet sharing. Hopefully I’ll be able to provide a link in the future, so you can see for yourself the moment when Murray turned to Henriques and joked, “Rupert has been talking about you guys lately…”

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~ by Jin on May 15, 2009.

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