Monday, December 19, 2005

Will the "long tail" start wagging the dog?

The title of this post questions whether long tail style information dissemination techniques, such as Google searching, blogs, and wikipedia, may start influencing opinions (of at least the net savvy), more than mainstream media, whose influence seems to have been on a steady rise since the invention of the television. Chris Anderson, editor of Wired Magazine, has some interesting things to say about these new technologies and approaches to information dissemination, which rely on the fault tolerance of our brains toward information sources (i.e. we look at multiple sources in the course of making an opinion, if one is a bit wrong or inaccurate, that is OK), in The Probabilistic Age.The main issue in my opinion is getting an accurate view of a topic or issue. The problem with blogs and google searches and wikipedia is that some of the information may be biased or inaccurate. The advantage of these new forms of information dissemination is that we can sample multiple times from this sea of information to get a broad view of the facts, and our fault tolerant brains can weed out most inaccuracies and bias. The problem with mainstream media is that it usually conforms to one or two simplistic viewpoints. It is less likely to be factually inaccurate, but it is still usually biased. The problem is that with the mainstream media (I'm mainly thinking newspaper, I can't really talk about television as I don't have one) the biases all reinforce one another, for example if we always read the one newspaper, we may read five articles on one topic which all agree with one another, therefore we think that opinion is the truth. We get less diversity in opinion, due to editorial pressures, and less diversity amongst the people giving us these opinions, compared to say blogs or the results of a google search. The advantage of the diversity search results and blogs is that we have more opinions to choose from, and the biases tend to cancel each other out (we get an averaging effect).

As an example, imagine we are interested in a topic such as "What are the facts regarding the Schappelle Corby case? (this will only be familiar to people from Australia, sorry). By reading blogs and searching the web, we are exposed to say five articles which express variations on three main viewpoints
  • "She is innocent, the drugs were planted on her, this is so terrible!!!!!"
  • "I think she is innocent, Indonesia sometimes seems corrupt, however we don't have much information"
  • "She had 4.1kg of marijuana in her boogie board bag, in a specially designed plastic bag that was cut to fit the outer bag. She allowed officials to search her bag, but got upset and refused when they asked to look inside the compartment holding the drugs. Her brother was in prison at the time she was arrested, and has previous drug convictions. Make up your own mind."

Of these five articles, one is excellently written, two are well written, and two articles are poorly written. We are still much better off, however, than if we are exposed to five articles which are all reasonably well writted, but with some of the immediacy and frankness edited out, and all conforming to minor variations of only one of the three viewpoints (say maybe "She is innocent, the drugs were planted on her, this is so terrible!!!!!", because it is believed that this is what their audience wants to hear). If this mainstream media viewpoint is not accurate or only contains part of the information required for us to make up our mind, then by relying on mainstream media we can get a distorted view of reality.

Of course, what I have discussed here is only part of what Chris discusses in The Probabilistic Age, and The Long Tail, which discusses some similar issues. A further article worth looking at is Web 2.0, by the inimitable Paul Graham, especially the section on Democracy which talks about the damping effects of editors (getting rid of the extremes of good and bad writing), and the Common Thread section which insinuates that this new style of information dissemination (Google searching, blogs, Wikipedia) is nothing more than using the web in the way it was meant to be used.


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