Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Books: long tails and crowds

I read two interesting books recently that relate to how the internet is changing businesses and society in general.

“The Long Tail” by Chris Anderson ends up suffering from its own success. I was so exposed to the long tail meme before reading the book that there were very few novel ideas left to read. The book describes the business opportunities that come from having a near-unlimited shelf space. While physical stores are forced to focus on the big hits, long tail businesses sell those big hits but also all the other niche products that only a few people will be interested in. There is a big challenge in trying to guide the users to those niche products that they will be interested. Anderson provides examples of recommendation and reputation engines from several companies (ie. Amazon, iTunes, eBay) that by now most of are familiar with. Even for those well exposed to log normal distributions and long tail businesses the book is still worth getting as a resource and for the very interesting historical perspective on the origins of long tail businesses.

“Here Comes Everybody” is an excellent book by Clay Shirky that describes the huge decrease in cost of group formation that we are currently living. Through a series of stories Shirky demonstrates how the internet facilitates group formation and how collective actions that before were impossible are now become the norm. His stories touch on ideas as simple as the photo collections in Flickr to the coordination of regime opposition in Byelorussia. I appreciate the somewhat neutral stance on the phenomena. The book covers cases where online groups almost change to a mob like mentality and others were groups of consumers were able to stand up to corporations to guarantee their rights. The outcome of easy group formation for the future of society is not easy to predict and this is well conveyed in the book.

The subjects and stories from these books are interesting for scientists also because they can influence the way we work. Science is a long tail of knowledge with many niche areas that only a few people in the world care about. The recommendation and reputation engines described could help us navigate the body of knowledge to find those bits that interest us the most. Also, easy group formation might one day shift the way we work so that the innovation and research is not determined by physical location but instead focused on the research problems.