How Super-Stars Emerge

ML Jul 9, 2006

So, Chris Anderson’s book, The Long Tail, is scheduled to launch on Tuesday next week, and his NYC party is on Wednesday. But I already saw Chris’ book on the business book display at Barnes and Noble in Union Square last weekend. Whoops.

An article coincidentally hit the NYT Business section today. Very good timing there, Chris! And the blog posts are surely going to start pouring in as the buzzword machine starts buzzing–as if it already wasn’t. But one might say that it’s about to reach the, Ahem, tipping point.

Anyway, I’ve been looking around for how one might position a tool designed to help marketers write for the long tail of search to ride the impending wave. It appears that when you search on long tail in Google, Chris pretty much owns that entire first page. Even the one seemingly non-Chris Squidoo page turns out to be Chris’ business lens page in Squidoo, providing another fine example on how “tagging” Web 2.0 sites are greatly about making a grab for search traffic.

But the Wikipedia did manage to squeeze in there. So, I’ve considered contacting whoever has been deemed credible enough to stick on the Wikipedia longtail pages. HitTail on its own doesn’t add enough to the discussion to merit a citation on that Wikipedia page, such as Danny Sullivan, Clay Shirky or The Economist. And left on its own devices, the HitTail site has only managed to rise to page 4 of Google on when searching on long tail. It’s going to need a special push that only… well, only a hub of a scale-free network can provide.

And THAT is actually the subject of this post. In my research of the long tail SEO concept, there are many related you come across, including power-law distribution, Zipf law, Pareto and the like. But perhaps one of the most interesting concepts from a HitTailing and even a public relations perspective is scale-free networks.

Without trend setters and highly influential people, Internet linking looks a lot more like average distribution associated with randomness and “average” behavior. But when you take into account the small number of high density linking, you come up with influential hubs that turn the average distribution into more of a power-distribution. In other words, power is unevenly distributed, with a small number of highly interconnected nodes having a great deal of influence.

And this invokes many other related concepts, including six degrees of separation and small world theory, that states that everything is capable of being connected to everything else in great part thanks to a couple of hops through these highly linked-to nodes… or, in other words, very popular people or websites.

So, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Clay Shirky’s article from 2003 discusses why with any system, citing MUDs (multi-user dungeons–the massively multi-user online games of ages past) and BBSes (electronic bulletin board systems–the online forums of years past) as examples that start out much more democratic, but then rapidly lose that special quality as they draw attention, more users and super-stars that become those hubs. There is a lot of begrudging by small fries who felt like big fish when the puddle was teeny.

Many systems have this super-star-making quality. The nature of the medium tends to pre-determine the nature of the stars. When the Internet was mostly geeky, it produced phenomenon’s like Yahoo and Slashdot, where a relatively small number of editors set the agenda. Now, Google and Yahoo Search play a similar role, but the wisdom of the crowd has replaced human editors. And the wisdom of the crowd can produce super-stars with “shut-out” like powers that suppresses the otherwise level playing field.

And that’s a necessary thing. It ensures that the innovators (who can also market themselves) rise to the top, and the general public is served by getting what they really mean when they ask for it. Chances are, you want to know about “long tail” in the context of Chris Anderson, and not in the context of a long tail bug, rat or deer (all of which I receive hits for). But Google wouldn’t be doing its job either if it totally buried these other meanings. And those of us who watch Google’s results carefully, constantly see attempts to keep an even hand and instill a sense of “fairness”.

But what about the innovators who cannot market themselves? Tough. Marketing is a fact of life, even where pure thought should reign supreme. Anyone in academia can tell you that. Competition for being published and receiving grants is very similar to the attempt to have your ideas or products “discovered”. Marketing

So, it would seem from all of this that the objective of an up-and-commer site would and should be to become one of these highly interconnected nodes, and an arbitrator of the majority of Web traffic on its related keywords. But how can that be if the already existing players in that space have achieved that “shut out” linkage in the head of the power-distribution (they have all the power)? One of the most interesting things I read was on the Wikipedia scale-free network page. It draws connections between how we as human beings are capable of learning new things. It states…

“Recently, Manev and Manev (Med. Hypotheses, 2005) proposed that small world networks may be operative in adult brain neurogenesis. Adult neurogenesis has been observed in mammalian brain including human but a question remains: how do new neurons become functional in the adult brain? It is proposed that the random addition of only a few new neurons functions as a maintenance system for the brain’s “small-world” networks. Randomly added to an orderly network, new links enhance signal propagation speed and synchronizability. Newly generated neurons are ideally suited to become such links: they are immature, form more new connections compared to mature ones, and their number but not their precise location may be maintained by continuous proliferation and dying off.”

So, if the Internet is anything like the human brain, with websites representing neurons, hyper-linking representing connected pathways between neurons, and actual website visitors following these paths represent thought and behavior, then we Web marketers have a fighting chance. Why?

Because the Internet is an infant. New neurons are being added all the time. The amount of change and growth that is going to occur is still greater than everything that has occurred thus far. In fact, whereas a human being is going to reach a biological limit, the Internet is going to just keep growing. New super-stars (stuff you learned) happen constantly, because new websites (brain cells) are constantly added and can spontaneously optimize the system (become a hub).

The trick is adding just the right new gray matter in the place where optimization is most needed. It surely relates to Geoffrey Moore’s Inside the Tornado concept. The tornado is the need for optimization. Being inside the tornado is being the new gray matter that is there to spring into action. Every killer app in its category can be seen in these terms: Yahoo as the human-edited directory in the early days, Amazon, eBay, Google, MySpace and the like.

So, your success in your new venture will be inherently limited or ensured based on the “need” for one of these inter-connected super-hubs to optimize the system. That’s what we think we have with HitTail, because of the “need” for bloggers and marketers to raise their voices and be heard against the background “white noise” that is the long tail. Only the super-stars can be heard.

No matter how technology improves, there is only a finite amount of time in each of our lives. And the great competition of media to occupy that time forces us as a society to choose “filters”, so we’re not wasting that precious time. Those filters are today biased towards the super-stars. Some media consumers that are willing to work a little harder are able to find “gems” in the less-filtered long tail of media.

These gems must be given the chance to set-in and become super-stars in their own right. This is completely possible due to their ability to be found in the first place (HitTailing), and the fact that the Internet, and humanity itself, is still in its infancy, and we have more change ahead of us than anything that has happed in our short life so far. When “newness” is added to an existing system, there are many opportunities for new super-stars to emerge–or at least, highly influential individuals who were previously unknown.

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