Power law indeed

Clay Shirky’s latest essay– Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality–has everyone talking. I think it’s brilliant, probably because it mathematically confirms my prejudices.

Clay says that the popularity of web sites is distributed according to a power low (see the charts on his site). You should also read Jason Kottke’s analysis of this. There are a lot of great comments attached to his analysis. What’s weird and important about this is that the resulting curve is self-similar: it’s true for a subset of sites or for the pages on a particular site.

I’ve been saying for a long time that there are two Webs: the big-money Web and the “some guy with a web site” Web. The future belongs to both. The sites in the middle who don’t have a clearly defined audience are…doomed. Their cost structure looks a lot like the big-money Web, but their audiences are smaller by orders of magnitude. The little guys publish for other reasons. With rare exceptions, they don’t plan to make money from their site. They publish online in support of their offline activities.

Clay goes on to use this analysis to argue that there is no blogocracy of top bloggers. The distribution is too even for there to be an exclusive club. There is some underlying law–although clearly the early bloggers and their friends have some help.

He doesn’t offer an explanation for the power law, and there seems to be signicant debate on the nature of the underlying mechanism. But its a very common phenomenon in a lot of human endeavor. I’ve been trying to reason out what this means for online publishers. Here are some ideas:

  • Success on the Web depends on ruthless focus on a target market.
  • If you’re going after a much-larger competitor, you must have a well-defined market segment where you know you can beat the.
  • You can’t survive as a mid-sized player.
  • Don’t try to broaden your market just to get someone else’s low-hanging fruit. You also broaden your competition.

What I’m still puzzling over is whether this implies that it’s simply impossible for middle-market information sites to make money, either on advertising or subscriptions.

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