Wise crowds with long tails

It is almost trite to be quoted as saying, "The Internet has fundamentally changed the ways libraries do business", but these changes are still manifesting themselves in ways we still do not fully understand. Thus, consider taking advantage of the "wise crowds with long tails" in your strategic planning. Put another way, this posting is a dual book review and commentary on The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki and The Long Tail by Chris Anderson.

Wise crowds

The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki is a book about decision-making seemingly written for decision-makers. The book's main point is that large groups of people make more accurate decisions than small groups of experts as long as the large groups are:

  1. diverse - each person has some private information, even if it's just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts
  2. independent - people's opinions are not determined by the opinions of those around them
  3. decentralized - people are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge
  4. given aggregation - some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into a collective decision

To back up his thesis, Surowiecki draws from quite a number of examples including the stock market, military rescue operations, open source software development, Google, and guessing the weight of livestock at a county fair.

I particularly appreciated the example describing the cause of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). In this case the World Health Organization funded many small organizations from all over the word to discover the cause of SARS, and a mere month afterwards the cause was discovered -- the coronavirus virus. Ironically, no one was in charge of the process. The scientists had loosely organized themselves, pursued their own hunches, and as a group came to a conclusion. Surowiecki attributes this to the nature of scientific work and the built-in collaborative nature of scientists. "Science is collective because it depends on and has tried to institutionalize the free and open exchange of information... The assumption is that society as a whole will end up knowing more if information is diffused as widely as possible, rather than being limited to a few people". Boy, that certainly sounds a lot like some of the fundamental characteristics of librarianship to me.

Long tails

Chris Anderson's book, The Long Tail, describes how consumers behave in markets of infinite abundance. (Think the Internet.) The basic premise is given the necessary access and the appropriate "filters" just about anything brought to market will sell to somebody.

Anderson states examples beginning with the venerable Sears catalog. ("No, not the Sears Subject List but the Sears catalog a la Sears & Roebuck.") Rewind to the time when many farmers lived on the plain. Goods, such as watches, were expensive and only available at the local (twenty miles away) store. Richard Sears, a retailer, learns how to exploit cheap communications channels (the United States Postal Service) to deliver big, fat catalogs to these farmers. The catalogs are overflowing with unbelievable numbers of items for sale. The items are less expensive than the items in the local store, and there is much more choice. Sears goes on to make millions.

Fast forward a bit further in time to the demise of the local grocery store. Small and friendly but not a lot of choice. Enter the "super market" and you have lots of choice at the same or a lesser-expensive cost. Small grocery stores fade away. Super markets become the norm. Fast forward to relatively recent times with the development of the "big box store" such as Target and Wal-Mart -- examples of the same phenomenon. Enter the Internet and the phenomenon becomes even more apparent. Probably the best examples come from the area of entrainment. iTunes. YouTube. Netflix. Amazon.com. These companies/services provide access to huge varieties of books, music, and videos. There is definitely something there for everybody, and don't say, "Yes, but much of it is junk" because "One man's cheese is another person's sour milk." America is hooked on choice.

As a book for marketers, The Long Tail outlines three different types of business that can exploit this desire for choice:

  1. Toolmakers & producers - camera makers, video editing software producers, blogging tool makers
  2. Aggregators - places like Amazon.com, eBay, iTunes, and Netflix
  3. Filters - Google, recommendation lists, best-seller lists, blogs

To some degree, I believe libraries fall into each of these categories. Special collections digitize content. Bibliographers, acquisitions librarians, and catalogers aggregate content. Reference librarians and our "online catalog" are filters. What opportunities! Like Ben Franklin and his writings, libraries can play a significant role across the entire distribution chain.

For those looking for practical advice, the book outlines next steps in once sentence. "The secret to creating a thriving Long Tail business can be summarized in two imperatives: 1) make everything available, 2) help me find it." He then lists nine rules for successful aggregators:

  1. Lower your costs by moving inventory way in.. or way out
  2. Lower your costs by letting customers do the work
  3. Think niche by understanding that one distribution method doesn't fit all
  4. Think niche by understanding that one product doesn't fit all
  5. Think niche by understanding that one price doesn't fit all
  6. Lose control by sharing information
  7. Lose control by thinking "and," not "or"
  8. Lose control by trusting the market to do your job
  9. Lose control by understanding the power of free

Wise crowds, long tails, and libraries

It seems to me that libraries and librarianship can benefit immensely by learning to exploit the phenomenon of wise crowds and long tails. For example, one of the first things us librarians do when trying to make a decision is form a committee. I suppose that is on the right track, but consider exploiting the wise crowd phenomenon by bringing in people from totally outside normal sphere of the work. They will bring a fresh perspective, different ideas, and everybody will be better off in the end. Additionally, allow the patrons to help you in your work. Reviews, commentary, tagging, ratings, etc. will all help you and others that follow rank and prioritize the usefulness of the things they find.

Libraries are full of long tails. Heck, special collections departments are the epitome of such things. Similarly, getting a Ph.D. is all about extending the long tail by creating bits of knowledge nobody else has uncovered. Regarding the circulation of books, the 80/20 Rule is widely accepted in Library Land. "80 percent of the circulation is against 20 percent of the collection." The Long Tail tells us that if appropriate "filters" -- methods for finding content increasingly called faceted browsing -- exist, then just about everything will get used, at least a little bit. By putting such mechanisms into place, by making a users's context as important as the accessible content, libraries can be seen as "go to" places of choice. Libraries play the role of creators, aggregators and filters in an information economy. By learning to exploit the environment around us we will be better able to evolve and remain relevant to the institutions we serve.

Trivial note

By the way, the University Libraries of Notre Dame owns many copies and versions of the venerable Sears catalog, as do many other libraries. It makes for very interesting reading. Guns for $5.69. Blue jeans for $0.79. Fountain pens for $5.00. Five-piece housecleaning set for $1.00.

Creator: Eric Lease Morgan <eric_morgan@infomotions.com>
Source: This review was first published in TechEssence at http://techessence.info/node/85.
Date created: 2007-02-23
Date updated: 2007-12-27
Subject(s): librarianship; TechEssence; book review;
URL: http://infomotions.com/musings/wise-crowds-long-tails/