The reign of the enthusiasts

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I Google myself, on a regular basis. I was slightly ashamed to admit this until I read this on page 193 of John Battelle‘s book The Search:

…it’s a good idea to check your own name on Google, early and often. Given that just about everyone else you meet will be doing it anyway, it’s just smart to get a picture of who you are in the world according to the index.

According to Google, I am fourth among the world’s Justin Foxes. I have yet to break into the Big Three of the Christian folk musician, the Yale assistant professor of political science, and the Australian artist and designer.

That’s interesting enough in itself. But what I really find fascinating is which of my work makes it into the top few spots. There’s this blog, sure, plus my sporadically updated personal/book blog.

But my very top listing last time I checked (and most of the times I check) was a brief essay I wrote for CNNMoney.com last year called “Out with old media, in with … what?” It’s far from the best, most interesting thing I’ve ever written. Other articles of mine have gotten much more traffic. But according to Google’s algorithms, this piece matters most because other people linked to it–other people who themselves have lots of other people linking to them.

Google’s PageRank system was the first successful application of what is now called Web 2.0. It piggybacked on the actions of countless Web authors to deliver by far the most useful search results on the Internet. But Google’s algorithms remain dependent on that subset of Web citizens who do a lot of linking and get linked to a lot. It is governed by the enthusiasts.

That’s why my old/new media piece scores so well. It’s about the Internet and the media–and, pretty much much by definition, anyone who creates Web content with links in it is interested in the Internet and the media. Lots of Internet users probably aren’t so interested, but those people are a lot less likely to be creating trails of links for Google’s crawlers to follow.

A similar rule by enthusiasts is apparent on other Web 2.0 phenomena like Digg and del.ic.io.us. They use the wisdom of a crowd to highlight particular news articles or Web pages to visit. But it’s a particular sort of crowd: tech-oriented, young, geeky. Not that there’s anything wrong with that–and over time, the population of online enthusiasts will presumably get bigger and more diverse. But it’s always going to be a self-selected, not necessarily representative gang.

Now obviously the traditional media gatekeepers are an even narrower, less representative gang. But they employ lots of people who devote their working days to divining what larger audiences might like. These people often fail, but at least they’re trying. And the occasional geniuses among them–record producer Clive Davis, say, or Time and Life founder Henry Luce–really do perform a valuable service.

On an Internet with near-infinite choices, it makes sense to use the labors of lots and lots of unpaid enthusiasts to sort the wheat from the chaff. Google’s search engine became dominant and Yahoo’s old staff-assembled directory became an afterthought because Google’s way worked better. But it doesn’t work perfectly, and that’s because unpaid enthusiasts aren’t very representative of the overall Web audience. (Well, it’s also because greedy people are always trying to subvert the rank algorithms, but that’s another story.)

There are web2topians out there–Battelle and my friend Matt McAlister immediately spring to mind–who are convinced that the Googles (and Diggs and del.icio.uses and Amazons and Last.fms) of the future will do a vastly better job of steering people to what they want, such a good job that most of the gatekeepers of the current media universe will prove wholly extraneous. They may be largely right. But I’m pretty sure they won’t be entirely right.

Enthusiasts have their limits, which means there should still be a (well-reumunerated) role for the Clive Davises and Henry Luces of the world who are capable of figuring out what people other than themselves will want.

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