The Internet First Breeds Diversity Then Conformity: Punctuated Equilibrium
Posted by Bob Warfield on October 1, 2007
I read with interest that TechMeme will soon offer a “leader board” (password protected so far) that shows the top 100 blogs. I went through the whole list and obligingly added a few to my reader list. In the end of the day, I don’t think this list is very interesting because it largely is a force for conformity on the web. Those 100 blogs will have an unnatural advantage over blogs 101-200, even though if you read through the list, there is tremendous overlap in the content of the blogs. Aren’t there really more like 20 blogs at most there that you’d have to follow to know 90% of what’s going on of interest in that list of 100 blogs? Doesn’t TechMeme itself already distill the interesting stuff from those blogs? Some others wonder about things like TechMeme being very US-centric.
What’s really interesting is the list of blogs that are just off the edge of the radar screen. These would be the best 100 blogs after the first 100. Note that if we choose to list the best 200, we will once again have to expand our search to find unique and interesting content until we’re just outside the radar screen. The problem is too much conformity. Unless you can escape the conformity zone, you can’t tap into the wellspring of genuinely new ideas that are out there until they’ve been rendered conformist. By then, it’s almost too late to be interesting. The party is over.
The web breeds diversity, and then it distills that diversity down to conformity. It’s a classic damped oscillation, with big interesting swings in thinking that gradually settle down until everyone is saying the same thing. The interesting part about the web, the part that’s truly different, is the big oscillation end. The conformity piece has been around since cavemen banded together into cliques that all thought the same way.
This path from diversity to conformity is what evolutionary biologists call puntuated equilibrium. The web is an evolutionary system in which memes can evolve from initial diversity and growth into a mature form where the meme has become well accepted and digested throughout the web. Given the very low friction that exists in the web, ideas can evolve in this way extremely rapidly, faster than at any other time in history. This is fantastic for mining new ideas and for introducing new ideas, but I maintain the interesting part is the diversity part.
Ironically, this Technorati-killer feature of TechMeme mimics the part of Technorati I like the least, which is that Technorati poops out after showing the top 100 or so of everything. Is the Top Searches and Top Tags list even that interesting? Not so far as I can see. The ideas that appear there have been so pasteurized and homogenized that I may as well be looking at Yahoo News or People Magazine. There is no way to scroll further on these lists. So it is with a Google Search. How often do you really get lucky? Well, if you’re looking for a definition, or just something quick, it works well. But what if you really want to dig in and understand something?
How do we ride the punctuated equilibrium? I use Google Blog Search, and I really try to dig in on new ideas. I sift through a lot of pages of search results even when it seems like an idea has hit equilibrium in the results. I try to arrange my blog reader list with original thinkers, and not just endless newsy blogs that all say the same thing. When one of the original thinkers I like starts musing about something, I try to think beyond the edges of their radar. With few exceptions, these great thinkers are off the edge of the 100 lists. I prefer search searches that let me drill down to any level. Services that offer structure will often make it easier to sail away from the known conformist ideas and towards things you hadn’t thought of before. Use bookmarking services of various kinds to see what new lands others may have discovered that you missed out on. Search del.icio.us, stumble around on StumbleUpon, or try Reddit every so often to see what’s happening.
If someone really wants to innovate on search, they’d find a way to identify the off-the-radar results that matter. They’d help people to sail off the edge of the known world. It’s the only way to find new worlds. If we don’t find the new worlds, we succumb to the forces of conformity and the web ceases to be unique.