Are you stuck in the short tail?

Joshua Porter asks the question, “Did the Long Tail beget social design?” I think the answer is absolutely yes.

Here’s what Joshua had to say

Netflix rents most of its movies from the catalog of past movies, not from the current list of blockbusters. Same with Amazon and books, iTunes and music. Christopher Anderson goes into a lot more details in the book he wrote on the subject: The Long Tail.

When content is digital, a public good, it is freely distributable by electronic means. It is infinitely copyable at 100% fidelity. Moreover, as the Long Tail shows, libraries of content can be built cheaply which provide value for the long term. Once Google digitizes all the books in the world they won’t ever have to again.

In other words, all content is available at all times.

What does this lead to? The Paradox of Choice! There are simply too many things to choose from. Which of the thousands of movies on Netflix do I rent? Which of the books on Amazon do I read? Which of the songs on iTunes do I listen to?

He’s right on. Too many choices leads to confusion. The only way to help people find personally relevant things in such large collections is by giving them new ways to slice through the choices. Amazon, and later Netflix, did this brilliantly, and necessarily. Without such tools, their sites would be pretty useless.

The thing I’d like to point out about all this is that there are way more pieces information out there on the internet than there are movies and books. Yahoo! and Google index billions of web pages. Billions. And, that number is growing every day. How the heck does someone dive into that sea of information and come up with a small set of things that are worth actively monitoring? It’s not easy. In fact, it’s really, really hard. It’s similar to the problem that Amazon and Netflix have been tackling, but it’s a new space. Google did a pretty good job with search (and they did so with social design). But what about browsing? What about keeping up with the new stuff? What’s the canonical example of a tool to tackle the long tail of the browseable web? What comes to mind? Anything?

It feels to me like there is a void to be filled, and this is exactly why I felt the burning need to build Feed Each Other. A feed reader is a great way to keep track of information sources you care about, but how do you find out which sources to care about?

All of the leading feed readers were dropping the ball on this. They were giving people access to the largest set of information sources that has ever existed and providing them with an efficient way to monitor them, but they were putting almost no effort at all into helping people explore and discover new things. I just couldn’t believe that the market leaders were missing this opportunity. It seemed so obvious. I felt like I was taking crazy pills. Something had to be done.

The reason that RSS reading has not caught on with a mainstream audience is that until now it has been designed as a solitary experience. You pick the feeds you want to read. You read them. That’s it. Well, if you ask me, that’s really boring.

The only people that can think up a list of feeds worth reading at this point are geeks. We’re ahead of the curve. The sites we read every day were the first ones to add rss feeds. We’re willing to go through the trouble of cutting and pasting ugly urls, and we already have a huge list of bookmarks to work with.

But John Q. Citizen? He opens up a feed reader and goes “uhh, now what?”.

John Q. Citizen gets his online news from the NY Times. He reads his sports at ESPN. That’s about all he needs, and he’s pretty happy with that. He doesn’t even know that there is all of this other amazing stuff out there that he’s missing. He doesn’t know that there are 20 interesting blogs out there that could teach him more about his favorite hobby. He isn’t aware that there is some guy out there publishing an unofficial feed of set-lists from recent shows by his favorite band. He has no idea where to start looking or even that he should be looking. He has no need for a tool that lets him efficiently monitor many information sources because he doesn’t have many information sources that he wants to monitor. He doesn’t know that they’re out there.

John Q. Citizen needs a place where this long tail of the fresh web is exposed. Where he can see what his friends are reading every day. Where he can browse the fresh web by topic. Where he can find other people who share his interests.

Feed Each Other is an attempt to do this. It’s a full fledged feed reader. It does everything you’d expect from a good reader. But, it does more. It shows you feeds related to the feed you’re looking at. It points you to like-minded people who have similar subscriptions. It lets you go to the profiles of those people and see what else they’ve chosen to read. It lets you share the things you find in your feeds with your friends, family or co-workers (with very granular group & privacy controls of course). It shows you that your friend Steve just subscribed to a feed about stamp collecting (and you love stamp collecting!). Well, chances are that Steve found a keeper. You’ll probably want to jump on that and check it out.

Feed Each Other gives you the tools you need to explore that mess of stuff out there and find what is most personally relevant to you. It makes this herculean task into a more accessible group endeavor. You get introduced to narrowly focused news sources that you’ll love. This lets you unsubscribe from other noisy, broadly focused news sources that only rarely hit on the topics that you’re really interested in. The result is that you read more interesting things in less time. It’s just way more fun and interesting this way. Every day you can discover something new and potentially get rid of something old.

I tell people that I’ve built a new, social website and their eyes glaze over. “Social” has been done to death. I know this.

But you know what? This makes sense. It was done this way for a reason. It’s actually useful.

2 Responses to “Are you stuck in the short tail?”

  1. Mike Says:

    I certainly agree. FEO does fill the void and it’s extremely useful. More so than any other feed reader I’ve evaluated.

  2. Ross Hill Says:

    You are right about the feedreading space needing a shakeup – I hope you do it well :) I look forward to seeing where your site goes in the future.