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Ernest Miller Ernest Miller pursues research and writing on cyberlaw, intellectual property, and First Amendment issues. Mr. Miller attended the U.S. Naval Academy before attending Yale Law School, where he was president and co-founder of the Law and Technology Society, and founded the technology law and policy news site LawMeme. He is a fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. Ernest Miller's blog postings can also be found @

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June 25, 2005

Implications of the Power Law for Grokster 'Punditry'

Posted by Ernest Miller

Seth Finkelstein has responded to my response to his post, Meta-Meta-Grokster. My response here: Meta-Meta-Meta-Grokster. Seth's response is an interesting one, well worth responding to in full, so I will reply in full:

This commentary misunderstands my main point, which is a mathematical observation on the nature of punditry, and implications thereof. I wrote "there can't be more than about a dozen things to say about the result. The top three being:". The big, mass-appeal, newspapers and TV will take the simplest view. Small specialized publications - which include blogs will go into more detailed analysis. But, for any nontrivial given scale, the total number of "worthwhile" analyses is quite small, and much less than the number of people who will write them. Hence, there is a huge imbalance - which is then resolved in a exponential distribution, with a few specialists taking the secondary slots after the bigger media takes the primary slots. And you have to be positioned to get in "[w]ithin 24 hours" to even try. Frankly, this looks very much like being an (unpaid) trade-publication reporter than anything else.
We're talking about the implications for punditry of the power law distribution curve.

The facts are pretty straightforward. There are more people saying things then there are worthwhile things to say. So, what are the implications of this?

Well, there is the head of the power law curve. That's where we will see one of the "top three" storylines Seth has pronounced. Dozens of newspapers will regurgitate some semblance of these stories. So it is, so it has been, so it will be.

Then there is the long tail. That is where the other dozen or so major facts will be. Of course, I'm not sure it is a simple dozen. It could be many, many more. In fact, the farther down the long tail you go, the more details of importance will be there. Trade publications will bring in more detail, but people who really care are going to demand even more detail. Certain sectors of society will consider different details important (there isn't one long tail, there are many). How many details are important is in the eye of the beholder.

Also, there is a qualitative difference in the long tail, not simply a quantative one. Yes, in the past, there were small specialized publications. The legal newspapers went into more detail than big-time newspapers, but they never went anywhere near the level of detail that blogs will on Monday morning and afternoon. But that was a function of where they were on the power law distribution curve. There simply isn't enough interest in something like Grokster to justify the equivalent of many pages of newsprint discussing it. In the long tail, however, there is plenty of demand for a degree of detail that is unprecedented.

Honestly, how many people really care what William Patry has to say about Grokster? No disrespect intended, but not a whole heck of a lot compared to the readership of major newspapers and broadcast news; he would be well within the long tail. At best he would get a couple of short quotes into any mainstream publication (unless he wrote an op-ed). But with blogs, Patry has a forum to speak to the people who want to hear him, even if there aren't enough to justify handing him a dozen column inches in the paper. I'm one of those relative few, so I'm pretty happy to have the opportunity.

This isn't "being an (unpaid) trade-publication reporter." You'd never get the sort of dialog I expect on Monday from any trade publication, and certainly not from a reporter. If Patry gets a big audience among those who care deeply about copyright law, it is because he is a true specialist, who really knows his stuff. He's as close as you'll get to a primary source (since I don't expect the Supreme Court Justices to start blogging anytime soon). I think it is quite facile to compare true experts with "(unpaid) trade publication reporters." This is a qualitative diffence that simply isn't captured by difference in scale.

Furthermore, even if there is an arbitrary number of details that are "worthwhile," there is no way before these details are written to predetermine who is going to issue them. Yes, chances are the specialists will be the ones to ferret out most of them, but you can't predetermine that they will get all of them. The implication of this is that you do want to encourage an oversupply of analysts, to ensure you get all the details right.

Of course, this also ignores the process of determining these details. What is going to happen on Monday is that there is going to be dialog and discussion. It's not going to be a bunch of specialists in isolated cells writing about what they think is important. There is going to be a lot of back and forth. Statements will be put forth, challenged, refined, and expanded. That sort of thing doesn't happen too much in the old media world. Despite these specialists' expertise, there remain gaps in their knowledge. Some writers (specialists and non-specialists) may only provide slight additions, but they will contribute nonetheless, and even specialists will be better off for it. Process is important. Open dialog is far superior in generating knowledge.

As for the time element, is there something wrong with wanting to be quick? A lot of the people are going to be discussing the case in depth because they really care about it. It is a pleasure and an opportunity to do so in the space of 24 hours, as opposed to waiting the days, weeks and months of a different form of publication. There will be plenty of mediums and opportunity to continue to discuss Grokster in the days, weeks and months to follow, it'll just be a different opportunity than the one offered in the first 24 hours. After all, most of the details will be determined in 24 hours, but not all. I think I used the figure of 80% ... I stand by that. There will certianly be plenty of opportunity to apply Grokster to various fact patterns that are certain to arise later.

Finally, what is wrong with redundancy? EFF may make some of the same points as PFF, but that's a good thing. If EFF and PFF agree on something, one can probably put it in the bank. Certainly, the MPAA and RIAA are likely to see the details differently than Public Knowledge, and both will probably be different than CDT's take. Same details, different perspectives, redundancy is good.

The point is hardly that specialist publications go into more detail than nonspecialist publications. But here, talk of "the blogosphere" is not useful analysis. There's levels of pundits. In fact, my view is that from a certain height of observation, this is the old regime structually (and remember, quite a few A-list bloggers are traditional media people, and the prominent specialists often have many bigger-media connections).
Like that Seth Finkelstein fellow who is frequently cited with regard to filtering issues? When you're talking about the long tail, you're no longer talking about an "A-list" for the most part, you're talking about experts. They're not read simply because they're "A-list", they're read because they really know what they are talking about. That's a good thing.
I highly value Miller's legal analysis. However, the structure of the distribution isn't changed - in fact, that's exactly the point. There's more overall excellent people that there are pundit-slots, and small differences (not necessarily of quality) lead to exponential curves. Hence my use of this case as a worked example. [emphasis in original]
I disagree. It's not about the number of hits you get, it's about the knowledge produced. My contribution may be small, my readership not even a blip compared to Instapundit, but I believe my contribution worthwhile. And, for the reasons I've shown above, I encourage others who think they can move the knowledge ball down the field, if only a little, to give it a try. For all this talk of power law distributions and A-lists, the creation of knowledge is not pre-determined. Newton may have stood on the shoulders of giants, but he also stood on the shoulders of guys who weren't so giant, who filled in the gaps, who made a small contribution. They may be forgotten now, but they contributed. If I can contribute, I'll be happy.


Posts crossing in the ether. Seth Finkelstein, responds some more to my earlier post here: "Existence" vs "Constructive" Blog Punditry Standards. The only thing I'll say here is that, although Seth's audience may be small, it is the audience that really cares about the issues he addresses. The quantity may be small, but the quality is high.

Comments (1) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Blogging and Journalism


1. Seth Finkelstein on June 25, 2005 11:19 PM writes...

Some of this seems to be confusion about what's implied by the catch-phrase "Long Tail".

For detailed approximations, it's sometimes better to visualize a three-dimensional mountain, than a one-dimension curve (which is like a projection of a side of a mountain). It's absolutely true that people on one part of a mountain many not care about people on another, distant, part of the mountain ("many Long Tails"). But no matter what part of the mountain you are on, there is always an "up" and a "down" (and people "above" you have a much greater ability to help or harm you than people "below" you).

A problem with the "Long Tail" hoopla is the idea that it invented niches. Too often there's a paragraph hyping roughly "You can be a big fish in a small pond", without noting that any given pond can typically support only a few big fish. It might be nice pleasant pond, with varied and vigorous activity - but that's still a pond.

"For all this talk of power law distributions and A-lists, the creation of knowledge is not pre-determined"

But the creation of (even local) A-lists (which is indeed not knowledge) - is not exactly random either. That's what was motivating my observations.

"Like that Seth Finkelstein fellow who is frequently cited with regard to filtering issues?"

More like "once or twice a year" than "frequently", but, in fact, YES.
I spend a significant amount of time thinking about the media system, and if I can *realistically* increase my bigger-media connections, given that I'm not very good at PR, and I have some extremely complex trade-offs to consider. In fact, that's exactly why I analyze some of the structures of punditry.

And, hence, I "encourage others who think they can move the knowledge ball" to be very wary of the realities of it. Because, if you aren't connected, it's like trying to move a wrecking ball.

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