Power and the Pareto Principle

Why power has two meanings on the internet | Technology | The Observer: "Back in 1906, an Italian engineer turned economist named Vilfredo Pareto made a startling discovery: 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. He studied land ownership patterns in a number of other countries and found that the same ratio applied. He also found that the ratio seemed to apply in other contexts . . . in many areas of life there is no such thing as a typical or average case. . . populations of cities, the sizes of earthquakes, moon craters and solar flares – to take just four examples – are not normally distributed. Nor are the sizes of computer files, the frequencies of words in books, the number of papers written by scientists, hits on web pages, inbound links on websites, sales of books and records or people's annual incomes. In fact, the more you look at it, the rarer does the normal distribution seem. In its place, we see the distribution of which Pareto's Principle is a special example: a small number of people/sites/words/etc account for most of the action, with a "long tail" getting very little of it. Thus, instead of most websites having an "average" number of inbound links, a very small number of sites (the Googles, Facebooks and Amazons of this world) have colossal numbers of links, while millions of sites have to make do with only a few. Mathematicians call this kind of pattern a "power law" distribution – using the term power in its mathematical sense – which is deliciously ironic given that a power law distribution actually describes a situation where a select few have most of the available goodies while the majority has almost none. . . . Everywhere you look on the internet, you find power laws . . . while there are millions of blogs out there, a relatively small number of them attract most of the readership. . . . With the relentless consolidation of mass-media ownership into the hands of giant conglomerates, that public sphere had been steadily shrinking in the postwar era, with worrying implications for liberal democracy. It seemed a racing certainty that a technology that enabled anyone to become a global publisher without having to kow-tow to editorial "gatekeepers" would change things for the better. Fifteen years on, there are still grounds for optimism, but only if we can find a way of overcoming the tyranny of power laws."

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