I just finished Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail. Some thoughts: Links on the web are essentially a way to redirect attention in a very fluid way, hence the web with its multiple social layers is an enabling infrastructure for an emerging, full-fledged attention economy.
That much is clear, but what drives the clicking? What exactly shapes peoples clickstreams on the micro level? I think a significant driver is trust in various forms. Think about it: Almost each and every little cognitive process that forgoes a click is actually about evaluating trustworthiness, solving a mini trust dilemma if you will. Some links need almost no evaluation at all, whereas others need a lot more.
At any given time we are positioned somewhere on a long tail, surfing up- or downwards. Our attention wanders along the myriad of mini tails of long tails. In our excursion, we put our trust in algorithms, people and institutions.
It seems that trust, in various shapes, plays a part at virtually all levels of long tail markets. The key to making these markets work is to make them accessible to consumers. At least 99 per cent of the music in the product tail of a music store are not going to be interesting to a particular music consumer, and hence needs to be filtered out in some way. One could argue that the most effective filters of this kind today are trust driven. This is especially true when there is no significant head to drive demand down the tail.
What do I mean by that? I’ll let Chris Anderson explain. He contrasts the failure of MP3.com with the success of iTunes Music Store in the chapter entitled “The Short Head”. A key factor in the success of ITMS, he argues, is that the store’s long tail of music has a solid head (all the major labels) to serve as a sort of foundation for the tail. ITMS thus provides consumers with familiar points of entry in the form of artists and labels they know.
From a “trustoconomy” perspective however, myspace is far more interesting than ITMS, since it solves the problem that brought down MP3.com. It enables a long tail market with a much less significant head to function through a trust-driven social network. Users travel the tail in a serendipitous wander guided by trusted peers and niche authorities, rather than by mainstream musical “heads”. Last.fm works in a similar way, although with less focus on people and more on algorithms.
So does this mean that the future online music store should be a social network? I think it does–and the key is leveraging The Long Tail of Trust.
One of the basic concepts in trust theory is something called a Trust Dilemma. In short, it’s the problem of evaluating the risk one takes in trusting that an actor that will act in a certain way. In a more formal analysis, trust dilemmas are intimately related to game theory concepts such as Stag Hunts and the Prisoner’s dilemma.
Philosopher Annette Baier captures the essence of the dilemma beautifully when she attempts to describe trust:
“One leaves others an opportunity to harm one when one trusts, and also shows one’s confidence that they will not take it. [...] Trust, then, on this first approximation, is accepted vulnerability to another’s possible but not expected ill will toward one.”
Trust dilemmas seem to play an integral part in attention economies. When deciding how we should direct our attention, we are essentially faced with a continuous stream of trust dilemmas. There’s a constant evaluation process going, where we have to decide which sources to trust, with the varying risk of losing time on things that aren’t relevant to us. On the web, we’re faced with a “mini” trust dilemma almost every time we follow a link.