The long tail of information

OK, we all know this, but still every time I encounter it, it just blows me a way.

I stumbled on a random fact the other day about the time people spend shopping. Apparently the Norwegians spend the least, Canadians spend the most. I mentioned my new and very exciting fact to Stephanie Carvin, a lecturer in the Department here who happens to be Canadian. Stephanie's explanation for it (aside from the fact that Canadians just like shopping...) was that Canada is jammed full of huge malls and that these aren't only commercial centres, but act as community resources, where people meet, socialise, and access services. That seemed pretty plausible, although we had no idea how many shopping malls there were in Norway.

So I'm back at my desk and curiosity takes over. I open up firefox and type "shopping malls in Canada" into Google. First hit is this article in Wikipedia. A couple of clicks later (via this page), I get to this list, of shopping malls in Norway. There are about fifty shopping malls in the whole of Norway, and lots, lots more in Canada (sorry - there are actually far too many to count). I reckon, even on a per head basis, Stephanie is right. Additionally, the Canadian centres are a lot bigger, while the largest Norwegian shopping centre only has hundred fifty shops in it.

But here's the point. I could have been in any research library in the world, and I don't think there is anyway I could have located that piece of information as quickly. In fact, it seems fairly likely I would never have been able to find it in that form, laid out perfectly for addressing my specific query.

The amazing thing though is that the list I found hadn't been created by a single individual who chose to sit down and compile it. Nor was it put together with an express single purpose in mind. Instead, it was manufactured by hundreds, perhaps thousands of atomised individuals, all with their singular motivations and interests. But these micro-level actions led to a macro-outcome: creating a resource that previously would not have existed. The remarkable thing then is not just ease or the speed with which we can now access information, but also the ability of web 2.0 environments to extract inputs from multiple sources, and remodel and reorganise them again and again, to make that information more and more useful. That is unprecedented.