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What’s Your Least Popular?

Just Because It’s Popular, Doesn’t Mean It’s Good

Over the last few months, I’ve been doing a little experiment with the long tail – whenever I go to a restaurant or a bar or any place where you can order something, I try to ask the opposite of what everyone else is asking, which is usually “what’s your most popular dish/drink etc” . I ask “What’s your LEAST popular item?”

Wherever I’ve asked that question, I usually get a surprised look – sometimes bemusement from anyone else around – but most of the time they can easily tell me what people don’t order. At one place I had an interesting “hot salad” concoction, it was a salad on a sizzling fajita plate, with a piece of steak on top, sliced up. It was good, but I don’t think the chef knew what they were trying to do when he/she came up with that one. Since then I’ve had some interesting cocktails, some pretty good wines, nothing horrible. In fact, some of it was pretty damn good. At one place where they had a huge number of artisan beers, the woman at the bar got all flustered when I asked that question and said “everyone likes something” and “everything is good”. Like right. She was, of course, confusing “popular” with “good”. Like most people.

On the internet, whenever you look for anything, you used to be able to get to the tail of stuff, now all of that good stuff in the tail is so hidden by what the supposedly non-evil Google, Facebook, eBay, Amazon & Apple want you to see, whether you have to pay for it or not, that no one ever gets to see it.

I think we have to think about the whole concept of popularity and how it affects most everything we do. We seem to think that popularity is some kind of god that we need to constantly praise when the stuff that’s less popular can’t possibly be that good because it’s not popular. So we constantly and consistently strive for that. However, on the internet, as in real life, the best stuff is not the most popular. We have to stop praying to the god of popularity and start praying to the god of great.

Most algos out there really leverage the crowd, some for practical reasons, since the sheer volume of data that needs to be sorted through requires some kind of curation, but I think that those algos put too much weight on the crowd, biases and all. There are some new studies which help to strip those out, and I’m happy to see that those things are changing, but we are still nowhere near where we need to be.

Maybe its my own thinking, but popularity rarely equals quality (do you remember the old political story from ancient Athens – there was a rally in the square where two politicians were giving a speech on why they should be mayor of Athens, some guy got there late and asked another who he was voting for and he said candidate X. When the late guy asked why, was it his stance on issue 1, 2 or 3? The first guy said “I like his haircut” – the wisdom of the crowd, (In my best Wayne Campbell: Wayne’s World: “cha right” ). Of course the opposite, having a select few elite determine the outcome is just as bad, or worse.

There has to be some middle ground. There has to be some combination of factors that we can use – especially with all of this big data that we are collecting, which can make this much better. But until we get the will – either by us using other sites to search – anything but Google, Bing or Yahoo! – or those sites doing something about greatly improving their algo by pulling the long tail of great stuff back up to the top, then there is very little we can do, except for simply going to those middle ground and later pages ourselves. Of course, this takes time and work, but isn’t it worth it – to get to the good stuff.

I was on a call the other day and someone mentioned that Google et al had transitioned from being search engines to being “decision engines” – that people didn’t even bother doing anything but just going along with Google’s suggestions of results. They’d completely pushed the responsibility for the decision to Google. If you ask me, that’s sad. We can’t let these companies make their decisions for us.

The next time you search for anything, go below the fold, go to page 10, see whats there. Be more discerning about what you are looking at. Understand that the first things so see are not there because they are the most relevant to YOU, they are the most relevant to Google, Bing or Yahoo! Not you. Sometimes they might SEEM to be relevant to you, but always through the filter of what Google wants to show you…

Try it offline too – I don’t want to be the only guy out there asking for the “least popular” item. Maybe I can create a whole new movement of people who actively seek out the long tail of experience – that purposely eschew the crowd and go their own way. Can’t be too big, though, as that would be its own crowd.

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