The tyranny of Power Laws

This morning’s Observer column.

Everywhere you look on the internet, you find power laws – yes, even in the Guardian’s online comment forums, where 20% of comments are provided by 0.0037 per cent of the paper’s monthly online audience. And, while there are millions of blogs out there, a relatively small number of them attract most of the readership. Various sinister explanations have been canvassed for this, but really it’s just an illustration of the power of power law distributions. As Clay Shirky once put it: “In systems where many people are free to choose between many options, a small subset of the whole will get a disproportionate amount of traffic (or attention or income), even if no members of the system actively work towards such an outcome. This has nothing to do with moral weakness, selling out or any other psychological explanation. The very act of choosing, spread widely enough and freely enough, creates a power law distribution”.

This is where the mathematical and political interpretations of “power” fuse into one…