First, a term:
def. The Long Tail. n. The great mass of products in any market which, though selling few units individually, as a whole make up the majority of activity in that market. The extent to which each product in a market is equally available will determine the market share of this mass.
where the red part is "hits" and the yellow part is "niches" and "the vertical axis is sales, the horizontal is products". The point is that in a market where customers have full access to all of the products and it is easy for them to obtain information about all products, the area of the yellow part will equal or surpass the area of red part.
The Long Tail does a really good job explaining the diverse advantages accruing to audiences and artists through the digital distribution of media (and, conversely, what's scary about it for big Labels and Movie Studios): namely that any artist can find an audience for their work, even if a small one, and audiences are exposed to a vastly wider range of media choices to explore.
It occurs to me that something similar is happening on the internet right now with websites themselves. At first glance, the web would seem like a place where all the barriers to the Long Tail (all the things that keep us on the red part of the graph -- physical barriers to distribution, limited bandwidth for promotion, etc.) disappear. But, in the mid 90s as the amount of content on the web exploded beyond the point where any individual could keep track of it (I'm a little too young, but I know people who remember when Yahoo listed all the new websites that went up everyday and it was a short enough list that you could browse the whole thing and click through on all the links that interested you), the problem of information overload started keeping people in the red part of the curve. This was the era of portals like Yahoo and Google and, especially, the super-hyped startups that were trying to be "the online home for" whatever. The idea was that no individual could make sense out of all the exploding content on the web, so we'd want to go to safe, universal sounding, sites to do our shopping (i.e. shoestore.com) and we'd want portals like Google and Yahoo to sort the rest for us.
This problem of information overload created what are essentially scarcity problems. If the information that you want lives in a sea of noise then the limiting resource is your own time and attention and you live in a world of "hits", the small number of sites you can find that are interesting enough that they are worth going to. This era was in full swing when I started using the web for real for the first time in college with my first broadband connection. I was completely unenthused. I felt like I could count the useful/interesting things I could find on one hand. I didn't see what the big deal was about.
Recently, in the last year or two, I've caught the bug. I've gotten so excited about the web that it takes up too much of my time and leaks into my conversations often enough to get me made fun of by my friends. The thing that did it was a set of new technologies and practices that made it easier for me to get at the good content further down the Long Tail, to begin exploring the "niches". The two main things I'm thinking of are RSS and del.icio.us. While there's plenty to say about RSS, I want to concentrate here on how del.icio.us solves the problem of scarcity of attention.
Del.icio.us distributes the task of browsing the web. I don't mean the kind of browsing that you do when looking for the answer to a question. Want to know which "Nathaniel Hawthorne novel tells the story of the Pyncheon family and the curse that was visited upon it in their opulent New England family estate?", (a question from the online trivia league I participate in) for example. Ask Google (though, on Learned League, that would count as cheating). What del.icio.us helps with is lateral thinking, looking when you don't know what you're looking for.
This is the kind of browsing that is important when looking for new cultural products, music for example. If you live in the red part of the curve you only get exposed to new music that can pass through the narrow filters that keep you afloat in the information sea: radio, record labels, and wide circulation publications. It is very difficult to actively search for new music that you might like using web filters. Try Googling to find music that you haven't heard before that you might like, it is not easy.
Del.icio.us uses two strategies to overcome this problem: social networking and churn. First, by becoming a useful tool for keeping track of the interesting things that you find (by helping you recall them), del.icio.us lures each person's good finds into the public sphere. Immediately this makes del.icio.us an effective human filter, greatly shallowing the sea of info-noise. But this is not enough. What really makes the site worthwhile is the way it facilitates navigation through the resulting links. Every page on del.icio.us is organized with the most recent links at the top. I've switched to their main page as my home page. Everytime I open a new browser window there's ten new links I've never seen before about a wide variety of subjects that other people have looked at and found interesting or useful. Now, not everyone of these links will be about a topic I'm interested in (not every one will even be in a language I speak), but the hit rate will be much higher than that of an arbitrary Google search I might try to find something new. And there might be something of interest in an area I would never have thought of exploring.
You can also narrow things down a bit. Want to find new podcasts to subscribe to? Go to del.icio.us/tag/podcast and you'll immediately see the most recent things all users have tagged with the term "podcast". Some of these will be actual podcasts and they'll be different everytime you look. Subscribe to the page's RSS and they'll come right to you.
The real power here comes from the fact that they're not giving you the most popular sites tagged with your term, but the most recent. That means that everytime you look at the results there'll be something new (i.e. it takes no labor to find new sites, aside from the social contract-demanded labor of tagging the links you find interesting) and no particularly popular sites can dominate the top of the list (i.e. every site has an equal chance of making it into your attention). As we saw above, these are the main criteria for starting off on the road down the Long Tail. All of a sudden without actually doing anything, I'm finidng a bunch of new interesting things on the web everyday. It's not that there is suddenly a wealth of great new sites, just that the barriers for finding them are starting to vanish, and, at least right now, that feels like the same thing.