lack of power laws and other popularity problems

Discussion of tails and popularity seems to be maturing into more comprehensive considerations. Folks aiming for uber-geek status might chat about the difference between power laws and log-normal distributions. This difference has similar consequences to the difference between non-stationary and stationary macroeconomic time series. If those terms are obscure to you, you might just chat about how much bigger infinity is than any other number. It’s a huge issue!

Government bureaucrats and other practical, get-the-job-done types might just try to produce some simple, intuitive, and relevant graphs. Consider, for example, log-log graphs of website page traffic by page rank. They show a “drooping tail” relative to an approximating line for the left part of the popularity distribution.

Whether the droop is a typical characteristic of web page popularity distributions is not clear. Surely a relatively large subset of relatively bad (unlinked, search-word-poor, spam-associated) pages could contribute to the droop. On the other hand, the droop could be a typical effect of the usual distribution of page content and general patterns of linking and searching. These two possibilities could be tested by comparing the magnitude of the droop in different websites’ page traffic distributions.

Fitting a line to a popularity distribution is more useful as a descriptive technique than as a literal claim that the popularity distribution follows a power law. The term “power law” is not meaningful to most persons. Moreover, knowledge about power laws does not provide a lot of insight into the factors that determine website traffic or trends in website traffic over time.

The possibilities for statistical distributions are not limited to power laws (or power laws and log-normal distributions). The personal behavior and information and communication systems that effect page popularity are complex. They may not be uniform across different circumstances. For example, the factors that govern the popularity of the least popular pages may be rather different than the factors that govern the popularity of the most popular pages.

Power laws and log-normal distributions are two-parameter distributions. The distributional form that best characterizes traffic to all pages may have many more than two parameters. Compared to a log-normal distributions and other distributions with more than two paramters, an approximating line has greater value for providing a simple, intuitive description of an important part of the popularity distribution.

Two website traffic distributions suggest that website traffic distributions may have flattened over the past decade. Traffic to Sun’s website pages in July, 1996, according to my calculation, had a descriptive log-log line with slope about -1.1. Traffic to useit.com pages in the summer of 2006 had a descriptive log-log line with slope about -0.8.* This difference may reflect differences between the two websites. It might also indicate flatteining over time in typical website traffic distributions. Such flattening was also a general pattern of change in name popularity distributions in the England (and the U.S.) from 1800 to the present.

Much more evidence of this sort might lead one to expect website traffic distributions, and perhaps other distributions for digital goods, to continue to flatten in the future. “More of the same” is a very crude sort of prediction. But absent any other relevant information, it might be the best that one can make.

Knowlege concerning the factors that have produced changes in popularity distributions could help to predict and shape future changes. Persons may have chosen less popular names in response to changes in patterns of work and residence that put persons closer together and more extensively and uniformly regulated their interactions. In short, personalization may have been a personal counter-reaction to factories and urbanization (the Industrial Revolution).

Suppose new information and communication technologies favor a more dispersed workforce, and family structure continues to shift toward more single persons and smaller households. My theory then predicts a decrease in personalization and an increased desire to associate with popular symbols.

Ummm, about all current trends indicate that either my theory is wrong, or that there are a lot of other, much more important factors. Does anyone have some better ideas?

* This is the slope measured in log-log coordinates, not in the coordinates of the axes’ labels. The intercept on a log(page traffic) axis typically varies greatly with total website traffic. Thus I prefer graphs that have a y-axis labeled with log(page traffic share in total website traffic). An approximating line has the same slope with either labeling for the Y axis.

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