bootstrapping tlön: the internet's underlying insanity

previously: tlön, uqbar, orbis internetius

everyone knows that social media like twitter is full of deranged people, but why is it like that? let's first consider the following: what is the most normal thing to do on the internet? how do most people use the internet? the obvious, if somewhat unintuitive answer: they don’t post, they don’t comment, they don’t react, they barely even interact. no, they only view, watch, observe; they lurk. it’s extremely easy to forget because they are nearly invisible, but by far the largest proportion of internet users are merely lurkers, their phantom existence revealed only through view counters. most don’t even do so much as hit the like button, the bare minimum of interaction. take for example on youtube, a random video i found recommended on the front page: 3.2 million views, 60k likes (1.875% of views), 1500 comments (0.047% of views). the recently-added view count feature on twitter is also very revealing, looking at a tweet about some recent news from an account with almost a million followers: 950k views, 9.5k likes (1% of views), 2k retweets (0.2% of views), 426 replies (0.045% of views). now imagine what miniscule proportion must be responsible for creating the original content (the youtube videos, the tweets) in the first place.

this is not a new phenomenon; in fact it’s been observed in online communities like forums since the early days of the internet. some have called it the “1% rule”, proposing that only 1% of an online community’s users create new content, while the remaining 99% simply lurk. the techno-utopian vision of all people being able to contribute to the internet has largely been accomplished, but for whatever reason, most simply choose not to. the actual contributors and power users are a tiny minority, the odd ones online, leading to a dynamic where all the most visible content is created and curated by a small group of outliers. the internet has been entrusted to a self-appointed cohort of prolific posters and power mods, and everyone else is content to consume. for better or worse, they are the rider steering the elephant. is it wise to leave it all up them? just who are these prolific posters? one hopes that the only weird thing about them is that they post on the internet instead of lurking like everyone else...

a long time ago, i was linked to a reddit post that addressed this question. the title was “Most of What You Read on the Internet is Written by Insane People”but not my essays haha... right?. uh oh. looking at the usage statistics for several websites like wikipedia and amazon, the OP concludes that internet contributions follow a “power law” distribution. probably the most well-known example of a power law distribution is the “80-20 rule”, also known as the “pareto principle” or “the law of the vital few”: 80% of the outcomes are from 20% of the causes (example: 80% of posts come from just 20% of the users). the fascinating thing about power laws is that they scale using the same proportion. what this means is that within that top 20% responsible for 80%, the top 20% of that 20% will be responsible for 80% of that 80%. equivalently: 4% of the total causes are responsible for 64% of the total outcomes, and if you go one more step, 0.8% are responsible for 51.2%.

the numbers above are already getting pretty extreme, just using the basic 80/20 pareto distribution. but as we’ve seen, the contribution distributions in internet communities are likely even more heavily skewed. cited in the reddit post: “Wikipedia's most active 1,000 people — 0.003% of its users — contribute about two-thirds of the site's edits.” a relatively recently pew study i found online says that 10% of twitter users are responsible for 92% of tweets. if we extrapolate as though it's a power law, this implies that 1% of twitter users make 84% of total tweets, 0.1% make 77.28%, and so on. even among the outliers who contribute to internet communities, there are even more extreme outliers who dominate the total contributions.

these absolute top power users, the most prolific of the most prolific, the ones who are singlehandedly responsible for a not-insignificant proportion of all content on a website, on the internet, don’t they seem like they almost certainly post TOO much, to the point where it’s probably... all they do all day every day? is this normal? certainly that seems a bit insane, and definitely concerning when you realize that it’s THEIR content everyone going online is seeing... the original reddit post concludes: “If you consume any content on the Internet, you're mostly consuming content created by people who for some reason spend most of their time and energy creating content on the Internet. And those people clearly differ from the general population in important ways.” are these people orbis internetius, the first tlönists, compiling the encyclopedia of tlön online?