Mark Bernstein, of Eastgate software and the powerful and intriguing Tinderbox program, was a guest-blogger here earlier this year. Last week, at the Web Science '11 conference in Koblenz, Germany, he made a presentation about the way the modern Web of internet-based knowledge could still fail.
By "fail" he means that we could see an end to the famous "long tail" pattern of net activity (and many other modern phenomena). According to long-tail principles, a few very popular sites will get a huge share of traffic or customers -- but then a very large number of minor entrants will each find the appropriate niche audience. Think of all the books on sale at Amazon or B&N, all the movies carried by Netflix, all the web sites around the world that don't get large audiences but find some people who are interested.
The point of Bernstein's presentation is that prevailing habits of creating links can make all the difference in the viability of the Web-based knowledge. If links are done the right way, he says, the long tail will indeed prevail and a wide variety of info will continue to find its proper audience. But if they are done the wrong way, the natural result could over time be a winner-take-all pattern, like what we've seen in other parts of life. A few main sites will receive even huger amounts of traffic; the vast majority of sites will get no traffic whatsoever and become invisible, as if they didn't exist at all.