A while back I wrote that Web 2.0, by putting the means of production into the hands of the masses but withholding from those same masses any ownership over the product of their work, provides an incredibly efficient mechanism to harvest the economic value of the free labor provided by the very many and concentrate it into the hands of the very few.
Richard MacManus’s new analysis of web traffic patterns helps illustrate the point. Despite the explosion of web content, spurred in large part by the reduction in the cost of producing and consuming that content, web traffic appears to be growing more concentrated in a few sites, not less. Using data from Compete, MacManus shows that the top ten sites accounted for 40% of total internet page views in November 2006, up from 31% in November 2001, a 29% increase. The greater concentration comes during a period when the number of domains on the web nearly doubled, from 2.9 million to 5.1 million.
Even if we grant that traffic numbers are unreliable and that page views are not the only way to measure traffic, the trend seems clear: A few big sites increasingly dominate the web.
On the surface of it, this might seem to contradict the long-tail, or power-law, theory. But it’s not so simple. As MacManus shows, the greater concentration of traffic can largely be explained by the popularity of two “social networking” sites, MySpace and Facebook, which together accounted for 17% of all page views in November 2006. Both MySpace and Facebook are made up of millions of “user profiles” created by their members. If we counted each profile as a separate site, which in a content sense it is, we would find no increase in the concentration of traffic, consistent with the long-tail theory.