Saturday, December 08, 2007

The long tail of the popular list

A most e-mailed list is perhaps the best way to quickly find a site's most interesting, if not most relevant or important, stories. These pages tend to adopt a common, basic format: 20-25 articles, and maybe a brief summary of the contents. The Boston Globe's most e-mailed list is unique, however, because it shows the long tail at work, listing how many times each of over 800 articles has been "recommended," meaning sent by e-mail.  Most stories on the 24-hour list live on the long tail and have been sent by only one reader, while the current lead story has been sent 106 times. The list of articles sent over the last month is even more impressive, showing 15,000 sent stories, with, again, one send for the seeming majority (it's sort of hard to eyeball), and 1295 sends for the top article, "God in the dust."
In light of the usual purpose of these lists, the Globe may not have created a better tool for organizing the site's articles than lists that stick to 25 or 20 articles, but a longer list does shed light on the wide variety of readers' interests. The number of articles sent over 20 times in the last month is vast, and we wouldn't really know that judging from the standard most- lists. And there's little reason to believe that the Globe's readership is unusual in this regard, or that other sites don't reflect a similar distribution. They deserve credit for publishing more data and letting the reader decide, however, I doubt many readers care to see that x number of articles have been sent once or twice. 
I still prefer the simplicity and utility of a shorter list, but the Globe has done something different and fascinating by revealing this long tail data.