The Long Tail of Skeptical Web Sites

Two new skeptical websites have drawn a great deal of attention recently. One is skepticblog and the other is Stop Jenny McCarthy.

Skepticblog is a new group blog by the cast and crew of the upcoming skeptical television program The Skeptologists. It sure seems to have a lot going for it. It has a snazzy graphic design. It has several nationally known skeptics like Michael Shermer, Phil Plait and Steven Novella. The first crop of articles covers such varied skeptical topics as UFO’s, Sylvia Browne, Kevin Trudeau and one of my favorites, internet misinformation.

Stop Jenny McCarthy is a new informational site from the mold of Stop Kaz and Stop Sylvia Browne. The idea is to focus tightly on the specific claims being made by one person, and show how and why they are incorrect. This site is much smaller and is done in a much simpler visual style. As of now it only has a handful of pages.

I found it interesting that these two sites were launched in the same month.

There are many skeptics who wonder how they can contribute to the movement. Until this year, I was one of them. I talk to others regularly at skeptic gatherings.

The internet is an excellent avenue to focus this energy. Setting up a web site is an inexpensive and easy way you can impact a huge number of people. Indeed, you can have a world-wide audience that you can reach 24/7, for free plus a committment of your own time. So, once you’ve decided to build a web site, now what?

In recent months I’ve seen many skeptics go the route of skepticblog and simply set up their own skeptical blog. They then begin writing about the whole gamut of skeptical topics. After all, why limit yourself to one area? Skepticism is a wide and varied field and there is a great deal of ground to cover. By leaving it open-ended you ensure you will never have a lack of topics.

If you are thinking of doing this yourself, I think you are making a huge mistake.

I strongly believe that we as skeptics should be looking to set up more sites like Stop Jenny McCarthy and fewer general-purpose sites or blogs. In fact, I think we are missing the boat on many skeptical topics by not having more specialized sites. To explain why, I have to talk about the long tail.

The Long Tail

The long tail is a concept put forward by Chris Anderson in an article in Wired Magazine in 2004. He noted that traditional businesses often had to focus on mass market products that have wide appeal due to the overhead costs of bringing those products to market. On the other hand, the new breed of internet retailers like Amazon and Netflix were able to have considerable success selling much more niche products. This is possible in part because direct internet retail has removed overhead and other costs that hampered the earlier retailers.

The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

The long tail is a manifestation of what many of us know as the “80/20 rule” (or Pareto principle). Basically it says that 80% of the effects in complex systems are the result of only 20% of the causes. This rule of thumb manifests in many ways. In retailing, it says that most of your sales and profit are going to come from those 20% of items that everyone needs. Conversely, the other 80% of the products are only going to produce a marginal amount of revenue, and so deserve less of your attention. In the movie industry, it explains why we seem to get constant barrage of blockbuster action films and fewer small niche films. There are many other examples.

In skepticism we see this principle in the topics that skeptics tend to focus on. Think about any general-purpose skeptical website or podcast that you follow. Let me use my psychic powers here. Without knowing which one you are thinking of, I will predict that at least three of the following topics were mentioned in recent articles or episodes: homeopathy, psychics, bigfoot, UFOs, acupuncture, Scientology, the “9/11 truth movement”, dowsing, vaccines vs. autism and the meaning of a recent scientific study.

How did I do?

The key point of the long tail is not that it is a problem, but rather that it represents an opportunity. Established players in a given field are often forced to focus their efforts on the 20% at the top for various reasons. Newer entrants (e.g. Amazon, Netflix) can avoid the trouble of direct head-to-head competition with established players (e.g. Borders, Blockbuster) by instead focusing on the 80% of the long tail.

We as skeptics need to learn from this. Right now, we are duplicating much effort. We are spending a great deal of time focusing on the 20% of topics, and the other 80% are hardly getting any attention at all. We need more skeptics to focus on that long tail, those lesser known topics. We need web sites that will fill in the long tail of skepticism.

You might disagree. After all, homeopathy is a multi-billion dollar industry world wide. Does it not deserve a great deal of attention? Sure, your article on homeopathy might be one of a thousand such skeptical articles, but isn’t it a necessary additional shot fired in a long war? To explain why this is a bad way to think of it, lets look at another application of the long tail.

The long tail of attention

Another area we see an 80/20 or power law pattern is in the focus of people’s attention. In blogs in particular, the vast majority of traffic is going to go to a very small number of sites. Clay Shirky wrote an excellent essay about this phenomenon called Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality. He points out that it is inevitable that there are going to be a handful of “stars” in the blogging world, and then the rest of us. Most of us live in the long tail.

Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky

Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky

To put this very bluntly, your skeptic blog is never going to be as popular as Phil Plait’s.

Phil has got more than a decade head start on you. To catch up, you are going to have to blog every single day for a very long time. You will have to promote your site relentlessly using Twitter, Myspace, Facebook and so on. You will need to attend (and speak at) as many skeptical events as possible. Are you up to the task? Most people aren’t.

And remember that the people you are targeting to read your blog are probably going to want to read Phil’s and Shermer’s and Novella’s as well. At some point the limited amount of time in their schedule for reading blogs is going to be used up. Can you muscle your way into that crowd?

Mega-bloggers like Plait or Novella aside, there’s the related problem of getting your content noticed in the first place. The standard way to do this is through search engines like Google. This is particularly good for reaching non-skeptical audiences who might be swayed by your brilliant arguments and data.

But take a look at what kind of hits you get for “homeopathy” or “acupuncture” or “UFO“. A majority of the hits are established misinformation sites, and very few skeptical sites make it into the top results. Do you really think you have what it takes to muscle your content up to the top of that heap? Are you an expert in search engine optimization?

Now maybe you really are an expert in one of these 20% topics like homeopathy, and you really can bring something new to the table. If so, more power to you. But if you are a general skeptic casting about for an idea for a site, I think you should strongly consider looking in the long tail for your niche.

Finding your niche in the long tail

Let me clarify here that I am not disagreeing here with Daniel Loxton’s now famous essay “Where Do We Go From Here?” (PDF link). I agree with him that there is plenty of material to go around for skeptics inside the classic skeptical topic areas of alternative medicine, the paranormal, cryptozoology and so on.

What I am saying is there are topics squarely in these realms which don’t get nearly the attention that they deserve from skeptics. And when these topics pop up periodically, either due to a mainstream news article or a person asking a question of a skeptic, the resources available within skepticism are sometimes less than adequate. Sometimes they’re spread out across several web sites. Often they don’t cover the specific detail that is being brought up.

I make it a habit to scan the General Skepticism and the Paranormal section of the JREF forum regularly. When I see an unanswered question, I use a custom search engine to scan hundreds of skeptical websites for information on that topic. Very often I find that that very thread on JREF is the top ranking or only mention of that topic in the skeptisphere. Or if there is good information on the topic, its scattered across several sites and therefore not easy to present to someone you are trying to convince.

We need to fix this. We need to make sure that there are good, focused, clear and very detailed information resources on the web for each and every topic in skepticism. We need to fill in the tail.

So what are some of the opportunities in the long tail?

Reorganizing existing information

In many cases the information is out there, but it is scattered across various sites or is in a format that is not as usable as it could be. This is really all I did when I created What’s The Harm earlier this year: gather a bunch of information that was already out there, and put it in one place. The site has been almost universally well-received by skeptics, and I get several new links to it every week. It is clear that people find the site useful. And yet on some level all I did was move some information around.

I can think of several other ways skeptical information could be reorganized to provide something useful to the community:

Who’s Who in Woo-Woo: How about a site that simply catalogued all of the living people who are active in promoting those things that skeptics oppose, and listed their websites, latest activities, contact information and so on? Who are the top homeopaths working today? Who are the top earning psychics? Are there any active faith healers in Wales? These are useful questions that deserve good answers.

Paranormal Event Calendar: The skepchicks maintain an excellent event calendar for skeptical events in Google Calendar. How about a similar event calendar for paranormal, alt-medical or other events? These are highly interesting to skeptics who want to learn about “the enemy”. These events are publicly promoted, so the information is out there. Why not gather it one place?

Local Skepticism: How about collecting a catalog of all the practitioners or businesses that engage in questionable practices or sell dubious products in your own geographic area? This could give your local skeptic group a renewed focus on local skeptical activism.

Skeptic Wiki: Maybe you don’t have the time or inclination to build your own site. How about helping out with the editing of an existing site? Skeptic Wiki could use your help in documenting what skepticism is all about.

Topics

There are considerable advantages to creating topic-specific sites. Putting the topic name in the site title and the URL helps your search engine placement immensely. Having the entire site cover one topic keeps it focused, and helps a person visiting find the information they need without getting distracted. There are hundreds of topics in skepticism that could merit their own web sites.

Consider the thinly disguised dowsing rod called SniffEx, which James Randi often decried in his SWIFT newsletter. You might have read about this device in SWIFT and quickly forgotten about it. But some skeptics went to the trouble to create two different (free) blogspot blogs, Sniffex Questions and Sniffex Test, which document all the problems with this fraudulent device, and even show it being double-blind tested. Because of the laser-like focus of these two sites, they rank quite highly in Google searches for Sniffex, and therefore are easily seen by anyone interested in the device, especially non-skeptics.

The nice thing about narrowly focused sites like this is that once the initial effort has been expended, they can be considered “set and forget.” The information is still valid years later, even if the site has not been updated. If Sniffex makes a resurgence, those sites are waiting to be found by potential customers. And since they are hosted for free on a service like blogspot, they will stay out there educating the public as long as Google continues to maintain that service.

Another good example is a new site designed to skeptically analyze the TV show Paranormal State. Television programs are widely available, but skeptical content not nearly as much. The web is an excellent way to combat the nonsense being pushed via these programs, and a program provides a nice finite universe of topics to cover (there are only so many episodes). Why not pick one of the other shows and take it apart?

There are hundreds of other topics that might merit a purpose-built web site to exhaustively cover the topic, where none exists already. These include but are not limited to ear candling, gerson, hoxsey or ozone therapy, orgonomy and so on. Just cruise around Skeptic Wiki or The Skeptic’s Dictionary and find something that either interests you or which relates to your own personal expertise.

People

There are a large number of people who actively promote ideas or products which we skeptics oppose. As Stop Sylvia Browne has amply shown, directly targeting the person can be an effective strategy, although it does have some potential legal pitfalls. As long as that person is still active, there will be a need for information which counteracts their message.

We mentioned Jenny McCarthy, Sylvia Browne and Dr. Kaz deMille Jacobsen earlier. There are also efforts underway to create sites for John Edward, Benny Hinn, Peter Popoff, and Kevin Trudeau. But there are hundreds of other such individuals out there. Does one of them really stick in your craw? Hire a lawyer, register a domain name and document where they are wrong.

Summary

There are many opportunities for skeptics to create really valuable web sites. But don’t fall into the trap of creating just another skeptical blog. The biggest topics in skepticism are well covered by the “stars” of the skeptical movement and existing websites. But if you look a little farther afield, there are hundreds of possible topics living out in the “long tail” of skepticism. I encourage you to pick one, build a site, and be the owner of that part of the long tail.

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11 thoughts on “The Long Tail of Skeptical Web Sites

  1. paulsjenkins

    Tim,

    Don’t forget that not everyone blogs for the same reason. While your comprehensive advice will be extremely useful for would-be skeptical bloggers looking for somewhere to focus their literary talents, there are people who use blogging more as self-expression, and who may not be concerned about numbers of readers or page-rank. They just want to write about what they want to write about.

    Such an attitude may be considered to a degree solipsistic, but not everyone is desperate to have their voice heard. Also, though such an attitude may not actually be of much use in the endeavour to promote rational thinking, I don’t think it’s of no value at all. You could argue that such a blogger might be better off jotting down ideas in a notebook, and that having these personal writings accessible on the web is irrelevant. I’d say that the issue probably isn’t clear cut, and that blogging can be a useful discipline in itself.

    And who knows – it may take a while for a blogger to find a particular niche. Perhaps after many posts on a variety of subjects one area of focus becomes predominant, at which point he or she may be in a better position to make a difference.

  2. Tim Farley Post author

    Perfectly valid of course. To clarify, I’m definitely not saying there is no value in general-purpose blogging. (I personally subscribed to skepticblog immediately when I found out about it).

    What I’m saying is there is a huge opportunity to create niche sites like Stop Jenny and What’s The Harm. These sites have great value which is different than that of a blog. Not better, just different.

    We need more skeptics to jump in and create these sites. So I’m suggesting that skeptics looking for something to do consider this course.

  3. reede

    Thanks for beating the drum on this, Tim.

    We have to make it clear that to get involved doesn’t mean that you have to do what everyone else is doing, or that you have to be an ‘activist.’ Rather it’s about finding your own niche where you can have an impact in a way that fits your interests and the constraints of your life. The value not only lends weight to your identity as a skeptic and gains you the respect of your peers — in aggregate it can add up to provide value to us all.

    I’d add the one big long-tail web opportunity that you missed: to be a watchdog on pages at Wikipedia that are of interest to skepticism and vulnerable to the encroachment of woo, unsourced statements and uncritical thinking.

  4. mjr256

    Thanks for the shout out, Tim, and for the awesome article, particularly the great ideas here in the “reorganizing existing information” section. As I recently posted in a comment on another skeptical blog:

    “Another useful tool I think is for more skeptics to follow the Robert Lancaster “Stop Sylvia Browne” model and create websites devoted to just one target in the world of woo woo. Obviously Randi’s been THE GUY when it comes to Uri Geller. Lancaster has dibs on Sylvia Browne. Mark Roberts is at least the go-to guy for debunking 9/11 conspiracy theories. Steve Novella’s got a great feud going with David Kirby. Orac’s constantly debating Jay Gordon in the comments section of Orac’s blog. Kylie Sturgess, another skeptic, and I have just started stopjenny.com to address Jenny McCarthy’s claims. If every skeptical activist were in addition to promoting general skepticism focus on one particular target, I think it would at least be beneficial.”

    But in that last sentence I did write “in addition,” as I’m partially in agreement with paulsjenkins above. Ideally, skeptical activists would choose a specific target for a website AND additionally have a more generalized skeptical blog, not just to compete for the attention of the proverbial choir but get the attention of those who are on the fence or haven’t really thought about these things before. The more visible we are and more these issues are out there in cyberspace, the better.

    Keep up the great work,

    -Michael
    http://www.stopjenny.com
    http://www.skepacabra.wordpress.com

    PS: Great suggestion Reede.

  5. Tim Farley Post author

    The idea of staying active in general skepticism but using that experience to inform your choice of specialization is very important. In my case keeping up to date helps me know good categories to research for What’s The Harm. Thank you for pointing that out.

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  10. Mick

    Excellent article. I was just thinking about this very topic today. I’ve got just such a narrowly focused site (contrailscience.com) and it does very well as the go-to site for Chemtrail debunking.

    Had I spread my debunking efforts on just general debunking, it would have diluted it to the point where the net effect would have been very small.

    Another point about becoming the go-to site for a niche topic is that niche topics tend to pop up in the mainstream every so often, and the media then wants to find an “expert” on the topic. Contrail Science languished in obscurity for three years, and then suddenly there was a “mystery missile” contrail story that went national, and I ended up explaining it on CBS News and CNN.

    Besides the “Long Tail”, something to consider is the “cognitive surplus”. Modern people have a lot of spare time, frequently used up by something like watching TV, but which can also be put to good use if an appropriate outlet exists. Wikipedia is the product of the cognitive surplus. The skeptic community also has a vast cognitive surplus, much of which is put to good use, but a vast amount of which is spent re-hashing the same arguments over and over by focussing on the “top-ten” topics, like 9/11 and homeopathy.

    As a computer programmer, I see this as highly unoptimized, but with great opportunities for optimization by having individuals focus on particular topics to produce these go-to sites. I think there is room for some meta-efforts to actually organize and direct the cognitive surplus for the greater scientific good.

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