The half-life of an online posting? 36 hours

This posting will self-destruct in 36 hours.

Well, it won’t actually vanish. But most of its audience will be gone by then — because, according to a new study, the lifespan of a news item on a website follows a power-law curve: The readership for a story is biggest in the first day and a half, decays rapidly, then flattens out into a long tail. That’s what Albert-László Barabási, the famous network-theory scientist, discovered when he observed the browsing behavior of 250,000 visitors to a Hungarian news site. As PhysicsWeb reports:

Barabasi’s team calculated the “half-life” of a news document, which corresponds to the period in which half of all visitors that eventually access it have visited. The researchers found that the overall half-life distribution follows a power law, which indicates that most news items have a very short lifetime, although a few continue to be accessed well beyond this period. The average half-life of a news item is just 36 hours, or one and a half days after it is released.

I can definitely attest that this is true, by looking at my own blog’s log files. Whenever I get tied up in work and can’t blog — as in the last two weeks — my readership drops quickly until it reaches a long-tail equilibrium, and stays there. Then when I start posting again it zips back upwards. So long as I post regularly, there’s always a large audience, because the rolling 36-hour periods for each posting overlap.

That funky graphic above has something to do with the study — I’m not 100% just what, but it looked pretty cool so I included it.

(Thanks to Morgan for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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