Monday, August 21, 2006

The long tail

Chris Anderson, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More: Full disclosure – I got a copy of the book free by promising to review it.

Anderson is responsible for a meme that's gone way too far, the long tail of niche markets. If you read the original Wired article, you probably know most of what this book covers about using cheap storage and transmission to deliver specialized content to audiences who share some blockbuster tastes but also want their own idiosyncratically customized music, etc. collections. Note the subtitle, which is important to the focus of the book’s argument: There's gold in that thar Long Tail, Anderson argues, a vast untapped potential for making money, the way Netflix and iTunes are doing.

My natural inclination is to think of media fandom as a long tail, providing exactly the customized versions of Superman and Lex Luthor that I want to see. Anderson only mentions in passing the problems of intellectual property that arise when lots of new people start making stuff, often out of bits and pieces of preexisting stuff. He sees copyright as a licensing barrier that will be overcome by smart businesses in order to provide us all with the contents of the celestial jukebox, but that’s probably not true for things like fan fiction and fan videos. Copyright owners are more likely to license pure reproduction cheaply than to license the right to create new works. Fan fiction, art and videos can be perceived as threatening to the brand even if the copyright remains strong. Moreover, although Anderson is aware that lots of the new content is noncommercial, he assumes that his audience wants to monetize that, either by serving as an intermediary to link producers with consumers or by licensing their own content. Thus, he doesn’t necessarily have much reassuring to say to those out on the long unauthorized, noncommercial tail.

Anderson can be sloppy in matching cause and effect in his enthusiasm for finding long tails everywhere and simultaneously insisting that they’re tailiest on the internet. He discusses a well-known study about the effect of variety on consumers’ choices and satisfaction with their ultimate selection, a study that’s considered in more detail in The Paradox of Choice (excerpt; is it tragic irony or poetic justice that the 8th Google result for “paradox of choice” was a video lecture by the author on Google Video?). Basically, researchers offered jam samples and coupons at a specialty food store, either with six unusual flavors or twenty-four unusual flavors. Sixty percent of shoppers stopped to taste at the larger display, and only forty percent at the smaller. But wait! Thirty percent of shoppers who sampled one of six bought a jar, while only three percent bought from the one of twenty-four array. On the internet, this paradox of choice turns into the “tower of Babel” objection that choice overwhelms and confuses us.

Anderson points out that sorting and filtering mechanisms are a good fix, but he often speaks as if their use has to be online, where you can get recommendations and reviews. To him, the “problem on the supermarket shelf” is that jam just sits there, categorized by the retailer and mute about its characteristics other than those the producer puts on the label. But a page before knocking the supermarket shelf, he noted that his own supermarket carries more than 300 varieties of jam. Something other than user reviews and filtering is producing that, probably including most shoppers’ ability to ignore exotic jams unless they have a specific desire to try one. Maybe retailers are irrational, but maybe they benefit from 300 jam varieties even if jam producers don’t, as long as the variety drives consumers to the store (see the 60% versus 40% result above) where they can be convinced to buy other things, as Eric Goldman is investigating. Anderson doesn’t try to explain how his supermarket grew a long tail.

Still, the meme is incredibly productive: There’s a long tail even in media fandom. The Yuletide Rare Fandoms challenge is an instance of the long tail, where decreased costs of communicating and coordinating mean that fandom now tries to provide a story that only one person might want to read for each person who participates. And the thing about the Long Tail is you get moved down it by also having (relatively) popular tastes – if you weren't in media fandom in some way already, you likely wouldn't know about Yuletide. The new information economy is one in which people’s top choices are shared but our overall preferences are unique. We help each other find customized mixes by recommending and rating items we have in common.

An important implication is that if you’re trawling through a general category of content, whether it’s movies or even action movies, more of what you see may be not your thing, because there is so much variety. The promise of the long tail is that, when you do find your thing, it will be much closer to your heart than the best you could have done in a world with less variety. But people are complex and consumption is always relative, so the path to realizing that promise may be a difficult one.

Anderson doesn’t engage with issues of positional consumption or the sense of loss that this fragmentation really does engender (even though I agree it’s a good thing overall). He’s a bright but not a deep thinker, as indicated by this entry on his blog, where he misunderstands what Andrew Keen says about how Anderson's predestination theory of technological development is like Marxism as an accusation that Anderson is a "commie or a hippie." Though Keen is a conservative for whom an analogy to Marxism is equivalent to a knockout blow, he's not redbaiting. He's arguing that Anderson's faith in a market shaped by lots of individual, unguided, unedited choices shares the same excessive faith in human nature that was supposed to produce communist utopia. Anderson does cite Marx for the idea that everyone should be able to produce what they want without being locked into an identity – I can herd sheep in the morning and paint pictures at night without being a “shepherd” or a “painter.” Anderson, like Marx, has faith that people with the resources and leisure to create will do so even without monetary rewards.

NB: I'm a lot closer to Anderson than Keen in most of my biases. I also have faith in the creative impulse independent of market incentives. Keen is prone to anti-intellectualism, as when he complains that Henry Jenkins and Yochai Benkler write incomprehensible prose because he – who isn't in either of their fields – doesn't understand it. I found the quoted paragraph of Jenkins perfectly comprehensible. And while I won't claim that Benkler is easy to read, The Wealth of Networks is a major synthesis of thought on law and the information society. It is particularly silly for Keen, who attacks the fragmentation of knowledge and touts the value of sustained in-depth thinking found in books, to criticize a book because he can't understand the title of the next-to-last chapter. He didn't make it 50 pages into the near-500-page work of social theory. That's like saying a college-level anatomy text is bad because, hey, I have a body so I ought to understand the next-to-last chapter as soon as I crack it open. Anyway, given that intellectuals like Benkler are prime examples of people who create for nonmarket reasons, it’s probably not surprising that Keen doesn’t like them much.

Keen is right that Anderson is a booster rather than a theorist. The Long Tail is a book of examples and not a theoretically sophisticated argument about technological determinism. If you want an assessment of the likelihood of transformation of the market given technical possibilities versus legal constraints, read Benkler's book, particularly Chapters 11 & 12. (Benkler also does a careful job on the “paradox of choice” objection discussed above.)

The long tail idea does not claim that everyone has something interesting to say, for blockbuster values of "interesting." Everyone has something interesting to say to her friends and family – I'd happily listen to my dad's thoughts on Veronica Mars even though they're not unique and I wouldn't be interested in the same thoughts from a stranger. Long tail technologies like Livejournal and Blogger allow everyone to be famous to 15 people. Peer production doesn't mean that professionally produced content will disappear or even lose its grip on top-ten lists. It means that lots of people will share some favorites but their fifth, sixth, etc. choices will differ wildly. Individual amateurs are not generally that important; amateurs together are significant.

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