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July 17, 2006

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The Long Tail Book

You’re familiar with the basic idea: mass culture is diminishing, and niche culture is ascendant. You probably know the reasons behind it:

a) It’s becoming much cheaper and easier to produce stuff (books, music, movies), so there’s a lot more of it.
b) That stuff is becoming much cheaper and easier to distribute, so you can get it no matter where you are.
c) Filters like search engines and recommendation engines are making it much easier to find the best stuff.

And you probably know what all this means for business: there’s now significant money to be made in offering products that appeal to the few instead of the many.

And many of you already know that these ideas underpin a phenomenon that has been dubbed “the Long Tail” by Wired editor Chris Anderson. You may even, like me and Anil Dash, have been a subscriber to Anderson’s blog on the topic.

Now there’s a book. So what haven’t you heard about the Long Tail?

Well, for starters, if you are fuzzy on any of what I wrote above, the book’s as great a primer as you might expect on these topics. Chris Anderson digs into each of the three forces behind the long tail — democratized production, democratized distribution, and improved filters — traces their progress and illustrates their workings.

Where the book most outshines Anderson’s blog is in the eclectic stories he uses to outline his points. He diverts from familiar Long Tail stories like to describe, for example, Sears and Roebuck’s extraordinary “Wish Book,” published in 1897. A tale of the triumph of amateur astronomers in 1987 becomes an example of the power of peer production today.

You’ll notice both of those examples predate the Web. That’s because the subtle, clever premise that underpins Anderson’s book — the argument I think is best-expressed and most valuable in it — is that the Long Tail is absolutely nothing new. In fact, Anderson argues, it’s mass culture, the culture of hits and blockbusters, that’s the Johnny-come-lately.

With this premise, Anderson actually inverts the typical selling proposition for a book of this type. Usually, that proposition is “Check out my shiny new theory that’s going to make you the big bucks.” The shiny new theory on display in this book is not the Long Tail itself, but what Anderson calls “lockstep culture,” or what Michael Pollan might call “monoculture.”1 Here’s how Anderson describes it:

For the first time in history, it was a safe bet that not only had your neighbor read the same news you had in the paper this morning, and gleaned knowledge of the same music and movies, but that the same was true for people across the country. (pg. 28)
In The Long Tail’s second chapter, Anderson delves into the history of lockstep culture, showing why it was such a seductive idea, and how it rose to prominence so quickly (in the second half of the 20th Century).

I work for the newspaper industry, whose history can be read as a sort of fossil record of the rise and fall of mass culture. The number of daily newspapers in the US reached an all-time high in the middle of the 20th Century. Minneapolis, where I work, had three dailies of its own: the Star, the Journal, and the Tribune. As radio and television consolidated formerly niche, local audiences into one big national audience, newspapers echoed that pattern as well in city after city. Minneapolis’ three dailies became two, and finally shrank to one — the Star Tribune. At the same time, the ethnic press was diminishing in America, from a high of 1,323 papers in 1917 to a low of 698 papers in 1960.

This culture of consolidation was a new, rapid phenomenon that’s now in recession. Newspapers like the Star Tribune and Fresno Bee (where I worked before this) are re-fragmenting into a bevy of geotargeted local and ethnic papers, and special sections online. Lockstep culture has been the norm for as long as any of us have been around, so in the newspaper business we tend to treat this fragmentation as though it’s the novelty. The new new thing in journalism is appending exotic, techy prefixes to the word “local” — “hyperlocal,” “microlocal” — to describe this fragmentation. (I’m surprised nobody’s suggested “cyberlocal” or “nanolocal” yet.)

But the fact that shines through Anderson’s work is that this Stepfordization was the true imposition. It’s like we were all experiencing the same dream for a few decades, and we’re now waking up. All those years when they measured peak sewage usage at the Super Bowl halftime, wasn’t that crazy? “By 1954,” Anderson writes, “an astounding 74 percent of TV households were watching I Love Lucy every Sunday night.” What?!

This is not to say that mass culture is over. “Hits,” Anderson writes, “are here to stay.” But our long national nightmare of near-perfect societal homogeneity seems to be ending. At its best, The Long Tail shows us how a world where we all don’t like exactly the same stuff is actually a truer, better reflection of our nature, and teaches us how to manage the transition back to niche. Best of all, he reminds us of the many things we forgot about ourselves during our synchronized M*A*S*H-watching sessions. And if he seems a little techno-utopian about it all, I think that’s because he spends much of the book talking about the dystopia of the blockbuster regime.

Rest assured, much about the reemergence of niche is new, at least in degree. The Sears catalogue, astonishing as its variety might have been, still had nothing on the Internet. The shift from purely geographical niches to affinity niches unfettered by geography is having a profound effect. And Anderson takes us through all of that as well.

Where he doesn’t take us is behind the scenes of the corporate world, where consolidation and M&A are increasingly the rule of the day. John Cassidy calls this a blind spot, but I’d say it’s beyond the scope of the book. And as for Cassidy’s chief complaint — that what Anderson’s talking about isn’t all that new or original — well, I think that’s the best part.

1 These two things are not exactly synonymous, but I think the meanings are complementary.
nota bene: I got a review copy of the book for free by responding to Anderson’s call for blogger-reviewers. So I might just be shilling for him; hard to say. :)

Posted July 17, 2006 at 12:04 | Comments (3) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Media Galaxy


I think you're right to zero in on the de-lockstep-ification (whoah) of culture as one of the most interesting & positive dynamics here. It's kinda like we used to talk about re: American government... if we could find ways for the output to more fully and realistically represent the input (the people), and avoid some of the crazy distortions imposed by the limitations of the system, we might be better off. Or at least: We might understand our real problems better.

Hold on a second -- I think something's been glossed over here. Not to get all Hegelian up in Snarkmarket's mug, but just because "long tail" culture isn't mass culture doesn't mean it's identical to the nonhomogenous culture preceding mass culture. The "culture industry" isn't negated, but cancelled and preserved at the same time.

Let me back up. That phrase, "the culture industry", got coined by two Marxist theorists, Adorno and Horkheimer, in their _Dialectic of Enlightenment_. The premise is that everything that starts out great and wonderful about modernity -- freedom, liberal democracy, a sense of universal humanity -- gets turned into oppressive forces by capitalism, its power structure, and especially by the homogeneity of mass culture.

The problem is that the personalization of that culture industry isn't necessarily better -- in fact, you could argue that it really constitutes a tightening of controlling forces, and a greater encroachment on whatever space of freedom we have left. Say what you will about mass culture -- there was at least a utopian dimension to it, a real sense of universal human nature: things that were good, were good for all. (I'm thinking of Malcolm Gladwell's great article on ketchup.)

On the other hand, there's nothing really personal at all about 95% of "personalized" culture. Take Amazon -- essentially what it's saying is that my personhood is best expressed (if not constituted) by a set of purchases. That's who I am as a reader -- the books I've bought on Amazon. Now, I know you could create a "better" algorithm, taking into account other purchases, library books I've read, my ratings of books I've bought or otherwise own, etc... but still, really, there isn't anything personal about it, at least in the small-town, "know your butcher" sense.

I guess what I'm saying is that nothing that is happening now is a recreation or return to anything. Even my corner cooperative grocery store is a brand new phenomenon -- if it weren't for its computer system and savvy networking with local, regional, and national suppliers, it would be if only because it's in competition with a different kind of store entirely. A world with eighteen varieties of peanut butter or pasta sauce isn't the same as a world where you made your own if you had it at all. And in one sense, that's a fine and good thing, and in another, it's absolutely necessary.

The bigger point is that in my opinion, there is in fact something profoundly new about all of this; that this something is really a separate and probably larger phenomenon than the internet is a sign that this something may be bigger than we think; and that we need to think hard, critically, and clearly if we want to understand what is happening to us. This is even more difficult because what seems to be happening to us is that we are, all of us, changing how we think and feel about ourselves.

I see your point, Tim, and did not mean to imply a sort of conservative 'ah yes, back to the golden age' vision for the long tail. The prefix 'de' is sort've misleading; really this is all additive, not subtractive.

One big difference that the corner-store analogy implies is geography. As Anderson mentions in the book, easy distribution -- whether digital or via cheap UPS -- is a big part of this revolution. You've got it exactly right with the co-op which is simultaneously very local and entirely national or global.

However I feel entirely comfortable saying this new thing is BETTER than either of those preceding models -- nonhomogenous local culture strongly limited by scarce tools/skills and geography, or mono-blockbuster culture strongly limited by cost and distribution monopolies.

If you ask me, Amazon is a red herring. Yes, it's a big company successfully monetizing the long tail. But honestly the REAL long tail extends out far beyond even Amazon's huge warehouses, deep into the weirdness of the web. And in those reaches we find not the oppressive "culture industry" but real culture itself.

But anyway, I digress; you'll find no disagreement here that this is all-new.

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