FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Downside of the Long Tail

The "long tail" phenomenon has received renewed interest in part because Chris Anderson, who coined the term, has recently published a book on the topic, arguing that the long tail helps niche markets. However, Jonathan Rowe offers a contrarian view, suggesting that the long tail is not the free-market panacea that Anderson claims:

Anderson contends that this means the gradual demise of the blockbuster. There will be more niches, and less mass on top. But as John Cassady points out in the current New Yorker, it more likely means the demise of the middle -- that is, the items that sold pretty well but not extraordinarily so. “A long-tail world doesn’t threaten the whales o\r the minnows,” he writes. “It threatens those who cater to the neglected middle.”

I wonder if it’s a total coincidence that what’s happening to merchandising on the Web is happening to peoples’ fortunes in the society at large. Is there a connection between a world in which the mechanisms of selling tend to drive out the middle, and one in which the very rich get richer while the middle morphs into a long tail at the bottom?...

[W]hat happens to a community when every member has his or her head up their own little niche? One of the advantages of the old model – or paradigm, or whatever -- was that we sometimes had to listen to things we didn’t entirely agree with, or like. We had to moderate our annoyance and leave room in our psyches for someone else’s views.

Now people can crawl into their cocoons and spend their lives nursing their outrage at people who don’t think exactly as they do. Cf the political arena today. Isn’t "polarized" just another word for "niche-ized"? There’s something to be said for not always having exactly what we want...

Is the long tail also a long maw that reaches into this non-market realm and cannibalizes it? You could make a case. A story in the New York Times a few days ago dipped into the world of male college students who spend 4-6 hours a day playing video games, with a corresponding deficit in social skills. The long tail, Anderson writes, reflects new technology that can “tap the distributed intelligence of millions of consumers to match people with the stuff that suits them best.”

Intelligence? That’s market orthodoxy with a techno-futurist spin. Everything we do as consumers is a "market choice", and therefore by definition intelligent and good. There’s another possibility, which is that the market can be as dumb as we humans who comprise it; and therefore technology that provides greater range for market selections also provides greater range for this dumbness as well.

Source: OnTheCommons.org