The Long Tail: Inspiration and Context…

Developing my ideas about the missing piece of The Long Tail theory has taken a surprising turn, as a rather hopeful email to Chris Anderson, The Long Tail author and Wired Editor-in-Chief was met by a prompt and thoughtful email helping me to crystalise some of my ideas… Just goes to show that the connectivity of the internet is more than theory – it’s reality. And also helping are my constant discussions, disagreements and challenges to blog chum Dave Cushman from Faster Future

As I said previously, Chris does a superb job of reminding readers that the new culture of niche interests in the internet-accessible long tail does not mean the end for big entertainment companies producing hits aimed squarely at the short tail. But the justification for this is left implicit, understandably, as it’s the Long Tail which is the radical new idea. Just a shame then, that a surprising amount of people manage to completely miss the point and go straight to proclaiming all mass media dead.

But there are reasons for these big companies to survive, as they transform into agents of the new prosumer, rather than content creators.

A step towards furthering The Long Tail

As I said previously, the excellent Long Tail theory implies how major media companies will continue to co-exist with the long tail of prosumers, but doesn’t justify their continued existence.

That posed me with enough of a problem to email the author (and Wired Editor-in-Chief) Chris Anderson, who inspired me to continue with a thoughtful response. And to discuss the concept further with fellow blogger Dave Cushman from Faster Future.

Although I see major media companies forced to adapt to become agents for content creators, rather than creators themselves, there are some good reasons why we need these big players to continue, rather than fading away, or choosing to plug-in unpaid user generated content rather than backing artists with significant funding.

One major reason is Context. As much as we want increasingly more personal relevance from our niche entertainment, we still want to be indentifiable to larger groups. Tagging yourself with your favourite films on a site like Facebook is an art in itself, as you move between common signposts (Star Wars, Titanic, etc), and more obscure arthouse or indie movies. As much as the watercooler discussions about the latest hits have diminished, they’ve migrated to online debates on forums and message boards, and the cult of celebrity is as strong as ever.

Much of the current crop of user generated content is also based upon these reference points, whether it’s a mash-up of famous films (my favourite, here), a parody, or fan fiction based upon these titles. It can be much easier to gain popularity for an unknown prosumer by referencing these common cultural signposts than to begin with totally original material. How many film fans wouldn’t recognise the sound of a lightsaber being drawn in Star Wars?

Another main reason is Inspiration. Whilst the likes of Speilberg, Lucas, Cameron or Kubrick made interesting student films and could doubtless do wonders with the technology available to home users at the moment, there are still differences in what becomes available when you have several million or more to spend. And while OK Go can inspire a certain time of fan film for Youtube, there are doubtless many amateur filmmakers who aspire to making Schindlers List, or 2001.

The final of the trio of reasons in Financial Aspiration, often sidestepped in studies which proclaim prosumers just do it for the love of it and the recognition.
Many people do co-create and share to exchange knowledge and ideas, and to simply get their voice out there. Any audience they receive is valued and appreciated, and they fit their creative sides around their day jobs.

But that isn’t the total picture. Many amateur musicians, film makers and writers would give various body parts to ‘make it’ in ever bigger arenas. Partly for financial reward, and partly because, if you strive to do something better, it takes more time and effort. And the demands of a 9-5 job might not stop you from achieving your dream, but they complicate it immensely. Lauded indie directors such as Kevin Smith and Richard Linklater made their names with tiny budgets but certainly didn’t hide from major studios when they got the chance. Partly the old methods of film distribution made it a neccessity, but partly it meant they could get paid, use studio lots, and get access to a whole world of professional film casts and employees.

Writing, making music, or making movies isn’t easy. There are those who are naturally talented, and there are more resources than ever online to help guide aspiring talent. But in order to reach a reasonable level of quality takes time and practice, especially to hit that level consistently. If hopeful artists can’t aspire to paid employment then there is no opportunity for university, for example, which gives many people the time and space to find their voice, or for any further training, without indulgent and wealthy parents.

Artistic endeavour has always been interlinked with financial reward, since the first wandering minstrel received a meal and a pint of ale for producing entertainment.

I’d be very interested to hear how these ideas stand up, especially as I fully intend to use them the next time I hear the cry that big companies are now dead, or that we can cull all our paid staff because users will just churn out endless reams of content without any input. So as ever I welcome all comments and feedback, good or bad. Whatever happens, it’s an interesting time, especially for someone who works for a major media company 9-5.30pm at www.motorcyclenews.com, runs a publication which aspires to make money at www.disposablemedia.co.uk, and blogs purely to have a voice. Three sides of the same coin…

What the Long Tail is missing…

I’ve just finished re-reading The Long Tail by Chris Anderson (see Marketing Resources, or the excellent Long Tail blog), and still think it’s an essential book for anyone involved with the digital world – so all of us, really.

I do think that many people seem to wilfully ignore Anderson’s assertion that it’s an AND culture, rather than an OR culture. Simply because the long tail of niches is now available and attracting interest does not mean that the short head of hits will disapear…just that the relationships and audience for both has changed. I might watch a three minute fan video created in Halo 3 on Youtube, but that doesn’t exclude me from going to see a film at the cinema on the same evening, for example.

But there is one question, I’d love to ask, particularly as Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Wired magazine. And that’s how he sees the role of the professional Editor/Journalist/Writer developing as they are now forced to coexist within the blurred world of the amateur and professional blogger and writer. The Long Tail suggests there will always be standout publications/websites/writers producing the hits at the head of the graph, but does this provide evidence that there will always be a need for professional staff in editorial teams?

I have my own theories, of course, which I’ll be exploring over the next few days. They begin with the ideas that writing is a skill as well as an art form, and that in a world of infinite choice, consistency is an important commodity. As is inspiration and quality. But I’d love to hear more takes on the idea.

One response to the threat of big brother…

I picked up an old-fashioned print copy of Wired the other day when I was at Stansted Airport. I quite enjoy reading about web topics in print, mainly because it gives my eyes a rest from the glow of the VDU. Strangely though, I find the American style of breaking up articles into two section, as Wired does, to really detract from the experience.

Anyway, one article caught my attention, in the current climate of internet ids and convergence between online personas and offline identities. Hasan Elahi was detained by the FBI after stepping off a U.S. flight due to suspicions he was a terrorist. Luckily, he’s actually a Rutgers professor and artist, but it led to a web-based project for him.

On TrackingTransience.net, Hasan details everything he does, and everywhere he goes. Meals, purchases, flights, it’s all there. And it allows him the perfect alibi, should anyone question his whereabouts and motives. And funnily enough, his server log shows hits from the Pentagon and the Secretary of Defense among others.

He predicts a day when so many people are posting so much online it puts Big Brother out of business.

it’s an interesting idea. Particularly when there is such a threat of identity theft and fraud online. But if your bank can see you’re in the newsagents in Cambridge when your card is being used online from a PC in New York, or in person in Manchester, it’ll make innocence easier to prove – if banks etc accept the evidence, which will take time for them to grasp the concept.

The only flaw is that it requires you to be absolutely honest. And that’s the case with all this convergence. If you’re in a relationship, for example, and you get approached by someone online who flirts, having all your info in one place could lead to huge problems. If you record anything that has broken any rules, then you’ve invited yourself to be caught. And what happens if you’re an attractive 17 year old girl rather than a 35-year-old male, and you try the same technique?

There will always be risks to every decision, and there will always be flaws. But Hasan has shown that rather than worrying about having your privacy invaded and spending your life paranoid and trying to cloak yourself, perhaps it’s more effective to just put everything on show and take what comes.