August 02, 2005

The Long Tail (bottom up)

The latest and greatest bottom up hype is a concept called the Long Tail and its main booster is Wired magazine's editor-in-chief Chris Anderson. Following what's fast becoming bottom up proper protocol Chris has a blog and its devoted to turning the Long Tail into a book. He's a smart writer and its an interesting read as he knowledgeably tells tales from one could call the emerging networked culture. But something has always gritted on me and to understand just why its worth looking at far less digital topic, abortion in America.

The debate over abortion in the US is a strange sort of conflict. On one side you have "pro-life" and on the other side you have "pro-choice". No one its seems is anti anything. Barring perhaps the radical fringes, you don't find pro-choice protesters talking about how they want to deny women the right to make decisions, nor do you find pro-choice activists talking about how they want to kill babies. The two sides are locked in a deep conflict, but they aren't even arguing about the same thing! Or at least not over the same concepts, they are of course battling over the same action. And they are battling over how they want people, society as a whole even, to look at that particular action.

The concept of the Long Tail comes from a reading of another trendy idea in the world of technology intellectuals, the power law distribution. Power law curves show situations of profound inequality, most famously perhaps being Vilfredo Pareto's observation that 20% of all individuals in a society general control 80% of all the wealth. That was a century ago, and it still holds true. More to the point though, power laws have come into vogue and people are finding them everywhere, especially where networks are involved. The long tail refers to the "tail" of the curve, the 80% of the people making 20% of the money.

Now there is a hell of a lot going on in this area, and it makes Chris Anderson's site quite an interesting read as he details the ins and outs of the information and entertainment businesses reacting to the massive network that is the internet. But the long tail, is not a neutral description, rather much like the stances of both sides in the abortion debate it is a deep ideological one. Much the way the abortion warriors are fighting to control the terms of the debate, the long tail is about controlling what the power law distribution is about. "Pay no mind to the 20% with all the power, what's really interesting is what's happening over here under this long tail..."

There is a huge philosophical issue at stake for those who are best termed the technorati, the boosters of high tech and networks roughly clustered around Anderson's Wired Magazine. In this circle an awful lot of hope and thought has been invested in the idea that the internet and other 'open' networks are a democratizing force. The belief that this is true underlies the much of the moral framework that the technorati in. It gives them faith that they are doing the right thing. The discovery that networks tend to develop quickly into situations of inequality, situations that tend to map towards the very 80-20 power laws that characterize the vast inequalities of wealth and power the internet was supposed to route around, this discovery slices straight to heart of any faith in the democratic power of the internet.

In many ways the long tail resembles a classic magician's slight of hand. A big distraction to call one's attention away from the relevant actions. Suddenly power laws are not illustrations of inequity, but ways to call attention away from it. But its increasingly clear that internet is not a massive democratizing force, but rather a standard transition of power. Sure some of the classic late 20th century media powers might fall, there is way more TV to watch and blogs hit hard at the newspaper and magazine models. But rather then having the power law curves fade we just have new powerhouses moving in. Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Amazon and the like. Its early on, expect new powers to arise and others to merger. But when the smoke has cleared who wants to bet that the top 20% are still making 80% of the money, the top 20% of sites grabbing 80% of the traffic?

Imagine a medieval lord showing off his serf's vegetables. Talking about how he's empowered them with growing opportunities. Its not then what you'll find on Chris Anderson's blog, except Anderson isn't the lord, just some servant nicely entrenched in the court. The long tail is cast as vast practice of empowering users, freeing them perhaps from the clutches of old media. But ultimately the site is not about freeing anyone, its about seducing and capturing those users, its about building new media kingdoms where the users trade amongst themselves while the technorati lords reap a tax off of every harvest.

Sometimes the tax straight monetary. Ebay is the classic example, like a casino they take a cut out of every transaction. And while Ebay might just be "empowering" thousands or millions of small business people, one wonders just how much more empowered the high ranking Ebay execs and investors are then the average Ebay seller? 80/20 maybe?

Often though "long tail" business is more about information and Anderson stresses the importance of filtering to these businesses, which is spot on. But what he misses is just how asymmetrical the filtering is. Businesses like Amazon, Yahoo and Google filter massive information and then send it back to their users. But they also keep large amounts of the information for themselves and their business partners. Sure they'll give you a slice of what you have, a chance to till some of their information, but in the end they are the lords of their domains, opening what they please (and what benifits them) to the long tail.

I'm pretty certain Anderson and most of his fellow network/technology boosters are not concious of the fact, but there is a strong undercurrent of a power grab to their beliefs. The rhetoric speaks of democratic revolutions that empower everyone, but the reality is that its about empowering a particular set of people. The ability of the internet and its related technologies to upset certain industries, communications systems and political structures is becoming more documented fact and less theory, Anderson's site is great at illustrating some of this pattern. But the particulars of who gains, and more importantly who does not, are far less commented upon.

Does networked technology benefit everyone? Or does it benifit only those who have the access, knowledge and will to use it?

Posted by William Blaze at August 2, 2005 11:38 AM | TrackBack
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