The Long Tail and the Market Me

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July 24, 2006
OnTheCommons.org

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This question of the “long tail” gets under the skin in a way unusual for a business idea.  See, for example, the forth-and-back here over the last week or so, which is just a tiny corner of the larger debate.

One reason people take it so personally is that it is personal.  The long tail is ourselves – most of us who are disposed to read and talk about it at least.  It forces us to consider the implications of our actions and even of our own identities and natures. Ultimately, I think, it raises questions about a fundamental assumption of market thinking – namely, that the goal of life is to have exactly what we want; and that happiness and well-being increase exactly to that extent.

The long tail is, of course, a part of the commercial shift that has occurred through computation and the Web.  Before, corporations sold a lot of relatively few items.  Now they can sell enough of the less popular items for that to become a mass market in itself.  As I pointed out here a few days ago, at Blockbuster video stores, 90% of the rentals are new releases. That’s the old model. At Netflix, the Web-based rental service, by contrast, 70% of rentals are from the back list.

Many are documentaries and the like that never were shown in major theaters. At Amazon, meanwhile, a quarter of all book sales come from outside the top 100,000 sellers. The benefits hardly need mention.  I’ll be the first to acknowledge them, since I’ve spent most of my life out on the long tail myself.  The old Circle Theater in Washington, the Gotham Book Mart in New York – now through the Web, I can partake of such offerings as theirs in the comfort of my own home.

Part of me likes this.  That’s what my friend Lewis Hyde calls the “market me”, the self that market theory is built upon.  But there’s another me, and this other one is worried.  If I go to Netflix and get exactly what I want, my local video store is that much closer to extinction. No more serendipitous chats with people browsing the aisles, or with film fanatic clerks.  No more place to go on lonely Saturday nights, and feel comforted that others are alone too.  Ditto for Amazon and all the rest.

This other me is a non-market me, a commons me.  For it, the social context is as important as the stuff.  What we call “the market” after all was a social phenomenon before it was an “economic” one in the narrow contemporary sense.  When Medieval clerics inveighed about “going to market,” it was not just their disapproval of pecuniary gain.  There was a lingering suspicion of gaiety afoot.  There are echoes of this social dimension of authentic markets at Farmers’ Markets today, which is one reason that people like them so much.

The modern corporate economy has stripped most of it away, though, and left many grasping at shadows, and beset by hungers that cannot be filled.  Is it totally accidental that loneliness in America is epidemic, even as we are sated with stuff?  USA Today reported a few weeks ago that 25% of Americans feel they have no one they can confide in.  We are so connected, and yet so alone.

Which brings me back to the Long Tail, and its premier vehicle, the Web.  Web advocates argue that it fills the void the corporate economy has left.  The Long Tail has a social dimension as well as a purely marketing one, they say; and to some degree this is true.  People talk on the Web about the things they buy.  Through such discussions they learn about other things they might buy – and about politics, ideas, everything.  Communities (of a sort) form, blogs and blog followers, discussion groups.

I’m here now, talking with you, about a book – The Long Tail – that is itself much discussed on the Web.  How can I disagree?

I can’t.  But I can have reservations.  The communities that form on the Web are different from actual ones in at least one crucial respect.  Dropping out is just about painless.  In real communities, you swallow your dislike at times, hold your tongue when you want to lash out (or at least wish afterwards that you did) because you are going to see those same people tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.

When we are in it together for the long haul, we modify our behavior accordingly.  A community is not a place in which everyone likes one another.  It’s a place in which, as often as not, people forebear one another for the good of both themselves and the whole.  The commons me restrains itself in ways the market me generally doesn’t have to.

The Web might be like that sometimes.  But in my experience it’s often not. Tempers rise quickly.  People flame, drop out, and then join another group tomorrow.  The social world there comes closer to the frictionless ideal of the economics texts, and what economists call “friction” can be another word for community.  Besides there’s an affective dimension to being physically with other people — feeling their presence, picking up the expressive range of their body language, enduring the moments of tension and discomfort – that doesn’t happen on the Web.

This absence is part of what makes the Web so addictive I suspect, the way empty calories are.  It may also be connected to the increasingly rancorous tone of politics generally.  As I asked before, is it entirely a coincidence that the political atmosphere has become more poisonous, as people spend more time in long tail niches on the Web?  This is not just a function of stewing continually in little ghettos of resentment.  It may have to with the frictionless aspect of the Web itself; and how little it demands of us socially; and how easy it is to cut and run.

I say this as one who is on the Web a lot, and who does not have to be convinced of its usefulness and appeal.  As I said I’m divided; and this division is embodied in the long tail, and is what makes it so appealing and so troubling.  I’m happy that I can go to www.ABE.com, a joint venture of independent bookstores, and find old books I once gave up hope of finding.  I’m happy that creative people have a better place to market movies and therefore to make them; and that people like myself have a better chance to see them.  I really am.

I’m also not a stranger to cutting and running, as a number of former significant others could attest.

But I also have deep reservations about where this all is taking us. I reflect on how the high point of economic activism in this country came at a time when the shelves in farm kitchens contained two short tail titles – the Bible and Henry George’s Progress and Poverty– and when the main forums of political organizing were Grange meetings and the like.  When a lot of people were reading the same things there was a common reference point and well of ideas.  And when they were gathering together physically there was a sense of community out of which a real politics could arise. (See Lawrence Goodwin’s The Populist Moment for more on this.

Politics like economics has a social dimension.  Today much of that energy resides on the church-based Right. Can the Web replicate it in other directions?  I’m just not sure.

Be careful what you wish for, the old saying goes.  We look at the long tail and see the fulfillment of our wishes, of a certain kind at least.  Then we wonder, some of us, whether this really is the best way to go.  I’d feel a lot better if the advocates of the long tail could at least acknowledge the missing tail – the part of life that isn’t bought and sold, and that sometimes is bound up in the buying and selling but often is invaded and displaced by it.

Conventional economics assumes that time is infinite, just as it assumes that natural resources are.  Each new thing the market adds to the to-do list, is something we have time for at no cost to something else.  But life doesn’t work that way.  When I’m on the long tail – playing a niche video game for example – I might not be at a community meeting. Economics also cannot accoutnt for the divided self, which means it cannot account for people as we are.

I’d also feel better if the Long Tail advocates could acknowledge that the social arrangements for buying and selling can be as important as the stuff itself.

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