« Belonging to the Long Tail | Main | If for no other reasons... »

The Long Tail, part 2

One important exception to the dearth of commentary on Anderson's piece comes from Adina Levin, who builds on and speculates about the essay in important ways. She writes,

The Long Tail article reveals the limitations of the Clay Shirky power law model. Several years ago, Shirky explained how the top of the peer production curve segues into the mass market. The aggregation of interest raises popular bloggers like Andrew Sullivan, and popular open source software projects like Linux far above the tail, to join the ranks of mass market mainstream hits.

The Power Law essay amputates the long tail, and translates the head of the peer production curve into familiar mass market terms -- the creation and packaging of celebrities. By focusing at the top of the curve, where peer production segues into the mass market, the Power Law obscures the the economic and social principles that create profit and value from the Long Tail.

I'm not sure that I agree with the title that precedes this section ("The Power Law Red Herring") so much as I agree with the remark that closes it ("the relationship between the head and the tail is symbiotic instead."). I'm working from memory here, but it seems to me that Clay's essay is a necessary corrective to the idea that the blogosphere is automatically democratic or egalitarian--it's an explanation of the principles by which any network of a certain size will ultimately produce an A-list (whether we call the members of that list celebrities, the literary canon, etc.). The problem isn't so much that power laws themselves "obscure" the value to be found at the other end, though. Rather, I'd argue that this is one of the strategies deployed by the culture industry to protect itself. At its root, a power law is an assertion about the economy of attention. The A-list of bloggers may or may not be better than anyone else, but they receive the most attention. The conflation of "more" with "better" (50 million Britney fans can't be wrong?) is what obscures that value.

And there are mitigating forces as well. If we look at these curves ecologically or symbiotically, as Adina suggests, then we might start identifying various Slashdot effects. Anderson's essay opens with one, explaining how Touching the Void benefitted from Into Thin Air. I would never have read Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy had it not been for Harry Potter. And Oprah's practically made an industry out of Slashdotting various books, singers, etc. And every time this happens, it re-shuffles the distribution curve, sometimes more temporarily than others.

This suggests that power law curves get short-circuited every so often, but I'm not sure that this means anything other than exceptions that prove the general rule. Amazon, Netflix, and others may derive more profit from the long tail, but my guess is that this is because long-tailers find those services more to their liking. In other words, the fact that they seem to refute or disprove power laws may be a result of the fact that, in a larger ecology of sellers, they're simply more representative than the mass market outlets of a certain group of consumers.

I'm making more than I'd intended out of this single point. Suffice it to say that I'll be assigning all three of these pieces together next semester.