August 9, 2006

In Xandiego did ComiCon...

A while back, I aggregated Henry Jenkins' site, Confessions of an Aca/Fan, but it's taken me too long to add it to the ol' roll, a mistake I have since corrected. One of the grad students in the CMS program at MIT, Ivan Askwith, is guest-blogging some reflections from his trip to ComiCon out in SD. In particular, I'm interested in his discussion of the Long Tail and its appropriateness as a model: "recent entries both here and in the C3 Weblog tempt me to describe what I saw at ComicCon as a living illustration of Chris Anderson's Long Tail." As he ultimately concludes, though:

For all of its strengths, however, I don't think the Long Tail is designed to explain the lesson that I would encourage the entertainment industry to take away from their time at ComicCon: that a small audience of super-committed fans can be worth more, in economic terms, than a massive audience of casual viewers and readers.

I'll discuss that lesson in a bit, but first I want to second Ivan's insight that the LT isn't quite enough to explain things there. For me, one of the biggest lessons of Chris Anderson's LT work is the importance of aggregation, and the ways that the Web has enabled a kind of aggregation previously unavailable to us. In other words, aggregation is largely thought of, still, as geographical, and I mean that both materially and metaphorically. Please to explain?

Niche cultures can't support a material infrastructure, unless the threshold is set significantly lower. The stereotype of poorly lit, ugly comic stores springs to mind, or often somewhat archaic, single-screen art house cinemas. The profit margin on places like these is often just used to keep them afloat, while blockbuster joints can afford stadium seating, big fluffy chairs, big open aisles, lots of employees, etc. You pay money to keep a store/site open, regardless of whether anyone comes, and the more specialized the need you're meeting, the less your potential traffic. There's a certain threshold below which it's just impossible to afford to do this. That's material geographic aggregation of one sort.

Another sort is the con circuit, with CC being perhaps the most conspicuous. But we have em in academia, too, as do a lot of other professions. Unlike retail outlets, cons practice aggregation as event, gathering a whole bevy of like-minded folk in one place for a few days. And if you don't think that we have our own costumes, autograph sessions, celebrities, etc., I invite you to spend a day with me at MLA in December.

There's a third sort of geographic aggregation that's more metaphorical, represented by the finite limits of bandwidth, whether radio, tv, or what have you. I think network tv, for example, with very few exceptions, is one of the most underinnovated wastelands I could imagine. It's as though a bookstore took the top-5 selling books, and then gave over all its space to attempts to imitate them. The near-predictable success of quality alternatives just doesn't seem to sink in, but oh well. It's not geography per se, but it operates according to the same principle: scarcity requires centrist optimization.

The LT businesses that Chris looks at are those that built models on working around the scarcity problem. We can debate about whether it's as revolutionary as he says, but that misses one of the bigger points of the Long Tail, which is a much lower threshold to entry, especially for niche cultures (like academia, for instance). I've written about this a little bit before: Amazon, I think, learned early on that they were both in the book and the loyalty biz. By making academic books available to me, they all but guaranteed that I would make other (less LT) purchases there as well. Features like Amazon Prime and the auto-rec system (which allows me to see forthcoming stuff better than any other single source I consult) only hammer it home.

One of the things that goes unnoticed, though, is that niche stores/sites often exist symbiotically with niche communities. You wanna go where everyone knows your name, and all that. Amazon encourages the illusion that I'm known--I don't fool myself into thinking that the site actually does know me, but its features are the features of being a "member" in addition to a "customer." They don't just aggregate products but people as well. Barney Nubble doesn't have to do that--it's one of two bookstores in town here, and while a couple of the baristas do know what I like, I definitely don't feel at "home" there.

One of the things that the LT doesn't really account for, as it's not intended to, is that loyalty. In the title to his post, Ivan references the "devoted niche," which I think must be distinguished from the niche in general. There's a level of fan devotion surrounding many shows, writers, bands, etc., that is hard to account for in economic models. Ivan mentions "fans [being] ready and willing to pay well in excess of $1000 for an original out-of-print comic featuring their favorite character," and this is a strange combination of the prestige economy of a collector culture (where s/he who has the rarest objects has the most respect) and luxury items (yeah, i have better things to do with a K). Luxury industries drive their products the wrong way down the LT curve, technically, because they make up for scarcity by overpricing. But collector industries can often make up price with artificial, superficial ploys (variant covers, anyone?) to get collectors to buy 5 where normally they'd only buy one.

It's a wonky combination of features, and one that I think that Ivan is right to note that industries like the comics oligopoly don't really understand it. They don't really seem to fully understand their market, and signs are that it's not really getting better. The Big 2 (DC/Marvel) are trotting out Infinocuous Crises on a faster and faster schedule--company-wide Events designed to force readers to buy dozens of cross-over titles that they normally wouldn't. They're taking writers with cult followings and putting them on their mainstream titles, trying to feed their niches back into the head of the curve to boost sales. Joe Queseda has been getting a lot of heat for making some truly moronic remarks about the homogeneity of the inner circle at Marvel, and he doesn't seem to have any idea how to address what are some pretty accurate critiques of the way he's running the company. In a lot of ways, the Big 2 has mistaken the inertia that allowed them to survive the industry implosion in the 90s for validation, and that's only been perpetuated by recent cinema successes, I suspect.

Wow. This has become a Thing, a little out of control.

What I wanted to get to is the idea that companies can aggregate people, but they can also disaggregate them, get them to feel that their loyalty is not only unwarranted, but in many ways taken for granted. It's happened a lot lately on Spiderman titles, for instance (Gwen Stacy affair, cannibalism, unmasking, etc.). As long as the Big 2 are the Big 2, they'll be able to get away with much of it, I suppose, but the counter example of Snakes on a Plane should be instructive. Collector cultures are driven in part by their desire to be part of the thing that they're collecting--the devotion translates into the collecting. In fact, I wonder if it's not accurate to say that the devotion isn't another aggregating force, one that corporations producing for niche cultures ignore at their peril.

Hmm. Lots more to say and think about, but I've let this spiral a bit. Time for me to get along. So that's all for the moment...

October 8, 2006

Pure Evil

After a short while, you'll probably want to mute the music, but otherwise, this is pretty damn addicting. I'm just saying.