The Ouroboros’s Long Tail

Chris Anderson’s phenomenally successful book The Long Tail has inspired lots of enthusiastic business commentary, and some critical academic commentary. The basic thesis is that new technologies of search and distribution make it much easier to find obscure content–so rather than relying on a few blockbusters as primary revenue producers, content owners (and, of course, creators) may be able to sell a smaller number of copies of a wider range of things.

At risk of sounding Manichean, let me speculate on two paths this realization could lead to:

1) The Path of Righteousness (or the Shining Path, depending on your perspective): Many entities have succeeded with business models premised on making the “long tail” of content as accessible as possible. For example, the online magazine Slate prides itself on making all its old content easily available (sans even registration!). More compellingly, cultural institutions might want to heed John Carey’s call to get their treasures online and accessible as soon as possible. It is just bizarre that so many masterworks in Britain’s National Gallery are in storage.

2) The Ouroboros Path: But it strikes me that Anderson’s book is really making a stir because business people want to squeeze revenue, not from the “long tail’ as a whole, but from individual works (by restricting access to them). That trend strikes me as potentially self-defeating–like the classical mythical figure ouroboros eating its own tail.

Might publishers resist Google’s book digitization project all the more strongly, hoping to ride a “backlist to the future?” If so, they may defeat the very enhanced searchability that made the long tail so important.

Or consider this commentary on a new “pay per post” system in blogging:

I understand and respect the motivation behind this program – rewarding active contributors to the site for their work. However, the way these deals are structured undermines the basis for their contributions. By paying bloggers to post anything they have the incentive to post everything. There’s no quality check and none of the self-editing or accountability that happens on their own blogs. Ultimately, we think that this will and will pollute StyleHive with halfhearted recommendations born of convenience and not the passion for products and platform that their community relies on.

And finally, though not entirely germane, this commentary on the potential inauthenticity of new, “subversive” brands:

And while some brand-underground participants cite the influence of hip-hop as evidence that their tastes transcend standard demographic categorization (it’s a “mash culture” or a “merge culture” and so on), the real significance of that influence may be that no other spectacular subculture has so exuberantly venerated the leveraging of nonmainstream authenticity into entrepreneurial and material success.

All these strike me as cases where the process of maximizing revenue from the long tail may undermine the very characteristics that have made it such a potent cultural force.

One thought on “The Ouroboros’s Long Tail

  1. The ‘path of righteousness’ is indeed one that many cultural institutions are following but there are problems with copyright and licensing in many countries when reproducing collections on their websites. At the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney we’ve recently put our collection online with typical web2.0 features to increase its exposure, searchability and serendipitous discovery/recommendations (http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database).

    Whilst this development has greatly increased traffic to our website and interest in our collection (all good things), I am concerned that this is a temporary measure only – as once everyone starts doing this then the traditional/geographic hierarchies will re-emerge (some museum collections willbe more discoverable than others), and that collections are reduced to ‘consumables’ (at least in a media sense).

    For us the ‘long tail’ is certainly working in terms of us finding that people are interested in very niche areas of our collection at the moment – but i wonder whether that will increase/continue or grow.

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