The Long Tail and Culture

I know I’m a bit late to the party, but I recently finished reading Chris Anderson’s fantastic book The Long Tail (published in 2006).  Anyway, as one who is interested in digital economics, post-scarcity economics, and the cultures they create, I found the book to be a nice collection and summation of ideas that I’ve read about extensively online through various sources.

So what exactly is The Long Tail?  According to Chris Anderson, it’s the following:

The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of “hits” (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail. As the costs of production and distribution fall, especially online, there is now less need to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers. In an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, narrowly-targeted goods and services can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare.

Another way of putting it is that technology has (and is still) turning mass markets into millions of niches because the marginal cost of storing extra informational products is virtually nil.  I certainly think this is a positive thing, albeit it does have some interesting cultural side-effects.  For instance, I think we are seeing the demise of water-cooler culture.  Before the rise of the Internet and the niche revolution, people at the office water-cooler (or any place where people shoot the breeze) were more likely to be culturally in-sync (i.e., they were more likely to have seen the same movies or television shows and read the same news or books).  In the modern world, this isn’t very likely.

In the days of mass culture it was simply much more likely that you consumed the same information as your peers.  There were a limited number of sources for news, information, and entertainment, so a curious individual wouldn’t have that many places to reach out to for more information.  Accordingly, most people watched or read, or were at least familiar with, what was out there in the mainstream.  For many people, this is no longer the true.  Personally speaking, I consume my information in very few places that would be considered mainstream anymore.

I suspect that the type of person who reads this blog has many interests that exist in the long tail.  In other words, most readers of this blog have likely found their niche corner on the Web and engage with others who share in their interests.  Strangely, sometimes we forget exactly just how peculiar are interests are.  For example, if I were to mention The Long Tail to most people I encounter in my daily life (even economists) they would have no idea what I’m talking about.  However, virtually everyone I interact with online is at least familiar with the term and I suppose I subconsciously tend to think that the people I interact with online are representative of the population as a whole.

Anyway, it has become apparently obvious to me that I have a lot more in common with readers of this blog and the people I  interact with on sites like Google+ , Twitter, Quora, goodreads, and flickr than I do most people I actually talk to in real life.  We humans, however, are a gregarious bunch and most of us crave social interaction, at least to some degree.  Does the rise of online niche culture have harmful consequences then?  Is the decline of face-to-face interaction and mass culture bad for the human psyche in some ways?  It’s possible, but the Web has also arguably enabled more face-to-face interaction.  For example, I can use sites like Meetup to set up gatherings with people who share my interests (an advantage to living in a large city).  Technology often seems to create distance between people, but I think it may actually be bringing people closer, if it’s used in the right way.

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One Comment on “The Long Tail and Culture”

  1. Quora says:

    How has the internet impacted humanity?…

    The Internet has created vast amounts of value for people the world over. However, due to the fuzzy nature of value, and the difficultly of quantifying all of it, I would say that any dollar figure others may cite is most likely severely underestimatin…


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