December 31, 2006
The Long Tale of 2006
2006 is racing to a close and you may well be aware that Time Magazine has named "you" person of the year. If you work for a financial firm on Wall Street, in the City of London or on whatever expensive piece of real estate you've landed you probably could have figured that out by looking at your record breaking bonus check. Of course if you worked in New York's financial industry you were already making over $8,000 a week before that bonus even kicked in.
Across the East River from Wall Street there are parts of Brooklyn where the average household income per year is less than that average wall streeter is making each week. If you lived in one of those household you might be a bit more surprised about being named person of the year, no? Of course this radical inequality in income distribution isn't exactly news to anyone, it's been around ages and statically mapped out by the Italian economist Vilfedo Pareto about a century ago. If you graph that distribution out what you get is something called a power law curve. In 2006 though the trendy terminology was "the long tail", a phrase for just one part of the power law curve, the part where those of us making less than $8,000 a week happen to reside.
The long tail is in large part a phrase created and popularized by Wired Magazine's Chris Anderson in a book and blog of the same name. While I doubt Anderson intended it as such, the long tail is one of the more misleading pieces of rhetoric around. What Anderson wants to focus on is the stuff that drives Time magazine's "you", the increasing world of user generated content, movies, sound files, Flash animations, blog posts and all the other amusing detritus of unknown quality filling out the internet. And there is no denying that this stuff is exploding, sometimes in quite interesting ways. But what makes the long tail so disingenuous is that what happens in the long tail has almost no ramifications on what happens in the head. The language of the long tail often takes on the rhetoric of democracy or even revolution, but the fact is that nothing about the influx of user generated content necessarily impacts the inequalities encoded into the power law curve. If anything the long tail presupposes inequality, and Anderson is in essence saying "pay no mind to the inequalities at the top of the internet, look at all the exciting stuff over here in the tail".
Of course it's become increasingly apparent that the internet is wrought by, if not outright characterized by inequality. Web traffic is even more concentrated to the largest web sites.* Of course a couple of those top 10 sites are actually places like YouTube and MySpace where large amounts of user generated content drives traffic and then deposits money in hands not of the creators, but instead in the coffers of the large corporate landlords. Nicholas Carr aptly compares this setup to sharecropping. One can see foreshadowing of this effect in Chris Anderson's writing, for all his hyping of the long tail he sees far more concerned with creating the structures and situations in which long tails can occur than he is concerned with what things might actually be like inside those long tails. The owners of the MySpaces and Flickrs and the producers of video editing softwares are getting rich by enabling an unprecedented amount of people to make and distribute their own 'content'. And way off at the edge of these systems are a few alpha users who also may be getting rich, or at least famous to their peers by making some of that content. They aren't in the long tail though, they are in privileged head. Those in the tail might have a little fun, but they get neither the audience nor financial rewards that demarcate success in this 21st century culture.
No matter how you spin the long tail, and without a doubt there are aspects of it that are interesting and perhaps even admirable, you can't detach the long tail from the power law curve that it is part of. And as long as we are talking about a power law curve, we are talking about radical inequality. Unfortunately that's something that's predated 2006 for quite some time and doesn't look to be leaving with the new year either...
- If you follow that link though, you might notice the story has a rather misleading headline "The Shrinking Long Tail - Top 10 Web Domains Increasing in Reach". That the top ten domains are increasing in reach is a fact, at least if the statistics in that article are correct, but that fact has no correlation the long tail shrinking or rising in any manner. It's perhaps easier to think about it in terms of income. When the rich get richer, does that mean there are less poor people or more? That's just not a question that can be answered without more information. The top websites are getting richer for sure, both in terms of money and in terms of attention paid to them, but there may well be millions of new tiny sites stretching the tail out further and further.