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Self as niche market

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Monday, Jul 10, 2006

Chris Anderson’s idea of the long tail—the flat asymptotic line on the far end of the power-law-distribution curve that represents everything that’s not a hit on a book publisher’s list or a record company’s back catalog—has received blanket coverage in the business press lately. Anderson argues that the Internet removes the storage and distribution costs that make it prohibitive to maintain a large inventory of items that appeals to a very select few people, and companies can now make a profit selling small numbers of a great stock of things, rather than millions of a limited stock. No esoteric taste will go unserved, nothing will fade into total neglect and disappear entirely from culture. The good folks at Tunes are just as happy to sell you Justin Timberlake’s new album track by track as they are to sell you songs by Fat Mattress and Fever Tree. And it doesn’t hurt Netflix much to stock every documentary available on DVD even if some of them rent only once a year. Thus no one will be forced to consume entertainment hits, and non-conformists will be able to satisfy their taste for unpopular things much easier. Of course, for many of those people, the thrill of the hunt was a large part of the reason they became fascinated with obscurities. It wasn’t so much that Lazy Smoke’s album of John Lennon-inspired inanity was any good; it was more that it was so hard to actually find someone who had a copy and would let you hear it. The rarity of the physical object once lent fascination to otherwise mediocre relics. Long-tail marketing (which makes copies of ultra rare stuff available immediately to whoever hears of it—which itself is easier through search engines and the Internet’s harvest of links and filters) ultimately will destroy the significance of the content of collector’s items; make them more like baseball cards or beanie babies—objects with no relevant use value. As bigger companies begin to market to the niches, the small players who used to service that market—little record stores and book stores and antique stores and so on; Dave Hickey’s cherished cultural underground—will be squeezed.


Paradoxically, the vastly increased access to underground cultural goods may make the cultural underground itself disappear altogether, since people will need no longer such stores to buy these things, stores that also served as places to congregate and swap interests and develop networks that fostered the emotional support required to resist the mainstream. The Internet makes such resistance easy and trivial. It also isolates you in your rejection rather than unite you with like-minded malcontents. So rather than find an alternate society where people are more discriminating and demand more and bring more intellect and passion to the things that inspire and entertain them, you end up alone in front of your computer, gorging on loads of esoteric information suddenly made meaningless. You can turn around a blog about the cool, rare things you’ve discovered (obviously no longer an arduous process but a matter of a few idle clicks and maybe an ingenious search or two), but everyone else who might have been interested will be so busy writing their own blogs that they will never see yours. So the ubiquity of long-tail ephemera may disintegrate the fragile sense of community that once unified the resistance to hegemonic culture, and drive more people to the mainstream hits, as they long to participate in the few remaining chances to belong to something.


The shared culture, for better or worse, may not even include ads anymore, as they no longer blanket a population but are instead increasingly targeted to appropriately receptive audiences with surgical precision. (Funny how we use the same language for advertising and bombing—companies at war with their consumers). An Economist survey notes that advertising itself benefits from long-tail logistics—every niche can have its own ad tailored to it—there are as many web pages available as there are angles one can come up with to sell whatever product to whatever customer. These ads cost next to nothing to maintain, and will cost little to generate once the ad can be mechanically made in response to the specific context that evokes it. Ads thus become less obtrusive and more useful to the individual who recieves them, who feels more than ever that the ads are calling out to him specifically, acknowledging his uniqueness, making him aware of his ineffable individuality. MySpace profiles, etc. are really tailormade for this—what you do when you define yourself publically on one of these sites, you allow advertisers to craft ads precisely pertinient to your needs, your vulnerabilities. You become your own niche of one. The perfectly targeted ads won’t even seem like ads anymore; it will seem like just-in-time information for the consumer. Conceivably, as one’s “online presence” becomes more integrated, the more things one does online,  and the more well-defined and singular that niche of one will become. Some will be attracted by this, as it will seem to provide verifiable proof of one’s individuality—one can measure just how unique one is by seeing the niche develop—you’ll see the trail you leave grow richer with you-specific data. But this also means the ads directed toward you will become much more sophisticated, much harder to resist; you’ll increasingly paint yourself into a corner with your own preferences until you are sealed in by them.


But with perfectly targetable near costfree ads (they will be priced into the product directly rather than indirectly), everything will be marketed—ad budgets won’t be restricted to hit products; everything can have its ad. So one won’t be able to escape the sense that everything he wants has already been sold to him, that no desires originate from inside (if that’s not already true). The illusion that you have resisted marketing by buying this instead of that will become even more untenable. Maybe this will end up pushing people out of the market for individuality and into the realm of actual activity. Once anyone can be a niche of one and be found out by the advertising world—once there can be no illusions of “authentic shopping” —we’ll have to earn our sense of uniqueness by doing things rather than being a target for the sale of things. In his book, as The Economist notes in its review, Anderson suggests that the very end of the long tail will be made up of amateurs exchanging their self-made works outside of the monetary economy. If that world could be sealed off from the infiltration of ads, it may become the last refuge of authenticity.

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