Oh, the Tangled Webs We Weave

If you are even a casual observer of the business press, you will know what “the long tail” is: Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson’s term for the flat, asymptotic line on the far end of a power-law-distribution curve that represents, say, everything that’s not a hit on a book publisher’s list or in a record company’s back catalog. Anderson argues that because the Internet removes the storage and distribution costs that make it prohibitive to maintain a large inventory of items that appeal to a very select few people, 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 underserved; nothing will fade into total neglect and disappear entirely from culture. As Tim Wu put it in Slate, “having 10,000 songs available costs about the same as having 1 million.” (“The Wrong Tail“)

The good people at iTunes 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 Eric Rohmer film available on DVD even if some of them rent only once a year. Because of the resulting cornucopia of options, no one will be forced to consume mainstream hits, and non-conformists will be able to satisfy their taste for unpopular things much easier.

But this doesn’t mean, as the more overheated enthusiasts of the concept have sometimes suggested, that megahits will vanish and the mainstream will whither away and disintegrate. In the Wall Street Journal Lee Gomes points out that there are no examples of a company’s misses in aggregate selling more than its hits. “It would be wonderful if the world as Mr. Anderson describes it were true: one where ‘healthy niche products’ and even ‘outright misses’ collectively could stand their ground with the culture’s increasingly soulless ‘hits.'”, Gomes writes, “But while every singer-songwriter dreams from his bedroom of making a living off iTunes, few actually do, mostly because so many others have the very same idea.” (“It May Be a Long Time Before the Long Tail Is Wagging the Web,” July 26, 2006; Page B1) As making and distributing art gets easier, the far reaches of the long tail lengthens itself exponentially, and the chance these works will find an audience veers closer and closer to zero.

The vast ocean of cultural product may in fact strengthen the logic of seeking and promoting a few hits. In The New Yorker John Cassidy argues that “a widening of choices doesn’t necessarily lead to cultural fragmentation and a defection from mainstream fare; sometimes it has the opposite effect, as befuddled consumers congregate around the same things.” (“Going Long”; July 10, 2006) The consumption of culture has at least as much to do with partaking of a sense of belonging as enjoying the material for its own sake. “People want to feel part of a social event, whatever the reviewers had to say,” writes Cassidy. “It’s the same for books and popular music: the more copies a thriller or a pop song sells, the more likely you are to pick it up to see what all the fuss is about. Even in the online era, to be human is to follow the herd. Far from undermining this ‘network effect,’ the Internet strengthens it by providing instant communication and feedback.”

Most people have no problems with this — they happily follow the herd yet have no problems in defining an individual identity for themselves to treasure. They don’t recognize a contradiction because they instinctually root identity elsewhere than their tastes in popular culture; in familial ties and perhaps in the humdrum idiosyncrasies of everyday consciousness or the particularity of semi-personalized objects. This is my computer with the photo of my kid as the desktop wallpaper; this is my Toyota with the broken stereo and the coffee stain on the passenger seat.

Yet some people struggle with an unquenchable need to build a unique identity from mass-culture product, and they, not the purveyors of hits, are those most threatened by long-tail economics. For many of these explorers in the vast ocean of consumer goods, the thrill of the hunt was a large part of the reason they became fascinated with obscurities in the first place. 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 makes copies of ultra-rare stuff available immediately to whoever hears of it, which is no longer an especially exclusive group thanks to search engines and the Internet’s harvest of links and filters. This ultimately destroys the significance of the content of collector’s items altogether. Rare vinyl becomes no different than baseball cards or beanie babies — objects with no particular use value. As bigger companies begin to sell to the niches, the small players who once served that tenuous market — little record stores and book stores and antique stores and so on; Dave Hickey’s cherished cultural underground — will be squeezed. More than that, it undermines the items’ special significance to building “original” consumerist identities.

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 from pop culture 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. 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 opportunities to belong to something. Consuming culture’s blockbusters may be all that remains of community, the rest of our tastes consign us to a private world that is ever more particular and isolated, ever more intolerant of challenges.

Let’s say you weren’t content to sit alone and isolated in front of your computer. You could turn around and blog about the cool, rare things you’ve discovered — obviously no longer an arduous quest 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 likely never see yours. If they do, you may be fortunate enough to establish hyperlinks to each other’s pages and exchange comments. Maybe you’ll form an online community, which perhaps can mitigate the corrosive effects of the long-tail on would-be subcultures. Of course, the online existence of theoretical people who would make perfect friends may lead to more social isolation: We may reject flawed friends we have in reality, where their inadequacies can’t be concealed or filtered out, while becoming afraid to meet our online friends in person in case any misconceptions we’ve advanced will be exposed.

Also, once community formation begins to take place online, it becomes subject to troubling forces that don’t affect offline friendship. Though the publicity of one’s Internet behavior can be calibrated to one’s desired level of exposure, the online medium teases one with the promise of an unlimited audience while permitting one to measure just how far your cult of personality reaches. These are essentially marketing concepts, and they threaten to overwhelm friendship and leave you sounding something like this:

Every morning, before I brush my teeth, I sign in to my Instant Messenger to let everyone know I’m awake. I check for new e-mail, messages or views, bulletins, invitations, friend requests, comments on my blog or mentions of me or my blog on my friends’ blogs. Next I flip open my phone and check for last night’s Dodgeball messages. Dodgeball is the most intimate and invasive network I belong to. It links my online community to my cell phone, so when I send a text message to 36343 (Dodge), the program pings out a message with my location to all the people in my Dodgeball network. Acceptance into another person’s Dodgeball network is a very personal way to say you want to hang out.

I scroll through the messages to see where my friends went last night, and when, tracking their progress through various bars and noting the crossed paths. I check the Google map that displays their locations and proximity to one another. I note how close Christopher and Tom were last night, only a block away, but see that they never met up.

I log on to my Friendster, Facebook, MySpace and Nerve accounts to make sure the mail bars are rising with new friend requests, messages and testimonials.

I am obsessed with testimonials and solicit them incessantly. They are the ultimate social currency, public declarations of the intimacy status of a relationship. “I miss running around like crazy w/you in the AM and sneaking away to grab caffeine and gossip,” Kathleen commented on my MySpace for all to see. Often someone will write, “I just posted to say I love you.”

— “Someone to Watch Over Me (on a Google Map)” July 9, 2006, by Theodora Stites, New York Times

I’d love to assume this is parodic, and the writer is mocking the self-centeredness of her generation and its supposed obsession with me-media. Perhaps she’s laughing at the fact that young adults have become a generation of glorified ham-radio operators. But it seems scarily sincere; it seems as though some people now expect public declarations of their fealty on profile pages and a running count of total friends. They seek to expand a friend list roll the way I seem to need to expand my iTunes library, to include thousands and thousands of them. Now we have the opportunity to conduct friendships in a environment where they can be stored and scrutinized as database, from which we build an identity and a community. We can run statistics on our social lives, meter the amount of attention we receive, and apply marketing tools to them to see how they might be tweaked, to see how we could reach a better social demographic. Friends become little counters used to measure one’s potential reach in a word-of-mouth marketing campaign. So rather than relocate the underground empire online, we are given tools to run our personal lives like a firm, with opportunities to promote ourselves the way Proctor and Gamble promotes its deodorant. (You can join an online community wherein Secret deodorant sponsors your secrets here.)

As Stites’s column gleefully points out, “Every profile is a carefully planned media campaign.” Social networking sites encourage us to package and market ourselves, to make ourselves into data so that the information-processing capacity of the consumer economy can be used to process us that much more efficiently, squeezing out of us whatever it most requires for its sustained growth. In this way it captures those of us who used to balk at the generic shared culture of mainstream hits and teaches us how to enjoy that feeling of being processed, preparing us for the true beneficiaries of long-tail logistics, advertisers.

According to Economist survey, ads no longer blanket a population but are instead increasingly targeted to appropriately receptive audiences with surgical precision (“The ultimate marketing machine”, July 6, 2006). Because space on the Web costs virtually nothing relative to media buys, advertisers can tailor a web page to every exploitable niche it can conceive of. Such ads cost next to nothing to maintain and may eventually cost little to generate, once the ad can be mechanically produced in response to the specific consumer behavior that elicits it. Eventually they may be able to target consumers individually, exploiting multiple persuasive strategies and highlighting any number of combination of products to generate a vision of a lifestyle that might appeal to a market of one. 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. Thus, ads can become less obtrusive and more useful to the individual who receives 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. All advertisers need to do is entice people to provide enough information (voluntarily or involuntarily) so that these ultimate ad pages can be constructed.

That’s where MySpace profiles come into play: They are tailor-made for this task. When you define yourself publicly on one of these sites, you allow advertisers to craft ads precisely pertinent to your needs, your vulnerabilities. You become your own niche of one, and the more things you do online, the more social networks you belong to and more data you generate by clicking around and landing on various pages, the more well-defined and singular that niche of one will become. The trail of you-specific data will grow richer before your eyes. Eventually, the perfectly targeted ads that result won’t even seem like ads anymore; it will seem like just-in-time information for the consumer. Some will be attracted by this, as it will seem to provide the verifiable proof of one’s own individuality; you can see just how unique you are by how thorough the ads are. But as the ads directed toward you become more sophisticated, they’ll be much harder to resist. So we won’t be able to escape the sense that everything we want has already been sold to us, that none of our 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. You’ll increasingly paint yourself into a corner with your own preferences until you are sealed in by them.

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For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.