Anderson’s Long Tail

Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine and the man behind the Economist’s Internet coverage, is releasing a book this month called “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More.” Recently, a snippet of the book was published in Wired and, while it focuses on the decline of the hit movie and bestselling album, it also presents a pretty interesting historical analysis of how we got to where we’re at and where we might be going.

Anderson’s basic premise, which I personally find to be spot on, is that the Internet, which allows for a multitude of niche channels, is empowering consumers by allowing them a greater choice about what type of content they consume (particularly with regards to entertainment content). According to Anderson, this is going to force businesses to change from effectively telling consumers what they should prefer (which was done by limiting the type of content available) and begin catering more toward what those consumers prefer.

As I said, I think Anderson’s premise makes a lot of sense. He also talks about agrarian economies, the Industrial Revolution, and urbanization, which are all topics I go gaga for (Ladies, take note).

This is long (and hand-typed by yours truly, so forgive any errors), but I’d love to hear what anyone else thinks on the subject. So take some time over this long weekend and give it a gander, eh?

Before you shed too many tears for the declining hit, remember that the era of the blockbuster was an anomaly. Before the Industrial Revolution, culture was mostly local – niches were geographic. The economy was agrarian, which distributed populations as broadly as the land. Distance divided people, giving rise to such diversity as regional accents and folk music, and the lack of rapid transportation and communications limited the mixing of cultures and the propagation of ideas and trends.

Influences varied from town to town, because the vehicles for carrying common culture were so limited. There was a reason the church was the main cultural unifier in Western Europe: It had the best distribution infrastructure and, thanks to Gutenberg’s press, the most mass-produced item (the Bible).

But in the early 19th century, modern industry and the growth of the railroad system led to a wave of urbanization and the rise of Europe’s great cities. These new hives of commerce and hubs of transportation mixed people like never before, creating a powerful engine of new culture. All it needed was mass media to give it flight.

In the mid- to late 19th century, several technologies emerged to do just that. First commercial printing technology improved and went mainstream. Then the new “wet plate” technique made photography popular. Finally, in 1877, Edison invented the phonograph. These developments led to the first great wave of pop culture, carried by such media as newspapers and magazines, novels, printed sheet music, records, and children’s books.

Along with news, newspapers spread word of the latest fashions from the urban style centers of New York, London and Paris. Then, at the end of the 19th century, the moving picture gave the stars of stage a way to play many towns simultaneously and reach a much wider audience. Such potent carriers of culture had the effect of linking people across time and space, effectively synchronizing society. For the first time, it was a safe bet that not only did your neighbors read the same news you read in the morning and know the same music and movies, people across the country did too.

We are a gregarious species, highly influenced by what others do. And film was a medium that could not only show us what other people were doing but could endow it with such an intoxicating glamour that it was hard to resist. It was the dawn of the celebrity age.

The arrival of broadcast media — first radio, then TV — homogenized our adulation even more. The power of electromagnetic waves is that they spread in all directions essentially for free, a trait that made them as mind-blowing when they were introduced as the Internet would be some 60 years later. Broadcast emerged as the best vehicle for stardom ever.

From 1935 through the 1950s, the Golden Age of Radio led to the rise of national broadcast celebrities like Edward R. Murrow. Then television took over. By 1953, an astounding 72 percent of TV households watched I Love Lucy on Monday night.

This marked the peak of the so-called water-cooler effect, the buzz in the office around a shared cultural event. In the 1950s and 1960s, nearly everyone you worked with had seen Walter Cronkite read the news the previous night, and then tuned in to whatever top program followed: The Beverly Hillbillies, Gunsmoke, The Andy Griffith Show.

Throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, even as more channels arrived, television continued to be the great American unifier. Nearly every year, TV advertising set a new record as companies paid more and more for prime time. And why not? Prime-time TV defined the mainstream.

Then came the great unraveling.

A new medium arose, one even more powerful than broadcast, and its distribution economics favored infinite niches, not one-size-fits-all fare. The Internet’s peer-to-peer architecture is optimized for a symmetrical traffic load, with as many senders as receivers and data transmission spread out over geography and time. In other words, it’s the opposite of broadcast.

It will take decades for our entertainment industries to internalize the lessons of this shift. If your goal is to make a hit movie — but not necessarily a good movie — you must follow the Hollywood rules. Do pay as much as you can for the biggest-name star you can lure to the project. Don’t try to be “too smart.” Do have a happy ending. Don’t kill off the star. If it’s an action movie (and, all things being equal, it probably should be an action movie), more effects are better than fewer. Certainly it’s possible to break these rules and still have a hit, but why take chances? After all, you’re investing a lot of money.

This hit-driven mindset has leaked out of Hollywood boardrooms and into our national culture. We have been conditioned by the economic demands of the hit machine to expect nothing less. We have internalized the bookkeeping of entertainment risk capital. This is why we follow weekend box office results like we do professional sports – to keep score and separate the clear winners from the seemingly obvious losers.

Fixated on star power, we follow the absurd lives of A-listers with attention that far exceeds our interest in their work. From superstar athletes to celebrity CEOs, we ascribe disproportionate attention to the very top of the heap. We have been trained, in other words, to see the world through a hit-colored lens.

If it’s not a hit, then it’s a miss. It has failed the economic test and, therefore, never should have been made. This Hollywood mindset is now how we allocate space on store shelves, fill time slots on television, and build radio playlists. It’s all about allocating scarce resources to the most “deserving,” which is to say, the most popular.

Ultimately, our response to hit culture is to reinforce hit culture. The world of shelf space is a zero-sum game: one product displaces another. Forced to choose, each link in the entertainment industry naturally selects the most popular products, giving them privileged placement. By putting our commercial weight behind the big winners, we amplify the gap between them and everything else. Economically, this is the same as saying, “If there can be only a few rich, let them at least be super-rich.”

But now the audience is turning to a distribution medium that doesn’t favor the hits alone. We are abandoning the tyranny of the top and becoming a niche nation again, defined not by our geography but by our interests. Instead of the weak connections of the office water cooler, we’re increasingly forming our own tribes, groups bound together more by affinity and shared interests than by broadcast schedules. These days our water coolers are increasingly virtual — there are many different ones, and the people who gather around them are self-selected.

The mass market is yielding to a million minimarkets. Hits will always be with us, but they have lost their monopoly. Blockbusters must now compete with an infinite number of niche offerings, which can be distributed just as easily. Justin Timberlake still makes albums, but today he ahs thousands of bands on MySpace as rivals. The hierarchy of attention has inverted — credibility now rises from below. MTV and Tower Records no longer decide who will win. You do.

If anyone read this to the end and continues to be interested in the subject, Anderson also publishes a blog about his new book that makes for some pretty interesting bed time reading.

A link to Anderson’s entire article will be provided when it appears online on 7/6/06.