The Tyranny of Long Tail Minorities

by Chris Kenton on July 12, 2006

This just mystifies
me. Marc Gunther, a senior writer at Fortune, has just posted a column claiming
that the Internet has left us all poorer from the overwhelming glut of information
choices. The column is sort of a tangential review of Chris Anderson’s finally
released book, The Long Tail, which describes how business is being reshaped by
the growing viability of micro-markets—which essentially means that consumers,
in part by virtue of the Internet, can develop and satisfy all kinds of niche
desires instead of conforming to a mainstream taste dictated by the economies
of mass production. Instead of a mass market, The Long Tail argues, we’re
evolving into a mass of niches.

Gunther
seems to think this is a sad kind of progress. After all, the fragmented
Internet, with its endless rat holes serving niche interests, is incapable of creating the kinds of mega-stars and ubiquitous ad
slogans that unify our culture into such a homogenous ideal.

“Think of
the feeling that comes a few times a year—the morning after the SuperBowl or
the Oscars—when tens of millions of Americans share a common experience."

I’m kind of lost about what the Internet has do with the common experience. I mean, did we all not share in Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt? It wasn’t only the talk of TV, newspapers and radio, but video clips and remixes have been plastered all over YouTube for days. But alas, according to Gunther, it is the Internet and its world of choices that is eroding the very fabric of our
national identity.

“I think
the explosion of choice has left us poorer in at least two arenas. The first is
journalism….Yes, there is more information available to us than ever, but I don’t
think we are better informed. Niche media will, inevitably, continue to weaken
mass media.

"The second
arena where we are worse off is politics. This is related to journalism, as the
moderate and responsible voices of the Mainstream Media get drowned out by
partisan, opinionated cableheads and bloggers. Politics in
America  has
become polarized for many reasons, but a big one is the fact that people can
now filter news and opinion they get to avoid exposure to ideas with which they
disagree.”

Hmmm.
Choice is bad, because we get more information
we can choose ourselves rather than being spoon-fed
whatever the Wise Editors decide, and that
keeps us from being
well-informed. Because apparently, we aren’t smart enough to
figure out what information is worth reading, and we need other, smarter people
to tell us what to read, and big spectacles with stars and flashy ads to help bind us
all into a nicely pasteurized culture.

I’m hearing
a lot of this kind of argument lately, from people terrified of the uncertainty
of how our world is actually shifting with all of these new channels of communication. They always seem to arrive at the
conclusion that choice is somehow corrosive, instead of seeing it as a symptom.
Why do we all migrate so rapidly to a world of choices? Because what we’ve been
fed for so long in the mainstream SUCKS.

Network
news pretty much stinks across the board. Where’s the reporting on Darfur? When’s the last time you heard about Afghanistan? Or a critical story about a major corporation that, ahem, owns a major network? Don’t even get me started on politics. Do you
have any desire to see who’s going to run for president in 2008? And that’s all
the fault of new choices available on the Internet? Give me a break. And here’s
a news bulletin: the Internet allows you to filter news and opinion to avoid exposure
to ideas with which they disagree. Interesting. I guess the masses of people who listen to talk radio, or watch Fox vs. CNN all day long are opening their minds to reasoned debate.

The
explosion in choices available via the Internet is a reflection and reversal of
the rise of mass markets during the 1950s. Some people are just tired of same
old mainstream crap, others don’t trust the sources of mainstream ideas and
information. The phenomenon of choice is not the problem, it’s a symptom of our
cultural and technological evolution. As time goes on, we’ll learn new
techniques for sourcing and sorting information, just as new powers will emerge
to bring certain channels and ideas into the foreground and galvanize larger audiences.

But hey, if
it doesn’t work itself out and we end up losing the kind of common cultural identity cemented by the
Oscars, the SuperBowl and catchy ad-slogans, I won’t be losing any sleep.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

J. Kautz July 13, 2006 at 10:35 pm

The overwhelming glut may get a bit more mainstream if Net Neutrality isn’t addressed. (Keep an eye on S.2686) Think what will happen to our culture if we try to get Google and end up with Fox News.

Leave a Comment