"I guess we should be grateful that Penn is not offering up Chris Anderson’s "long tail" fallacy, the odd idea that because we have ceased to be a mass culture we are now an utterly particulated universe of ones."
Huh? "Universe of ones"? Are you confusing my book with "Bowling Alone"?
Grant, either you’ve never read my book or you’re willfully misrepresenting it. Which is it?
Chris, thanks for writing. To answer your question: neither one. Your options are confining and, if I may say, perhaps a little prosecutorial.
In The Long Tail, you refer to
[the web as an] uncategorizable sea of a million destinations (page 2)
an infinite number of niche markets (p. 5)
the shattering of the mainstream into a zillion different cultural shards (p. 5)
infinite slots (p. 8)
an unlimited number of niche demi-elites (p. 35)
a million niches (p. 52)
interests splinter[ing] into narrower and narrower communities of affinity, going deeper and deeper into their chosen subject matter (p. 57)
When mass culture breaks apart, it doesn’t reform into a different mass. Instead, it turns into millions of micro-cultures, which coexist and interact in a baffling array of ways. (p. 183)
You can see where I might get the impression that you’re committed to a universe of ones, at least in the long term. The terms infinite and unlimited keep cropping up. An "infinite number of niche markets" is a universe of ones. And if this universe is not there in the first place, we will get there eventually, as interests "splinter into narrower and narrower communities of affinity." You have posited a disaggregating dynamic. Interests that are ever narrower must necessarily become a niche per consumer…and a universe of ones.
You will complain that I am cherry picking phrases. (This would be a more robust defense, if you hadn’t used these terms so often and enthusiastically.) But even if we ignore "unlimited" and "infinite" as artifacts of the rhetorical heat of the moment, we still have a problem. The word to which you return repeatedly is "millions," and this is, I think, much too high. Millions of niches is many too many. Even if you are not headed for a "universe of ones," you are positing a very particulated marketplace. Our spectacularly fecund culture/commerce of ours will never parse that finely.
Happily, it’s an empirical question. The natural laboratory of contemporary culture will do it’s work. One of us will be proven right, the other wrong. Let’s call it a bet. If you’re right, I’ll look forward to buying you a case of good Merlot and toasting your success.
But there is a larger problem with The Long Tail. I didn’t see it the first time through but it came charging off the page as I went looking for proof of Friday’s post.
The Long Tail a thoroughly partial book. As I read through a second time, I was struck by what is missing. You give plenty of attention to aggregators like Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, eBay, and Google and pretty much ignore the rest of capitalism! You have taken on one of the most explosive developments in contemporary capitalism…only to offer a partial view and a single solution. It’s as if you declined the larger intellectual challenge.
Readers who doubt this argument may wish to examine the index and see if they can find brand names that are not aggregator related. What is missing in The Long Tail is the work horse of capitalism, the corporation, and the extraordinary challenges that now confronts its innovation, strategy and marketing functions. As virtually everyone knows, the corporate world is scrambling to deal with the speed with which taste and preference now fragment and change. In turns out, The Long Tail pipe has pretty much a single answer for exploding markets: big (or bigger) pipes.
There are two problems with this answer. First, there can only be a few aggregators in the world, and this limits the usefulness of this book for the rest of the world. Second, bigger pipes isn’t, in the larger order of things, really the most interesting, ambitious or canny solution. What the "aggregator answer" ignores are the real challenges that exist as a single corporation learns how to be many things to many people, how it makes the boundary of the corporation more porous, letting the world in and innovation out, how it escapes the inevitable gravitational field created by the corporate culture, how it accomplishes some kind of continuity in the face of its external and increasing internal discontinuity. The scope of this book is smaller than I realized, in its ambition, in its accomplishment, and in its usefulness.
A case in point: At the culture camp here today in Toronto, we were wondering if a corporation like say P&G or Kraft might ever solve the problem of dynamic culture and commerce by becoming more like a Hollywood studio, a pool of capital, intelligence and decision making that draws continually on an external world in order to create the stream of innovation that now appears to be necessary for a corporation to survive. This is of the many things The Long Tail might have explored.
Listen, I have to get ready for tomorrow, let me close with this. It seems to be that The Long Tail treats an astonishing problem, with a narrow, partial, and one might even say provincial response. I rest my case.