culture by commotion and the long tail


Thanks to Chris Anderson, we are getting a clearer view of the economics of a heterogeneous society. Chris has helped us understand ‘the long tail,” and I am devotedly grateful that he has referenced my work in his own.

The anthropologist wants to know why so many people are now prepared to produce culture on the far tail. These are the people who write novels and plays that will never find an agent or a mainstream publisher, who make indie films for which SxSW is the best venue to be hoped for, and who create theatre that is so far off Broadway it’s all about “Waiting for Guffman.”

At a certain point on the tail, producers are producing without expectation of a “livable wage.” Some of them, no doubt, have tournament dreams, that their work will be discovered and riches forthcoming. But many more soldier on without illusions, sustained by “day jobs,” the enthusiasm of equally obscure enthusiasts, and the intrinsic satisfactions of the craft. These are like journey men who spend middle age in double AA baseball, playing for the “love the game” and not much more.

In Plenitude, I have tried to account for some of the forces that produce these producers. One of these forces is the death of awe. We are not wowed. We come away from movies, theatre, Barnes and Noble and say, “I could do that.” And then some of us try. We are newly daring, presumptuous, assuming. Add to this, better educations, a constant, nearly intravenous, media exposure, and an ethic of individualism that still prizes creativity as the sine qua non of self hood. It’s perhaps inevitable that we should have novelists, film makers, poets, playwrights, essayists, journalists profoundly in excess of requirement.

And I guess this is where the economy kicks into action—not as a way to take the minor players’ products to market, but further up stream, as a way to help them make those products in the first place. These people need an infrastructure.

Pam, my wife, was telling me about friends of hers, the Martins*, who have for years struggled to make a living staging and producing their own plays. Recently, the Martins decided to rent their stage out to other aspiring actors and playwrights and, hey presto, they were suddenly in the money. It turns out there are many struggling playwrights, actors, and directors who need a place to prepare themselves for auditions. The Martins do not just supply a stage. When needed, they supply actors, directors or play doctors.

Now, I know this sounds like a Vanity Press operation. (In the case of book publishing, Vanity Presses see a book into print, but not into book stores.) But the Martins discovered they weren’t attracting “losers” in need of vanity support, but people with bags of talented. In fact, the people who came to the Martins’ stage to learn the craft, ended up, some of them, serving in the Martins’ own productions. It was as if the Martins had created a North Sea oil platform. Life that came for shelter eventually began to flourish.

And this is when a culture of plenitude begins to redouble its productivity. When even our second and third string produces stuff that’s up to standard, well, that’s interesting. But note the failure of gravity. When these players come up, they don’t owe anyone anything. They don’t need to trade anything away to get where they are going. Now we have talented, capable players on the margin who might as well be feral. This is when the culture of commotion gets a quite a lot more commotionful.


Anderson, Chris. 2005. The Tragically Neglected Economics of Abundance, March 6, 2005.