The Long Tail, or Just the Trailing Edge?

Blog Attention Curve 2
The Long Tail is the name, coined by Chris Anderson at Wired, for the long thin right-hand side of Clay Shirkyís Power Law curves (example above). It represents the large and diverse majority that, for one reason or another, attracts little attention relative to that garnered by the ‘Big Head’. Why is this? Usually because this majority lacks the power, the single-mindedness, the authority and the money, at least one of which is needed to attract significant attention. It’s the poor-to-middle income earner. The non-bloc voter. Those on the wrong side of the digital divide. The consumer who can’t or won’t spend extravagantly. The unexceptional and disconnected student or entrepreneur. The front-line worker. The alternative media. The unemployed and underemployed. The reader, viewer or listener. The spectator. The uninformed. The disaffected.

The very metaphor of a ìlong tailî cries out impotence: The tail never wags the dog. The tail is the end, the part near the rump, always trailing the leaders, always behind those in front.

Living On the Edge 2
That’s why I prefer the circular metaphor of the Centre and the Edge, with their conflicting centrifugal and centripetal forces in uneasy balance. The Big Head is the Centre, those with power and authority, the Centre of Attention, the A-List. The Long Tail is everything else, from the circles caught between Centre and Edge to the Edge itself.

Those outside the Centre have superior numbers but, because of our diversity, these numbers carry no advantage ñ we are at least as likely to disagree strongly with others outside the Centre as with those in the Centre.

The Long Tail doesn’t reflect the subtlety of the many constituents who are neither in the Centre nor on the Edge, but are either somewhere in between, or are, in different respects, both in the Centre and on the Edge. Like those politically in the Centre (left or right side) but socially, economically or philosophically way out on the Edge ñ such as the poor and sick still seeking justice working within the system. Or like those wealthy progressives politically and philosophically and technologically estranged from most of their economic cohorts ñ who don’t think tax cuts for the rich are a great idea.

The Long Tail is a ‘markets’ way of looking at populations, not a social network view. I recently saw a guy wearing a T-shirt that read “I am NOT a consumer demographic”, and I wanted to go over and hug him. In the Long Tail, we are each a population of one, infinitely diverse and unique.

So there are two problems with being outside the Centre, in the Long Tail, that prevent us from being a force proportionate to our numbers:

  1. We lack cohesion, and an effective way of finding truly like minds, so we are impotent, and hence ignored by the mainstream media (and just about everyone else); and
  2. None of us is completely outside the Centre in all respects or for all our lives, so there is no affinity to the Edge the way there is among those in the Centre, where their relative unity of worldview (and sense of being outnumbered) makes them cling together in self-congratulatory and self-supporting economic, political or technological unity ñ to the point they are defined, connected and entrenched by their rarified affinity

The key point here is that, on the Edge or in the Long Tail, important stuff (ideas, issues, information and connections) gets no attention, or at least no sustained attention: There is just too much stuff for the important to be discovered and kept in public view. Two days ago my readership spiked 50% because of a flurry of readers of two different articles I wrote months ago, one that had been ‘discovered’ by an A-lister and the other that appeared on one of the ‘whatís hot’ social bookmarking lists. But a day later the attention was gone, the same as it is for those in the real-world Long Tail who get their fleeting fifteen minutes of fame in the mainstream media or some brief celebrity on YouTube.

It doesnít matter that the Long Tail represents, in aggregate,  more people, more page-views, more wealth than the Big Head could ever dream of. When there is no attention, or when it is too broadly or quickly dissipated, there is no opportunity for significant impact or change or coherent action. So many of us end up aspiring to the popularity of the Centre, to the point we are willing to compromise everything just to attain it, not (just) because we crave the attention and appreciation, but because we know itís essential to get attention first if we want to change anything. We become reluctant whores to the Centre because only through the Centre’s potent infrastructure can we reach the others outside it.

What we need is a model, a process, a capacity to identify, connect and collaborate with those outside the Centre without being co-opted by the Centre to achieve it. Iíve looked for examples, but theyíre hard to come by. Until then, weíll remain impotent, disenfranchised, andfrustrated. The hinterland (from the German words meaning ëthe land behindí) may be beautiful, but itís not, at least not yet, where itís happening.

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7 Responses to The Long Tail, or Just the Trailing Edge?

  1. “a capacity to identify, connect and collaborate with those outside the Centre without being co-opted by the Centre to achieve it.”Is this not at least close to what you are looking for? part of the Zaadz social network.

  2. Siona says:

    Oh, Dave.I identify wholly with the Edge you describe. Though I feel a great sense of affinity for everyone in this system, whether or not they describe themselves as a no-logo activist or a member of the political elite. I think that being in the Centre, oddly, can be more scary and feels more disempowering than being closer to the outside. But this is not what I wanted to say. What I wanted to say was that, though I would readily self-describe as a member closer to the Edge, I also do not feel remotely impotent or disenfranchised or frustrated. I feel I know all manner of extraordinary human voices and exemplary visionaries who are doing much by way of change, and who understand the deeper values and visions necessary for a new future, and who are courageously moving forward in sharing these dreams. And I’ve spoken to you about this before, but I’ve found this mostly by connecting inwards. The more I’m able to connect with myself the more authentically I’m able to connect with others, and the incredible number of former strangers I’ve come across – online and in the oddest of circumstances – who GET this need for a different world gives me such hope. I don’t know. I empathize with what you’re saying. But at the same time, I don’t relate much to that sense of disconnect. I daresay I feel much more personal power in my current position, as someone who has a painful, devastating awareness of the ache of the planet and the people on it, and as someone who feels an inexorable need to do something about that ache, than I would were I caught up in the close-to-the-Centre mechanisms. I feel the power of community . . . and this, I’ve found, cannot exist where there’s deep denial. The power of the circle is the power of the Edge, and I’m not sure I can think of a power greater.

  3. Chris O'Sullivan says:

    i find this interesting to be so distant. i find it relieving to have the support as i sit here. but, where r u going. i want to know.

  4. Martin-Eric says:

    While someone in the Center might feel temporary relief from knowing that they won’t hurt anyone’s feelings by having culture, purchasing habits and political opinions that similar to a majority of people, soon comes the day where nobody takes a stand for anything and where people all start to feel and sound the same, to the point that they manage to bore themselves to death.This being said, the feeling of disempowerment resulting from being at the wrong end of the power curve is real. You have certain values, you know that others share them in significant numbers and then you find that the powers that be routinely ignore or downright silence those that don’t agree with them. There were various articles over the last few days on the blogosphere about how the social contract was broken sometimes in the 80’s, in most countries. Ever since then, people have lost faith in in democracy, in the economy and in society overall, because they realize that their presence is barely tolerated and only if they are willing cogs in the sleazy game of filling the pockets of the already riches and of further securing the power of political despots.That Internet has allowed people to notice that the Long Tail exists is correct. That it hasn’t brought any solution to bring back a balance against megacorporations and politicans – who both resort to private milicias to secure their positions and perform their dirty deeds – is also unfortunately true. Gandhi’s peaceful protest aproahc works well against “leaders” that have at least half a conscience, but it’s powerless against “leaders” armed with weapons designed to maim entire crowds into obedience. When silencing the opposition is about pushing a button, there is no possibility to appeal to the silencer’s human of compassion. It’s also powerless against megacorporations who are adamant about asserting their copyrights (via lawsuits that bankrupts mere citizens) at the expense of preserving a nation’s cultural heritage.

  5. DaveWalen says:

    I see what the article is saying. And the comment above from Martin makes sense as well, that the internet has allowed us to see things this vast. I have also struggled to see a way to create a new way to live, and am seeing this barrier ramp to the motions I want to go with. I think the problem is that we as a humanity are starting to see that there are many answers to the problems of more numbers, and a lot of them will cause some other unforeseen event or lifestyle to arrive. One example I have pondered for many years is MEGASTRUCTURE. Paolo Soleri style. If you look at examples that have succeeded: Ponte Veccio, London Bridge, Boats, Oil rigs, etc.. They are all based on an idea, that is benefitial to the city centered world. The “flat” city. It takes a special cause to initiate the need for a Megastucture. In other words, oil, defense, etc. What if the special cause was sustainable 3D Megastructural village of villages? There are examples. But not the perfect one yet.

  6. Pearl says:

    I need more examples.My understanding is the site that comprise the tail haven’t had a tipping point of traffic popularity. The is in the top 100 blogs and so is BoingBoing, that is part of the dog. I can see how more readership is more influence and bigger stake in pop culture and reflects mainstream group desire in the same way box office takes of big movies represent big viewership.I don’t know if we both mean the same by long tail effect or how it’s matching up to politics.

  7. What you are writing about sounds like a Dependency Theory ( of the blogosphere to me.

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