Two Digital Fallacies

The first is what I call the Long Tail Fallacy. It goes like this:

  1. Look on the shelves of a big chain bookstore or music store. It's mainly mainstream stuff. Boo.
  2. Look at the variety at Amazon or iTunes. Hooray!
  3. Isn't it great how the Internet has liberated us from the tyranny of physical shelves and geography?

Did you see the switch? Here it is again. Watch closely.

  1. Look at what was on mainstream network TV decades ago. Not much. Boo.
  2. Look at all that variety on YouTube. Hooray!
  3. Isn't it great how the Internet has liberated us from the tyranny of mainstream media?

See how I did that? Or again, this time from Digitally Enabled Social Change by Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport (p91).

  1. Look at offline rallies as reported by the New York Times. Only big and complex protest events. Boo.
  2. Look on the Internet. Online petitions, campaigns to save TV shows, all kinds of actions. Hooray!
  3. Isn't it great how the Internet has unleashed a torrent of activism among the population?

I think of the second as the Christmas Fallacy:

  1. Publishing used to be expensive.
  2. Now it's cheap.
  3. We have an abundance of publishing!

Seems reasonable enough? What about this:

  1. Christmas comes but once a year.
  2. I wish it could be Christmas every day.
  3. We'd have an abundance of Christmas!

We wouldn't, of course. We'd have no Christmas at all.

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  1. Your Christmas fallacy reminds me of a line from The Incredibles – “when everyone is a super, nobody will be.”

  2. It’s been a long time since your full assault on The Long Tail theory. The evidence doesn’t support the idea that the tail, in aggregate, will out sell the head but I thought “the tyranny of the shelf/geography” was still a reasonable idea. I thought Netflix made a big difference for genres like Manga, Bollywood, and documentaries. Not so?
    How ’bout this one:
    1. Photography used to be hard/expensive
    2. Now it’s easy/cheap
    3. We have an abundance of high quality photography
    I think this one is bang on.

  3. Graeme – That’s shorter and better. Thanks.
    RAD – with lots of respect for your own skill, do you mean high quality like this? I like the piece here:
    Digital photography is to film-based photography as film photography is to painting. They are just different.

  4. We wouldn’t, of course. We’d have no Christmas at all.
    Well, as a Jew married to a non-Jew, I could go for this.
    Not sure what the corresponding situation is for the long-tail situation, but that can be your lookout.

  5. Wait I don’t understand. Are you saying music on iTunes is not the same as music at a retail store? Or are you saying mainstream stuff is not the same as non mainstream stuff?
    The way I see it the long tail is about probabilities, not about actual sales. Like Machine of Death, which for a while outsold Glen(n?) Beck’s books. Glen then basically advertised for that book by talking about what a terrible book it was. It came from a subculture he literally could not understand. That subculture would’ve stayed in obscurity forever, but had a moment in the sun thanks to the power of randomness.

  6. Tom. You seem angry. This is not your best post. Publishing on many topics I enjoy reading seems to be increased in high quality ways. Baseball, home cooking, music, technology (particularly the blogs of developers or the John Siracusa-type reviews of software), podcasts have decreased the scale required for radio ( !!!). Don’t be so grumpy. Variety exists. Bob Ryan is no longer the authority on baseball I am forced to read. I can watch the Red Sox even though I live in the Midwest. I can maintain friendships with people scattered across the world. This is better. I can see gorgeous pictures and learn how to cook Korean food. Or Cajun. I can learn about Canada even. What is it that you are missing? So the technologists oversell like used car salesmen. So what? I can read your cranky musings. For free. Way better than having David Carr. For this and a thousand small things (Andy Baio! @Mike_FTW!) I am thankful.

  7. tqop – What a lovely comment: thanks. I do think there is a difference between the diversity we produce and the overall diversity consumed (see here from a couple of years ago for an argument on that. But I will try not to be angry and to appreciate the good things.

  8. Agreeing with most of the statements on each second point but not too sure if having everything “ready” at hand is doing us any good. Alquiler de Coches

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