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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I've been online since 1971 and I like to smoothe the way for everyone else. Among other things I co-founded Sympatico, the world's first easy-to-use Internet service (and Canada's largest).

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Tara Hunt and wrong questions

Tara Hunt is someone who really, really “gets it” and whom I admire a lot. And she has the gift of the gab. So I was taken aback when she posted something which wasn’t as cogent as usual: “But, you are asking the wrong question...”.

I can understand why Tara sounded a bit confused: she was post-morteming her answers to an on-air interview. I think I may be able to help with some perspective, given that I have the benefit of third-party distance. Of course only Tara can say whether this is “help” or “no, no, that’s not what I mean at all!”

(Small-world note: it turns out that Tara and my wife have worked on the same project, Cheapeats Toronto. I only became aware of the connection after my friend Lex, the dynamo behind Cheapeats, noticed that Tara had mentioned me in one of her posts.)

What is the Long Tail “really about”? Tara says she regrets having given Snakes on a Plane as an example. But, I think, she’s said so much about Snakes on a Plane that if it isn’t a good example of something, then the problem isn’t that it’s not a good example, but that the “something” is wrong. (Another way of saying what Tara did, that “you are asking the wrong question”.) This is what started me thinking, and caused me to write this post.

Tara says that the Long Tail is “about the celebration of getting small”. But small’s always been around (big has to start somewhere), and it’s been celebrated for a long time. So I don’t think that really nails it.

To me, the central thing here, and it may be different from the Long Tail (yes there is a Long Tail, but there always has been!), is that those who are not part of established interests can now compete with those established interests better than they could in the past. From a left-brain perspective I call this reduced barriers to entry; from a right-brain perspective I call it empowerment.

This has come about because technology has somewhat levelled the playing field. When this happened in the Wild West, someone said that “God made man and God made woman, but Samuel Colt made them equal.” The “established interests”, the physically strong people, had their advantage removed by technology.

There are tons of examples of this in the world at large. For instance, human rights defenders now use video cameras to “document abuse and create change”.

With the onset of Web 2.0, the participatory Web, the “small” can now do what only the “big” could do before. Bloggers can play in the same sandbox as established columnists; individual programmers can now bid for jobs from other countries; my wife now sells pretty mostly-vintage items on eBay.

Tara mentions Amazon, Netflix and iTunes, all of which get large revenues from their large collections of smaller-selling items. Less-popular books, movies etc. have always been around, but on the Web they’re easier to find, to recommend, etc. But I’m not sure that this force is the biggest one. Sure, it eases consumption of the small, but I think the bigger story here is on the production side: the small producers can now compete more effectively with the big ones. Canadian singer-songwriter Allison Crowe (never heard of her?—you have now) has her own website and records on her own independent record label, having turned down a major-label recording contract because she didn’t want to do things their way. She uses relatively cheap equipment to make good-quality CDs — and you can hear her rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah on iTunes. The playing field is still far from level in the music business, but it is changing.

And Snakes on a Plane does count. As Tara says, the story is “how a small group of people could hijack old media”. That it was a big-budget Hollywood production, as remarked by her interviewer, doesn’t cancel this as an example; if anything it strengthens it. A group of bloggers used the Internet to collectively create a modified version of a movie that was already in production. They didn’t shoot any film, but they had discussions, and made a new poster, that repositioned the movie somewhat. The people behind the film then changed it to match the new angle, including taking the extremely unusual step of shooting new footage after they’d already wrapped filming. These bloggers weren’t part of the Hollywood establishment; they used their technology-provided powers. And that, I think, is the answer to whatever the “right question” is.

UPDATE: Hugh MacLeod says that “The blogosphere doesn’t get us sales, but it makes us much smarter salesmen.” That is, it helps with production, not consumption.

UPDATE #2: Many people have commented that Snakes on a Plane didn’t do all that well at the box office, and that the Web 2.0 forces therefore failed. Here too the commentators are looking solely at consumption, not noticing the impact on production.


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