Historians have gradually come to accept this upward growth. When it comes to innovation, they focus on those new technologies that become ubiquitous; the big hits like the car, penicillin, and the airplane. Things that revolutionize everyone’s lives and are directly experienced by nearly everyone. In short, those things that made it to the head of a power law distribution.
Almost nine years ago, Chris Anderson asked us to look at another direction that humanity is scaling—out into the tail. The message of The Long Tail, both the article and subsequent book, is that digital technology, networked together, is making those head-of-the-tail mass products and big hits less important relative to the rapidly growing variety of things enjoyed by smaller numbers of people.
In truth, this is not unique to digital technology and networks, nor is it a new trend. We have been scaling out as well as up since the very beginning of the extraordinary revolution in the material well being of mankind that has been erroneously called Industrial.
In the book, Anderson concedes this to a certain extent, citing the Sears catalogue in the 19th century as a precursor to Amazon.com and the enthusiast magazines in the 1970s as a precursor to blogs. But it runs much deeper than that. From the very start, increased prosperity meant increased ability to pursue interests that only appealed to the relative few. We see this in the growth of scholarship delving into ever more niche subjects, dating back a long ways but visibly exploding in the 19th century and on.
Though Anderson speaks in a rhetoric of mass market in opposition to niche markets, and the head as opposed to the tail, there is no particular tension between scaling up and scaling out. There are trade-offs in everything, of course, but often scaling up actually creates the scaling out.
In The Gated City, Ryan Avent points to a number of ways in which this occurs when cities scale up in population. In one example, he asks to imagine a scenario in which a Vietnamese restaurant needs 1,000 customers to remain in operation. If only 1 in 100 people like Vietnamese, then a city of 10,000 people will be unable to support a single restaurant, whereas a city of 1,000,000 is capable of supporting a whole labor market of individuals who specialize in nothing but Vietnamese cooking. The larger the city, the more businesses can survive by catering to ever smaller subsets of it—in other words, the longer the tail.
Moreover, the very phenomena that Anderson documents are only possible because of gigantic mass markets in computer manufacturing. The personal computer made it possible for everyone to become a desktop publisher, and adding the Internet to the equation made it possible for everyone to distribute their works to anyone anywhere in the world with a connection. The trends at the head of the tail, in other words, are what provided the tools of production to populate the long tail.
Contra Anderson, the potential head of the tail is getting larger relative to the tail—not smaller. Over a billion people are connected to the Internet today. This means that a piece of content can go from an audience of a handful of friends to an audience of over a billion in the blink of an eye.
And markets have been becoming larger, more global, and more interconnected in general, beyond the specific infrastructure of the Internet. Consider Harry Potter, a series that resulted in over 450 million books sold and eight global blockbuster movies—to say nothing of merchandise revenue. The head of the tail is very volatile—Harry Potters only come but rarely, giving us the illusion in the interim that there may be a trend away from big hits. But network effects create skew—and we live in a networked age.
Skew does not sacrifice diversity. Harry Potter created not only enormous sales, but numerous fan communities. Harry Potter scaled both upwards and outwards. The communities are niche—though they occupy a much larger niche than, say, Naruto fan communities, which in turn occupy a much larger niche than Madeleine L’engle fan communities. Power law distributions are fractal; no matter how far down the tail you travel, you will never encounter equality—you’ll just find a smaller power law distribution.
We never lived in a bland mass culture. We have long been expanding the diversity of our choices, in addition to the quantity of what we can produce.