Almost certainly the most important and influential piece of writing in understanding the next emerging socioeconomic phenomenon is The Long Tail, which is now set to become a book and a blog. Well that is apart from some weird and esoteric piece of work from the 1980s that will now surely come to light and gain a widespread audience based on the Long Tail Long Tail phenomenon.. but enough recursive thinking…
One of the key themes in the Long Tail is that its no bad thing marketing to niches; the whole notion of mass marketing is on the verge of breaking down. As Seth Godin puts it – will the music industry go the way of the hat industry?
Well imagine how the neurons started firing while i read this introduction to the notion of Situated Software from Clay Shirky, where he argues that thinking in terms of “the user” is somewhat unhelpful and even unecessary given the power of current tools.
Situated software doesn’t need to be personalized — it is personal from its inception.
One of my students mentioned building a web application for his mother, a schoolteacher, to keep track of her class. If you were working alone, unpaid, and in your spare time, there’s no way you could make an application that would satisfy the general and complete needs of schoolteachers everywhere. You could make one for your mom, though.
Small, purpose-built apps have always existed, of course — learning BASIC used to be a rite of passage for PC owners, and data intensive institutions like investment banks and research labs write software for small groups of users. Now, though, the combination of good tools, talented users and the internet as a social stage makes the construction of such software simpler, the quality of the result better, and the delivery to the users as simple as clicking a link. The design center of a dozen users, so hard to serve in the past, may become normal practice.
I have already come across one blogger that i thought had spliced the same memes when i saw this title but it turns out that the meme is still up for pointing to. Ross Mayfield also has some related thoughts on the subject, even if he is just dinging Scoble. Should i link to Scoble just because i mention him-if i want this memesplice to reach more people i probably should, even if he is crying off busy.
I am sure that Clay’s work will continue to feed into Tim O’Reilly’s architecture of participation. What is the Long Tail after all, if not the right to fork?
I am going to be doing more thinking, browsing and aggregating about tools to build niches. One idea that immediately strikes me is that nicheism is one way to cope with the coming marketingtechnologylivingtools singularity, a brilliant crazy view of bloggers as synapses on an emerging neural fractal supernet by Jennifer Rice. By that i mean pace and change is so great that we need to find social niches where we’re comfortable otherwise we would just go crazy. An example of this tendency in action might be the recent US election, where people stopped worrying about complexity and policy and just voted for their tribe instead. That is obviously more short tail–what could be more mass market than a general election–but the flight to comfort is what i am thinking about. And one crucial group in winning the election was the Religious Right, which has been a long time coming and once looked like a minor niche but now dictates school policy.
Many of the big brands of this century will surely be social niches, and will be far more short lived than 20th century brands (The tail moves on, “iPods are so passe“). So what are the tools needed to build them?
One blog from earlier in the year i think is very relevant to question of niche and tail is The BBC Will Open Source Its Program Archive. . I love the fact that the day the BBC announced it would open source its program archive the Royal Archeological Society called the beeb to say they already had a complete record of every BBC show in their field.
The digitized world will require an awful lot of tending (garden metaphor), categorizing and indexing (library metaphor). Who will do that? Amateurs, professionals or pro-ams? No company is going to be able to afford to hire enough gardeners or librarians to do the work. That is why enterprise haves no real choice but to encourage participation. You won’t be able to digititize and usefully annotate your own data; there is just too much of it and more being generated all the time. Its like fast food-customers pay restaurants to clean up their own trash after they eat?
Anyway on a final note who will be the winners and losers? Those with semantically rich platforms will succeed (eBay, Google, flickr, Amazon). But also vendors that help with niche building. In case anyone didn’t notice Microsoft has provided the kind of tools that allow someone to build an app for their mom for a long time. With its MSN Spaces initiative i am sure we’ll see a ton of weird flowers bloom, but Microsoft needs to start thinking differently about intellectual property if it wants to play. A truly killer combo would be MSN Spaces combined with the CreativeCommons. That would have the potential to be a knock it out of the park Architecture of Participation. If the MSN Spaces team really wants to succeed they should be talking to Larry Lessig, not getting their own lawyers to try and come up with a clear, well thought out policy on content ownership. Why bother when Larry already did it and you could earn serious kudos from the open community? Microsoft needs to understand that DRM should be turned to low by default – its the opposite of what you need for decent systems security configuration.
While The Long Tail nails the meme of the year- it is the CreativeCommons license that is going to drive Long Tail affects. It is an essential underpinning for what happens next; it will drive architectures of participation. The CC is now in American, English, Italian and German – hopefully it won’t be long before its in Swahili too…
What is the Future of Software Development? Building with Open Services and open intellectual property models.
The final underpinning service i want to mention that will underpin all these niches is identity. What hat are we wearing at a given time? what niche are we in? anonymous? locked down identity? am i web searching as a flower enthusiast or to buy a new car? [there is a great blog out there about a guy who came up with this idea and posted it before visiting Microsoft's research search shindig but i cant find the darned thing]. The point is that the drive to nail down a single canonical identity is somewhat of a chimera. Identities are only useful in as much as they have a context. To paraphrase Wittgenstein – [the meaning of a word is its use in the language] – The Identity of a thing is its use in the system. We don’t fewer stronger identitiies we need more ad hoc ones… Which brings us to the thinking of noted “cypherpunks” like Kim Cameron or these South African academics. Should also have included sxip and others according to Marc’s Voice.
Anyhow time is getting on, and i need to go buy my wife some martial arts videos for Christmas or i am dead. The early works of Jet Li – who would have guessed that a compilation of martial arts movies would be a hot seller in London this Christmas? Someone tracking the Long Tail that’s who. Does this blog have anything to do with software development? i don’t know – you tell me.
Have a great Christmas all.