Debunking the “long tail”

It’s not an attractive thing,  I-told-you-so-ism. And the joy of being proved right by an academic study (“and it took $100,000 to prove X Y or Z, when anyone with an ounce of common sense could have told you!”) is usually dimmed by thinking about the good things one could have done with a similar amount of money.  But I am relishing the reports about how the “long tail” idea so eloquently promoted by Chris Anderson of Wired magazine is being shown up for the fantasy it is. It never made sense, any more than the crazy stock market or the price of houses. No limits, endless wealth, just keep believing.

The question people didn’t ask when an author like Anderson came out with a new pronouncement about how we’re all going to make scads of money in the new economy was simple: “Who benefits?” The author benefits immediately, with book sales and substantial speaking fees. In Anderson’s case, he secured Wired magazine, too. It was great because it was explicitly not a get-rich-quick scheme but a get-rich-pretty-fast scheme. A wonderful package. I spoke just after Anderson at Digital Now last year and felt a bit out of step, as a realist, telling people they’d better make sure there was a demand for online community, or something in existence, before going out and investing in what a couple participants described as a place you could hear the crickets chirping.

I guess that’s what you can hear in the long tail these days. Here’s a bundling of comments about the death of the long tail, at the New York Times.

I want community, not another “connection”

I started this post in the autumn of 2008 and it’s wrong. I thought that online social networking would level out because people would be too busy trying to keep their jobs or find new ones to fool around at Facebook. With the cash squeeze, I thought that free social networking sites would have their venture money restricted.  I did not realize how powerful the need for connection would be and that even something as frivolous as Twitter could help people get through tough times. That’s right, I think the main motivator of all this listing and posting isn’t business but personal connection. Friends tell me they get some good ideas from Twitter posts, but if you look at it in terms of cost/benefit, there’s no way Twitter is a better use of time than some focused research or a call to the right person. The small group of people I follow are good sources, actually. They seem to have a lot more free time than I do and  I am glad to benefit from their reading. But I get no real sense of community from this – it’s too disjointed and superficial. But other people do find it helpful and warming, and in tough times who can criticize?

Here’s the post I started six months ago:

One good thing about the economic crisis is that there isn’t going to be so much money going into new “community” sites so i should get so many invitations to connect on yet another platform. You know, these e-mails that try to get me to login  to see who among the people I vaguely know has connected to whom (people I don’t know at all).  I belong, technically, to Plaxo and LinkedIn and Facebook, but I don’t in any way try to keep up with people there. Then there’s the cyber-social stalking. A guy I once interviewed for a job has sent me more requests to connect that anyone I know. I finally had enough and responded, through Facebook, “Ernie, I have received more requests to connect from you than from my friends. Please please take me off your various lists–no hard feelings, but I just have too much else to do. No more mail please! Good luck to you, Karen.” He wrote back quickly, “No worries, my fault and it won’t happen again.” But I got something else from him not long ago.

Again, homesick for London

At the office we’ve been editing some TV interviews I did 20 years ago, when I was a young mum in London, and new author of one of the first books about green living. My daughter Rachel, who is graduating from college, was then a chubbynewborn who modeled cloth nappies for my interviews and photo shoots. I asked whether she minded our posting the clips on YouTube. “If you don’t mind being laughed at,” she said. It’s my English accent she finds most ridiculous, but she says the hair and clothes are bad, too.

And she’s right, but I still think it’ll be fun to have some historic clips on my company’s Sustainability Project website. Here’s a bit about that last year in London:

Spring flowers were early, but by March the mornings were frosty again and the days dark and damp. “Funny weather, innit?” said the telephone operator one day, “I think it must be that ozone you keep hearing about.” When the sun did emerge, it shocked me after the long dark weeks.  It showed up the circles under my eyes and the stains on the children’s clothes. I tried to relish my new life and its many possibilities. But I had too little money to be sanguine about any of my choices working out smoothly, and I felt bereft of some of the things I had given my heart to for almost 10 years. When I was 20, the view from Waterloo Bridge – east to St Paul’s and the City of London, west to Westminster and the Houses of Parliment – had choked me with joy.  Now I couldn’t see its beauties.  I knew I should enjoy it, since once we left I would only ever be in London as a visitor, but I couldn’t. It wasn’t just that trips to museums with two small children were no fun, what with trips to the restroom and trying to keep them quiet on the bus.  I felt uncomfortable going out alone in the evening, anxious about the walk back up the Grove to the empty flat. My neighbors were wonderful – we could drop in, and they would ply us with tea, and even feed us. One friend who had two children and two foster children used to dish up mounds of fish fingers and chips and peas – all from the freezer – and Tom would wolf down more than it seemed possible for a 4-year-old to eat. I worried more that people would think I wasn’t feeding them than about the fact that they seemed to love the kind of food they never got at home.

The other Karen Christensens

It’s been amusing to see my son Tom Christensen respond to the fact that there is a well-known China expert at Princeton, and until recently at the State Department, whose name is Tom Christensen. We met him at the Asian Studies Association conference and I saw him in New York last week, too, at the National Committee’s members’ meeting, where I told him that for Tom it’s like being a minor college basketball player named Michael Jordan. While I haven’t run into another Karen Christensen, I discovered quite a while ago, thanks to a Library of Congress cataloguer, that there is a Karen Christensen at UC Berkeley whose expertise crosses mine (she is a real academic, of course!), as she is at the College of Environmental Design. And she is also a Sage author.

This train of thought inspired by work on the Encyclopedia of Sustainability. I just noticed that Whole Foods Market has a global produce buyer, who spoke recently at a sustainable food conference, called Karen Christensen. Here’s her bio, which says “From bananas to broccoli rabe, Christensen is a wealth of knowledge of all things grown from the earth.”

Better all round than a friend of mine who had a Canadian porn star as a namesake. I guess in Canada porn stars stick to their birth names – my friend’s name was a perfectly ordinary one.

Encyclopedia + jiaozi

Here we are, the core design, composition, and editorial team! For more photos from the party, visit us at Flickr. The photos there are captioned with everyone’s name. For now, maybe you want to guess who’s the design genius, who’s the nice person on the phone, who checked all the Chinese. And notice who’s got her volume the wrong way round.  Just showing off the beautiful back cover, of course.Berkshire China team--and Great Barrington lilac

Berkshire China team–and Great Barrington lilac