While out of the office for a few days this week, I finished reading The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, by Wired editor Chris Anderson. A fantastic book - this year's Tipping Point. An enhanced version of Anderson's original Wired article is available here, and the Wikipedia article on the Long Tail concept is a concise introduction (and even referenced in the book itself).
In brief, the Long Tail is about the fact that because we have virtually infinite access to basically everything (books via Amazon, music via iTunes, movies via Netflix, etc.), there's profitability and significance in the long tail of niche items far beyond the "short head" of bestsellers and hits. Anderson argues that we are moving from a hit culture to a niche culture, from blockbusters to nichebusters. This correlates well with something sociologists and cultural commentators have been saying for years, that we've moved from a broadcast society to a narrowcast society. We used to have three networks and three automakers. Now we have seemingly infinite choice in almost every sphere of commerce and media. The frontlist is not nearly as important as the backlist. One person's noise is another's signal - niche products, by definition, are not for everyone.
What this means is that filters and search engines are increasingly important in order to access all those niche products. It's a development from the information age to the recommendation age. You don't get stuff just because it's available - you get it because someone directs you to it, whether a blog or a friend or an online retailer that tracks your purchases and finds parallel items for you. It's the difference between grocery stores with mass agglomerations of possible choices and Amazon's recommendations that people like you liked this or that. Anderson says that this is one of the main advantages of online commerce - besides having infinite shelf space, online retailers can personalize and target the shopper in ways that physical stores can't. When we go to a mall, we might self-select somewhat by going into a Disney store instead of Abercrombie & Fitch or the Gap. But these days retail employees generally don't have access to enough data to tell customers that if they liked this artist they'll probably like that one, or that fans of this novelist also liked this author.
We're also shifting from a consumer culture to a producer culture. I thought this was very insightful. We are less captivated by commercial products because so many of us have the tools and resources to produce our own cultural artifacts. New personal computers these days have digital video and music editing software, so we don't need studios or professional resources to make something that will get tons of eyeballs on YouTube. Anybody with online access can blog. I'm musing over how this is changing how we use commercial media. (As an editor, I think my authors might write books differently now in a blogosphere world than they did five years ago.) And it gives us an alternative to consumer culture - we can exercise the practice of creativity. As I say in my book, the opposite of consumption is production, and Andy Crouch has called Christians to not merely condemn culture or copy culture or consume culture, but to create culture.
Some wonder if customization and personalization will result in hyper-narcissism. Do we only read blogs that affirm our existing biases and interests, and don't challenge us to think outside our tribal preferences? I think the potential for that is certainly out there (the "Daily Me" concept mentioned some years ago), but I don't know that tribalism equals narcissism. Anderson would argue that all of us have always been particular individuals interested in particular topics and belonging to particular communities, and previous generations of mass media and mass culture simply masked the fragmentation that has always existed. He says that we're leaving the "watercooler era" where we talk about mass hits and move toward microcultures that are all into different things. It seems to me that plenty of us still talk about mass hits like Lost or 24, but maybe these in themselves represent particular niche tribes.
Another observation - we're moving from mass production and conformity to mass customization and personalization. Anderson says that we're moving from "I want to be normal" (like keeping up with the Joneses) to "I want to be special." This kind of relates to suburban culture - people have always critiqued suburbia as being cookie-cutter and conformist, but the reality seems to be that even within subdivisions of clone homes, there's all sorts of customization and personalization going on. Of course, these are all major forces in American history - Western individualism and frontier pioneer spirit meet industrial mass production and postindustrial consumer culture . . . so of course what we experience in day-to-day life will be a mix of individual and communal, particular and tribal.
And each of us are in many tribes simultaneously, whether in music, hobbies, gadgets, theology, geek culture, etc. I just saw the October issue of Christianity Today, which is even bigger than the last issue I just blogged about because it's their 50th anniversary, and I think American evangelical Christianity has certainly fragmented and is no longer a monolithic evangelical subculture, if it ever truly was. We don't just have "Billy Graham Christians" anymore - now there are Emergent types that follow Brian McLaren or Rob Bell, the Reformed crowd that follows John Piper and Albert Mohler, the megachurch models of Willow Creek or Saddleback, progressive social activists in the tradition of Ron Sider and Shane Claiborne, never mind the prosperity gospel people or whatever . . . there's no end to tribalism even within evangelicalism.
So is there a Long Tail for Christians or churches? Maybe the upcoming Urbana 06 student mission convention is an example. This year's theme is "You Have a Calling," with a description that says in part, "Hundreds of Conversations, Thousands of Students, Endless Possibilities." A mass of 20,000+ motivated, mission-minded Christians will be exposed to a dizzying array of ministry opportunities from Bible translation and church planting to business as mission or relief and development or TESOL or global justice or AIDS work or microenterprise or whatever. There are search tools to help Urbana delegates filter down to find the mission agencies and organizations that line up with their interests and skills. So I'm glad that there's a long tail of ministry possibilities out there, and convention workshops and resources to help people find their niche in the kingdom.