Friday, September 29, 2006

The Long Tail, niche culture, creativity, tribalism and calling

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.


sacred vapor said...

Hi Al,
I enjoy reading your blogs.
Just to comment from my own experiences lately, I work as a tech manager for an education publisher, and it's amazing how the education field (k-12) has changed recently.

Not very long ago, textbooks were marketed on a national level. Then States demanded their own textbooks (targeting their own standards), and it is now moving down to the disctrict level. Recently, publishers are thinking of ways to allow teachers to customize books for their own classes, and students will eventually have their own published resources tailored to their own learning style.

This is just an example of how personalization and customozation can actually work for good... but it does make publishing 'content' real challenging.


Unknown said...

I wonder what this might mean for individual congregations? Does this mean, as any marketing analyst would have told us 10 years ago, that we need to find a niche and stop trying to focus on everything at once?

As you said, recommendations seem to run the economy now. I was a great fan of both tipping point and blink, and found them useful for my ministry. Now I'm off to check out the Long Tail.


Kristi said...

Hi Al. I noticed that you're one of the "evangelical leaders" quoted several times in the most recent issue of CT. Very cool!

Just finished TSC--and I LOVED the last chapter. I'm going to go over it a couple more times to make sure I really digest it.

And finally, in support of your (and others') observations, I find that I rarely purchase anything anymore--even eyeshadow or other such ephemera--without reading online product reviews first. It can get a little obsessive and exhausting, actually. That's when it's time to push back from the keyboard and get a real life.

Anonymous said...

Hey Al,

I direct the Sandy Cove Christian Writers' Conference in North East, Maryland ( and would love to have you join us next year (always the first week in October--I'm there now).

Al Hsu said...

One quick thought as to how nicheification (is that a word?) applies to churches - in some ways, this frees us from the tyranny of thinking that we all have to be full-service, all-things-to-all-people churches, which very few churches can really do. The long tail concept might say that churches don't all need to aspire to be Willow Creek-type megachurches, nor could they all be. In the overall body of Christ, there's room for all sorts of churches with all sorts of niches, focusing in on whatever things God has called them to do and be.

Whether we're talking about individual Christians or local churches, no one of us can do everything, but all of us can do something - perhaps one or two particular ministries or activities that we are especially suited and gifted for. And in a given geographical area, some will churches do children's programming really well while others excel at divorce care ministries or run the food pantry or have financial counseling or whatnot. Few individual churches can do it all, but all together, we can do a lot.

Anonymous said...

Our conversion to a niche society is very apparent. Take renting movies for example. I remember growing up you had just a few choices: Action, drama, comedy, romance. What was funny was all the stories were, in a roudabout way, the same within each genre. Now there is a movie about every situation, that every person, could have ever possibly been in. Also, there are a million independent movies endorsed by this and that film festival.

I now, for the first time in my life, live in the suburbs. My church has seeked to latch on to the "long tail" in several ways, trying to adhere to the customized needs of each person. What bothers me the most, and it is the biggest difference I see from the previous city churches I have been a part of, is that we begin to believe we deserve this customization. I interact with several people who think of leaving the church because they feel it isn't meeting their needs (what can you do for me attitude). I think in many ways this customization/niche movement has made us slightly self-seeking. To state things truthfully, I am having alot of trouble with the suburbs. I want to stand tall and be a "counterculture for the common good," as CT states, however I am having trouble doing so. The city, as violent and vicious as it is, seemed more genuine to me.

Anyhow Al, I enjoy your blog