New Media Trainee

March 27, 2007

The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

Filed under: Long Tail — tenftpole @ 1:02 am

I think it was around 2001 when I thought of buying a couple music CDs I wanted that I previously had on cassette tape. I remember looking at several stores such as Borders and Best Buy, and even going to a used CD shop that specialized in rare finds. Unfortunately, it was a waste of time. The next day I decided to check out Amazon online and sure enough, I found used copies of the CDs I was looking for and had them by post in the next few days. It was gratifying to find exactly what I wanted and to be able to do it from my couch. It has pretty much been that way ever since. It’s easy now to find what was considered rare in my twenties.


The transactions I describe above are exactly the type of commerce that is made possible by digital technologies which have created The Long tail described by Chris Anderson in the book of the same name. eCommerce, made possible by the internet and the evolution of Web 2.0, has brought back ‘niche’ cultures. Niche cultures existed in the 19th century because of geography (every small town had its own culture). Then, in the 20th century, technologies from radio to TV to films brought us the blockbuster hit. Now, the internet has presented us with the ‘niche’ again. However, it’s different this time, because it’s about consumer choices and interests, not geography. We also still have access to the hits if we want them.


What makes it possible is how the internet combined with search and aggregators like Amazon and eBay have made distribution fairly cost free. The service they provide is connecting supply and demand through their services. In other words, it’s easier to connect a potential buyer to a product. Furthermore, because there’s no inventory (this is typically handled by third parties), aggregators can list a product that might only sell 1 or 2 copies a year because it doesn’t cost them to list it.  This is the 98% rule. Anderson discovered when researching digital jukeboxes. 98 percent of the songs sold at least once a quarter and the total profit from all those rare songs were equal to what money the major hits brought in.


Products are part of the long tail, but there is a ton of other cool stuff that’s actually created by users from films to Web 2.0 applications (blogs, freeware, wikis, and peer to peer networking). Take YouTube as an example. It’s now pretty easy to create your own film/video, put it on the web, and let it spread through viral marketing or recommendation based rankings. YouTube even has its own awards now. As technologies improve, I believe that the best of YouTube actually has the possibility of moving into the “hit” portion of the graph associated with the long tail.


Speaking of Web 2.0, Amazon and eBay are deserving of the term web 2.0 as defined by Tim O’Reilly. Web 2.0 uses the web as a platform, and the users add value through production or recommendations. Because of web 2.0, it is no longer the application that everyone wants, but the data. For instance, comparing Google Maps to MapQuest…they both have the same data, but Google Maps allows the user to add points of interest with comments that anyone can see.


I have to admit that when I purchased my CD’s online that I didn’t contemplate any of the above and what it all meant. I just thought it was really cool. It’s hard to think of why digital technologies and Web 2.0 are changing cultures or the way we communicate. But, it’s easy to understand the cool factor.

Anderson really provides a very good general explanation as to why The Long Tail matters. I’m just glad that I don’t have to rely on Casey Kasem to tell me what music is cool anymore or what movies I have to suffer through at the local theatre.

The Long Tail phenomenon made possible by digital technologies has given us all endless consumption based on individual interests whether it’s a movie, song, newspaper, or a particular type of grass seed we can’t get at the local store. Even if it’s crap in someone’s eyes, it’s still there for the one or two people who think it’s gold.


Having recently read Rheingold’s Smart Mobs, I can see a number of parallels between these two books. Primarily, I can see Reed’s law at work. All of this is possible because of the exponential increase of networks which is made possible by technology. Certainly the Long Tail has also resulted as a result of cooperation and reputation, both well covered topics in Smart Mobs.


I learn a great deal from books like these, but the question at the forefront of my mind is how and why will it change our society and culture as it pertains to interpersonal relationships? The ‘good’ thing about so many of us watching the big movie hits is that we can all talk about it and feel we are keeping up with what is going on. Fragmentation is occurring with digital technologies. Our interests are many and we spend more and more time looking at completely different things than our friends and family. I don’t consider this a bad thing. Perhaps it could even make people more interesting. I actually think that the really good stuff in the long tail will make it’s way to be witnessed by significant audience numbers. In the end, the best of the long tail will continue to give everyone something to have in common with a large group of people. To me, it’s the best of both worlds.



March 20, 2007

Smart Mobs, the second half of the book

Filed under: Uncategorized — tenftpole @ 1:35 am

Rheingold begins the second half of Smart Mobs discussing virtual reality, smart rooms, wearable computers which would be location aware. These wearable computers would put electronic overlays on something like a tree and the user could gather information about that specific tree. Kooky…and hopefully far off in the future, because I don’t want to walk around in a world of people with helmets on. As location awareness gets more accurate though, I can imagine that things (landmarks, plants, buildings) will be labeled digitally similar to how they are on google earth.

I’m more intrigued by the idea of smart rooms which react to you. It would be cool to move around a building and be able to access your desktop on whatever monitor you wanted to. I could imagine being in a kitchen and putting a product on the counter…a computer would recognize the ingredient by barcode or RFID and suggest recipes.


Regardless of where this technology takes us, Rheingold makes a convincing argument that reputation is still going to be a major factor in the future of technology as it applies to things like commerce. Rheingold says “reputation marks the spot where technology and cooperation converge (p.114). He uses eBay as the present example of how reputation works. People who sell on eBay get buyer feedback and if the feedback is good, they can become power sellers. If you haven’t used eBay before, this is often a major consideration before buying an item. You want to make sure you’re going to get what you pay for from the seller. It doesn’t guarantee you won’t get ripped off, but if a person has a low rating, you may think twice before dealing with them. When the consumer has input into a merchant’s reputation status, it’s a good thing for other consumers. I think this would be great for mechanics or plumbers…people who sometimes rip us off.


Of course, a lot of this won’t happen unless we can achieve a public commons wireless network available to everyone. Unfortunately, the
US has sold so much of the spectrum bands to telecommunication companies and others who have invested millions of dollar its future. There is an argument that Rheingold illuminates which argues that there should be an open spectrum, but regulated devices similar to the internet. I can see why companies who have invested millions in the development and infrastructure would not want to cease control of these spectrums.


But, I can also see the potential of smart mobs to do even greater things in the future with an open spectrum and “wireless blanket” throughout a city. Rheingold uses the examples of the World Bank Protest and the overthrow of Estrada in the Phillipines. These were primarily successful because of mobile phones. Imagine the future with a 3G, mobile web mobile. Imagine working for an advocacy campaign, developing a web 2.0 application that allows people on your listserv to receive a letter to their congressman that they could sign and send from their mobile to advocate an issue. It’s a boring example, but one in which I could envision smart mobs improving democracy.


Speaking of democracy, how are we going to insure that we maintain our privacy. Are we trading or privacy for the convenience or entertainment technology gives to us? Personally, I don’t think we are, but it’s a risk that many of us take each day. Some people argue that because of current technologies, that we no longer have privacy. I think that’s an ignorant argument. It’s one thing if you give away your right to privacy, but quite another if it’s taken from you without your knowledge. Policy advocates are going to need to inform legislation to protect the privacy of individuals. That’s one of the major solutions.


Overall, I like this book and the cool factor of all the upcoming technologies. My primary concern though is how we communicate with each other. What will these technologies do to our interpersonal relationships? We already stare into our Blackberries or mobiles at church or in meetings at work. Rheingold brings up a great point about how these types of behaviors effect eye contact. Eye contact is important in our culture. Good eye contact communicates trust. As a society, we’re already beginning to forgive people who talk on their mobile in the middle of a busy restaurant. We’re becoming desensitized to it to a degree and perhaps that’s how we’ll continue to evolve, but I think that would be a shame.



March 13, 2007

Smart Mobs….

Filed under: Uncategorized — tenftpole @ 1:51 am

My head hurts after reading the first three chapters of Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs. It’s pretty much like taking a sip out of a fire hose. However, it’s exactly the type of terminology and theories I need to know to understand why social networking and the resulting smart mobs that result from it are reshaping our societies on a global level.


If I can use my mobile in the future to look for restaurants in an unfamiliar neighborhood or buy a soda from a vending machine without putting in money, then that’s changing life as I know it. I’m not sure I can even contemplate all the implications. If you take into account Moore’s law, then anything in the future is possible (brain chips, insanely small cameras that big brother could use to spy on us, or AI holograms that appear on your car dashboard for directions and much more. It seriously reminds me of the movie “Demolition Man” that starred Sylvester Stallone. Everything was automated and sterile. I’m not sure that we’re not heading down that road and I can’t say it’s bad, just different. I can only imagine that in the next century, neo-Luddite groups will begin to grow because of these powerful technologies . 



The important thing Rheingold points out is that it’s not about building the tools, but what people use those tools to do. He really delves deeply into this concept in Chap 2 where he presents the idea of collective action, illustrating how cooperation is evident: from social networks to our own genetic material. Sure, there will always be free riders, but Rheingold also presents a lot of evidence, especially in Chap 3, that there are just as many contributers.


He also presents a number of theories, including game theories, that will help researchers to understand group behaviors (reciprocity, cooperation, reputation) which may emerge from smart mob technologies. This is important because we should really try to understand the ethical, legal, and social implications of any technology before it is full blown so that we can make the proper policy decisions and take better advantage of the benefits these technologies offer. I believe the Human Genome Project is a good model for this concept.


One example is the privacy dilemma presented by the mobile internet which would rely on GPS in 3G mobile phones as well as the trail being left on the mobile network. I think John Batelle, who wrote The Search, could see a number of parallels with privacy arguments as they pertain to google. I think the mobile internet presents even more scary privacy scenarios due to the fact that it would be used more like a remote control and a person would use it to make many personal revealing decisions. Where they eat, where they’ve been….Google has nothing on privacy compared to the mobile internet.

Another issue Rheingold writes about in Smart Mobs is peer to peer and distributed computing. This is where he tries to show how cooperation is occurring through social networking and the internet. You can donate your computer’s idle time to contribute it’s power to finding extraterrestrial intelligence or to crunch life science data to identify new drugs. There are a dozen other instances he mentions. That’s a powerful idea, because a person can do something fairly simple, but through social networking, it has a major impact in contributing the computer power needed to crunch some of the world’s biggest problems. Of course, Rheingold also talks about the fall of Napster by those who control the internet and can decide what you can or can’t use it for. The internet was created to benefit everyone, but corporations saw the value in it. It’s analogous to what Music Television did to music in the 80’s. They ruined it to some degree by exploiting it. Thank God for freeware and web 2.0. I think that will help give the internet back to the people on some level.

I can’t help but be a bit more optimistic about the future after reading Smart Mobs, and I really understand how it all started after reading The Cathedral and Bazaar by Eric Raymond. It is the story of Linux. Batelle talked about it in his book. It’s really the idea of using people who are computer literate as a talent pool to improve things on the internet. In the early days, it was email programs, but now you can see it in thing like Wikipedia. It’s collaboration on a large level. With Unix, it was a few programmers working to get things perfect, while Linux was all about releasing early and often even if the program contained a few bugs. At least you knew someone out there was smarter than you and could hack on the problem. The story of Linux explains everything we use and do on the internet. It also is responsible for the virtues of open source.  Linus Torvald deserves a Nobel prize, though I’m sure a lot of people despise him for giving so much away for the public good.

March 6, 2007

Google Taking Over the World…

Filed under: Uncategorized — tenftpole @ 4:23 pm

Chap 7. begins with a sad story about a gentleman named Neil Moncrief who sold large shoes via an e-commerce business that depends heavily on search. Unfortunately, Google made a tweak to its algorithm in 2003 and Moncrief’s listing fell to the fiftieth page. He lost most of his business for months until he was basically forced to buy adWords from Google. Bummer for him, but that’s what happens when you throw all your cards in one pile. What this story does tell me is how important search’s impact is on global commerce.

Battelle also describes a hypothetical scenario of TV and search linking to bring a person custom advertising based on the history of their search and TV habits. I believe that this is realistic scenario. It’s already happening with Ad/Words Sense by Google. I click on ads a lot more than I have in years past to find products I’m searching for and it generally works for me. Local search is another natural extension for Google to generate even more revenue based on customers intents. Battelle also suggests that the future for google is to sell music, television episodes, movies, etc. They’ve already launched a free software suite (cheaply priced for businesses) to compete against Microsoft’s office package, and they are even taking on You Tube with google video. I can only imagine that iTunes is next.

After all, now that Google is an IPO, there’s even more reasons for Page and Brin to generate more revenue….in comes
China. Google’ search is now available to a billion more people, but has limited its search engine per the Chinese government. It was smart if you ask me. This insures that they have a future in
China, along with Yahoo and Microsoft which have also made the jump. It’s  a major sellout for the company, but Chinese people need google too even if it’s government regulated.

I love Google. I love their products. I can’t say enough good things about them. But, here’s the thing: They’re HUGE and they’re RICH. They are yielding a ton of power with all that information and money. What happens if they meet the goal of IBM’s WebFountain to improve our pursuit towards the perfect search? Holy google bots, Batman!! Battelle says Google continues to fail at failing but it’s going to happen sooner or later. I can only imagine that it’s going to happen as a result of goverments getting together in some way to force them to give access to their databases of intent. That scares the bejesus out of me.

Thank God they didn’t give into the DOJ subpoena in 2005. It would be  Mcarthyism all over again.

Perhaps I’m a bit paranoid, but history has funny way of repeating itself. For now, I believe that Google is still not evil and that the good they do outweighs the bad. Thanks to John Battelle for taking what could have been a horrifically boring topic and turning it into an enjoyable and educational read.

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