I recently read ‘The Long Tail’ by Chris Anderson in which he outlines the new ‘niche’ economy. It’s definately worth a read – because the basic principle is important. Put simply:
• The old material economy puts a premium on physical space – hence it’s all geared to creating ‘hits’ and selling large volumes of a limited range of things (movies, products, services etc).
• The new digital economy does away with the constraints of physical space and connects niche buyers with niche products, enabling a market for niche products. These technologies are able to capitalise the fact that there is greater overall volume of ‘stuff’ in the tail than in the peak.
This new economy, Anderson says, is shaped by 3 key forces:
1) The aggregators (those who bring together lots of virtual, niche, stock – like Amazon
2) The connectors (those who connect niche markets to niche products) – like Google and
3) The niche content producers.
What I find interesting is that in this model, the aggregators and the connectors win because they’re fed by an endless stream of content / product from niche producers in pursuit of good old-fashioned ‘hit’ status.
This is the main contradiction in the book for me. The examples that Anderson cites of niche content producers benefiting are in fact, the opposite. They’re niche content producers using social media (like YouTube and blogging) to infiltrate – guess what? – the mainstream ‘hit’ economy. Their motivation? To become mainstream, to sell mainstream and to make money mainstream.
That for me is the weakness of this dream of ‘win-win-win’ techno utopia. Not only is this argument inherently slanted towards digital content (where do toilet rolls fit in?), it claims a paradigm shift which, on very mild inspection, turns out to be rather more like ‘paradigm-as-usual’.