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December 12, 2006

« Steel versus silicon | Main | What you get for your money »

Long_tail Thought-leader, author and ex-rocker (you know he's my kinda guy), Chris Anderson has these images in a post, "Visualizing the Long Tail. " In an article on "deportalization" ... Keith Teare offers a neat analogy for the shift from a few hits to many non-hits. He's referring to websites, but the same could be true for almost any products. Special note to Richard Florida: think of this when you're considering whether the world is becoming less "spiky", not more."

Long_tail_1 A couple of thoughts here.The first image is the real distribution from 2006 and it looks pretty spiky.  Whether or not the second image of the world will look in 2007-10 actually turns out (I actually have no reason to doubt it), is beside the point. The fact of the matter is that different dimensions of social and economic life have different distributions. Not everything is a long-tail, though many things conform to it and can be explained by it; and not everything is a canonical power law ala Zipf. Check out John Hagel's thoughts on the matter here and here.

As I have long said, Tom Friedman gets half the story exactly right; same can be said of Chris Anderson here. Technology (the Internet and more) is leveling the playing field in important ways, allowing certain kinds of economic activity to decentralize and enabling people to plug in and compete from far off corners of the world. But that leveling force, while important, is only one part of the bigger story. There is a powerful counterforce for concentration or spikiness which Jane Jacobs initially identified and later Robert Lucas codified. And this is the neglected, surprising and ironic force. Lot's of people for a long time have predicted flattening. But just when we expect technology to flatten the world, the distribution of key resources is becoming more concentrated. My empriical research with Rob Axtell and Tim Gulden shows how these resources become more skewed or concentrated, moving from population generally to highly educated people, the creative class, economic output and ultimately science and technology.

In my view, it's not an either-or: Long tails, flattness and spikes all coexist and exert their effects in the real world.

Tell us what you think.


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Tim Gulden

I think it is important to underscore the concept that long tail and tall spikes are part of exactly the same phenomenon.

Globalization would appear to be merging our many spiky national distributions of economic activity into a single global distribution. This means that most of the people in the world get merged into a single, very long, tail. A bigger distribution also means, however, that the hits get hittier. The big places get bigger, the rich get richer, etc.

The world is getting both flatter and spikier and the creative class seems to be inhabiting the spike more than the tail.


Thanks and big shout out Tim! Rich

john trenouth

Its funny how when people catch an idea that reveals some insight into how things work (like Anderson's long tail and Freidman's flat earth) they quickly become trapped by that idea's central metaphor and see the whole world through it rejecting whatever doesn't fit.

Richard Farson said that the opposite of a profound truth is often also true. So the world is simultaneously spiky and flat, full of hits and long tails.

I wonder if it’s no coincidence that folks like Anderson and Friedman (people trapped by the memes they popularize) are journalists and not academics, with a journalist’s tendency to polarize and sensationalize rather than an academic's tendency to dig deep into cause and effect relationships.

This of course raises the issue of the exploding number of journalists writing popular books about cultural phenomena and the shrinking number of academics.


John--This is a subject that I have been thinking about a lot. Academic public intellectuals have declined to be replaced by journalists. Nothing necessarily wrong with journalists weighing into these debates. But journalists are strongest at narrative stories. They tend to base their books around anecdote, story and example, taking the special case and arguing from it. Academics tend to base their arguments in long-term data sets. It is a shame that their perspective is receding to some degree from public discourse.

Michael Bindner

I am less concerned about rewards for creativity than how they are hijacked by corporate managers who are not that creative. What also concerns me is the access to developing tools for creativity. Bagalore may be a lovely place, but Calcutta is still a sewer. UT may attract state and national talent to Knoxville, but there are some places in that town where you do not go at night because some people are excluded.

Also, everyone really can't be creative, but their efforts support those who are. Some people are quite capable following the recipe or washing the dishes at an IBM facitlity (or the Starbucks or McDonalds nearby). However, their efforts make the creative stuff possible. The ServiceMaster employee who picks up the trash means that others don't, yet that savings is not distributed equitably.

Forget the planet for a moment and look at the workplace.

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