Long on tail, short on students

I’ve just finished Chris Anderson’s Long Tail. It’s a quick read and an interesting book, though you can certainly get the main point by reading his Wired article and the many discussions of it around the web. However I do have a couple comments to make about the book.

First, Anderson begins the book by discussing the example of a 16-year old named Ben, who lives in the North Berkeley Hills.  Anderson uses him as an example of our potential access to a wide range of niche cultures and media, as well as our possibilities for producing our own media. Of course you need the right computer and software and video camera and ipod and cell phone and so on.  Anderson’s point here isn’t to occlude the digital divide. He acknowledges this is a kid growing up in an affluent context. The point, I think, is to see the possibilities.

I bring up the example because it makes me think about my own students. For the most part, they aren’t so affluent. Many really need to work to make ends meet. Still most have many of these devices and what they don’t have they can get access to on campus.  But I’m not quite seeing these students on my campus, at least not in large numbers. These would be the students who are not so locked into mainstream television, movies, and music.  These would be the students who watch videos and listen to audio and say, “I could make that.”  Obviously that’s not true of network television or Hollywood movies; that kind of media requires a tremendous budget. I’m looking for those students who want to participate in the emerging cultures of the blogosphere, YouTube, MySpace and so on, who want to use these venues to publish their own media.

Why am I interested in such students?

That’s my second point, which follows on observations I’ve made in discussing Tom Friedman, Dan Pink, and Richard Lanham. Anderson notes three forces creating the long tail. The first relates to what I’ve already mentioned: the increasing ease of production, particularly media production. Sure maybe you want to create a hit, but on the other hand maybe you just want to say what you want to say and get your message out to the right audience. Here is a space for writers, maybe “professional” writers, but maybe just good writers working in a space where amateur and professional lose their meaning.

The second force is distribution, getting your media to that audience. In part this is a technical problem, but it is also a rhetorical one. Designing media that will not only engage its audience but help that audience discover it in the first place. That’s a rhetorical challenge.

The third and final force is filters: an important part of these filters is the blog that gives us inside information and reviews. The task is to be able to inform and review but also to engage and entertain an audience. Clearly one cannot appeal to everyone or even most people. A blog is not Wal-Mart. In fact, the narrow focus of a blog is the foundation of its appeal. Developing that narrow focus takes rhetorical skill.

Admittedly, it may be difficult to imagine a paying job in these instances. That is something where we will have to wait and see what unfolds. However, if Anderson and others like him are right, there will be a demand for people who can devise engaging media and capture consumer attention, the scarce commodity in this equation.

So to answer my own question, I’m looking for students who want to shape a life for themselves in this space. In short, I’m looking for students like Anderson’s Ben who bring a native understand of these spaces. Maybe they’re coming. Maybe they’re already on campus but hiding.

We’ll see.

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