Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A(nother?) Vindication for Andrew Keen

Some readers may recall that back in July I reported on a Book TV broadcast of a "debate" (scare quotes intentionally added) over Andrew Keen's book, The Cult of the Amateur, that was held on June 6 at the Strand Bookstore in New York. The scare quotes have to do with the high level of speciousness in the arguments posed to refute Keen's claims around the theme of his book, that "the Internet is killing our culture." One of the attempted refutations came from Jeff Howell of Wired (who was supposed to be moderating the discussion), who waxed long and eloquent (This is "moderating?") over the "long tail effect." Keen's basic response was that, indeed, anyone (including all of the "amateurs" that occupy his book) out on the long tail could be "discovered" to the benefit of others; but he was skeptical that anyone could make money by being discoverable.

Keen's skepticism has now been confirmed with more specific data and analysis posted by Gordon Haff on his Pervasive Datacenter blog for CNET. The bottom line of his argument is that money is made on the long tail, rather than in it. Put another way, Amazon can (and probably does) make a healthy share of their revenue by aggregating a vast number of books, each of which is known to have very little appeal, and handling the sale of all of them. Any author of any of those books, however, is not going to earn enough for a loaf of bread off of the increased sales (s)he gets by virtue of being in the Amazon catalog.

This is really not a particularly profound insight. Back in my student days at MIT, we would have called it "intuitively obvious to the most casual observer." Nevertheless, it serves to reinforce why I keep invoking the Kool-Aid metaphor when I try to take on the deleterious consequences of technology evangelism. The problem is that such evangelism, not unlike most religious evangelism, so clouds our perceptions and judgments that we can no longer "casually observe" the world around us and arrive at even the most "intuitively obvious" conclusions. If they can ever get that Kool-Aid out of their system, would-be content providers should pay more attention to the wisdom of Lennie Tristano (originally formulated for his jazz students): If you really want to make a serious effort in providing the Internet with content that can be valuable to others, make sure you can support yourself with a day job!

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