The Long Tail Cultured

March 24, 2007

Tom Slee is approaching the end of his book review of The Long Tail. In his latest entry is 11.1 – Living in a Niche Culture Tom points out:

One of the many things he [Chris Anderson] neglects about the cultural phenomena at the core of his book is the fact that much of culture is not a “market” with distinct supply and demand. Culture as a participatory activity involves an intermingling of supply and demand, and it is precisely the specific nature of physical environments that leads to the development of new genres and flavours of music…

I think the role of culture in markets is complex. We can not predict the outcomes of the complex interactions that make up culture. But what I do believe is that when a niche does evolve it will behave according to supply and demand laws. This is more of a defense of free markets rather than of Chris Anderson.

Consider the success of NTT DoCoMo’s i-mode in Japan vs. the rest of the world. The assumption, as made in the Wikipedia i-mode entry, is that i-mode nailed the technology and that the same model should apply to regions that adopted the inferior WAP technology:

In contrast with the WAP standard, which uses WML on top of a specific protocol stack for wireless handheld devices, i-mode borrows from fixed Internet data formats such as C-HTML based on HTML, as well as DoCoMo proprietary protocols ALP (HTTP) and TLP (TCP, UDP). It became a runaway success because of the well-designed services and business model, as well as the strong demand for mobile email services which are part of i-Mode.

What made i-mode successful in Japan was “the well-designed services and business model” made available to a very receptive culture (using a very broad definition of culture). Predicting how receptive a specific culture will be to a specific new service is difficult. This difficulty does not imply that i-mode in Japan does not behave like a true market.

But like most debates, we apply our own values to the topics. Chris Anderson talks about the locality effects of retail distribution and how it is changing. Tom defends locality as a key ingredient of culture/community. I defend free markets against the unknown contribution of culture.