Peering At The Long Tail

My first acquaintance with the long tail wasn’t from economic sources, at least, not directly. I learned about the Long Tail years ago during a period of shutdown for an MMORPG I played. The notion at the time was that the long tail represented the way the hardest core of players would stick around the longest, and therefore, individually, be as profitable as possible. The long tail, we understood it, were the 10% of players who persisted for 90% of the game’s lifespan. Push it further, they were the 1% who were around for 99%. The long tail was the spine of a game, facilitating and supporting it. In MMOs, this is particularly crucial because gamers, the players are actually a form of value to the game. With a single-player game, other players are unrelated to your experience, but in a massive multiplayer game, especially one with interconnected systems like crafting, trading, and team content, players represent actual content. Players are stuff that other players interact with. It’s a clear example of value obtained through aggregated attention: Enough people paying attention to a game world at one time create a value.

Hell, the strangest things about online spaces is the extreme value of attention as a currency. In previous models of television broadcasting, the viewer is a product, sold to an advertiser; but in the online model, while your attention is still the thing that pays for the content, you have much more freedom over how and where you offer it. Especially with adblocking services, but just with how people browse and consume content, the attention is less being harvested and more being used as payment. I am fond of telling people your attention is a currency – you can monetise it surprisingly easily, if at a very low rate of return.

The thing I find most fascinating about the long tail is that the model works best through niches. If a thing is very popular, that pushes it further up the curve, towards the middle of the curve; there, there’s more likelihood that more conventional groups or people will supply it, and therefore, there’s less chance a low-overhead, patient supplier can capitalise on it for its audience.

What this encourages is contrary to something that’s been on my mind a lot lately. Modern media landscapes are dominated by events. In videogame franchises, there’s always a new iteration of a major franchise every month or two (Call of Duty is one favourite market-shaker, as is Madden). Television audiences heavily interconnect through Game of Thrones, Doctor Who and Walking Dead and their ilk. Movies still use the blockbuster model all over – and in recent years, these media juggernauts have been pushing harder and harder for a lot of space in our online discourse. There’s fanagement, where businesses proactively seek to manipulate and engage fan produsage outlets, greater pushes for online advertising and the elevation of fan work. These pushes can make these fandoms seem almost universal in this media-driven place, and hyperbole machines like Tumblr and Twitter exacerbate that feeling.

Thing is, the long tail doesn’t really want those. If everything is similar, there isn’t really a long tail. What the long tail wants is a large, varied assortment of very different products. The image of the long tail as a single large cohesive thing is a bit of a trick – it’s better to think of the long tail as a cohesive bunching, a cord or cable, of many, many different niches, driven by many smaller markets with less overhead.

Hypothetically, the long tail is hope for hitherto small properties. It’s a chance for developers of small projects, it’s an avenue to live off creative work for those people who can find and establish a niche that people care about.

So it’s something to be pretty happy about, really.

Week 5: Sitting Still And Doing Nothing

I didn’t go to the cinema today. Or rather, I went to the cinema, the building itself. I sat down quietly, on a plush leather seat, and used my phone to write down my thoughts as I waited. The cinema experience has always been a bit alien to me – I remember a few crucial times when social invitations took me to the cinema; Disney films on Christmas holidays. One date. A friend randomly bumping into me outside the theatre and suggesting I come with. The experiment, therefore, was not about going to the movies, but going, and sitting, and thinking, at the cinema.

Cinema experiences are weird. You sit still, don’t do anything, and you have to go to a big building, specially set side to sit still and do nothing.

Can I get there? This is the least complicated question. Yes. I live walking distance from a theatre. It’s broad and flat and if I want to catch a bus those work regularly, too. It’s upstairs, but there’s an escalator and an elevator. It’s not an inaccessible space.

Can I get there at the right time? The schedule is available online, the movie theatre is available online, and there’s no real challenge to me to make those pieces of data snap together. Thing is, that’s if I’m going there alone. If I want to go with my wife, suddenly things change. I need to find time on her schedule that’s clear, then hopefully she’s of the mood to go, and then talk to her for a bit about it and we need to make sure we walk the dog, and that’s just involving one person, who lives in the same house as me. Arranging it with another person would multiply complications even further.

Am I allowed to be here. Sure you are. You can walk in and around the place, you can look at the posters, you can quietly rest with your hands in your pockets, and you can just sit on the plush seats. Watching the demo reels of the arcade games used to entertain me as a child, less so now. The thing is, when you do that, there’s a quiet air of confusion. Sit for ten minutes, nobody thinks it too remarkable.

Norms are everywhere in the cinema. How loudly you speak, how quickly you pay, whether or not you sneak food in, how close you sit to strangers. These rules aren’t publically recorded anywhere – though particularly in the case of the food, the movie theatre wants it to be a nice and obvious rule – but are instead accumulations of the opinions of audiences. What’s more, it’s an accumulation of opinions of people who are both present and not present.

You do things in the cinema based on other people’s expectations about you, but also your expectations of how they feel about what you’re doing. If you don’t like hearing people talk in the cinema, and you hear other people talking, typically, you don’t start talking as much as they do. You’re there with your norm, trying to very quietly lean over and hope other people notice and respond to it. Maybe you’ll glare at them. Maybe, if you’re very bold, you’ll turn to look at some strangers – assuming you’re not too socially awkward – and say Shhh. Or if you’re one of those strange superhumans who is willing to be rude, you’ll do something like say ‘Can you please be quiet? We’re trying to watch the movie,’ and that there is you trying to use the movie, the common, shared space, as an agent of authority.

That’s if you go into a movie, of course.

If you go into a cinema and just sit there for an hour, on your own, with your phone for company, there is something strange about you and the staff will come and check. They’ll walk past, double check. You okay mate? Yeah, I’m fine, thanks. Waiting for someone? No, not me. Ah, waiting for the next movie screening? Nope.

The internals of a cinema are designed with a purpose, and in the modern multiplex, that purpose is fairly clearly defined. It’s not a dance hall or a sock hop or a food court; a cinema is a business which operates on a set of structured events. There is a timetable. There are ads. There are things to do. If you’re doing those things, you fit into one of the categories.

It’s interesting to consider the cinema as a large, shared space, a space we transport ourselves to to change our mental modes and how we approach our leisure time. What I found, interestingly enough, however, was how in this wonderful heterotopic space, with its little social expectations, is a place made subtly uncomfortable by the presence of someone who just wants to sit still, and do nothing.

Week 4: The Future Of Sunshine

I couldn’t interview any members of the Rice family for my second-part interview, in part because they scattered to the four winds and in other part because I lost contact with a huge number of people when I left the church. Thankfully, however, I have the opportunity to speak about the NBN as it relates to spaces and actions, with someone who lives in the same area, Melbourne.

Mispy (his online handle) is an old friend of mine, a programmer responsible for SciRate and working with Draftable, who lives online, thinks of the future, and manages an army of silly toy robots that people sometimes mistake for the Prime Minister. No, really.

Talking with Mispy about the NBN was a fascinating exercise. I’m very used to asking him about a technology and hearing him talk effusively about its applications, about interesting things involved in its construction or in its history. When I brought up the NBN, though, I was treated to a fairly simple response:

“It’ll probably just increase the speed of the transition to internet-based media that is already underway. Particularly for holdouts in rural areas and old people.”

Just. That’s all. Nothing special, nothing remarkable, just a continuation of the earlier pattern.

A little more probing about it and I worked out what the context to this was. Mispy, as a tech professional, already has reason to highly value fast internet speeds – and he therefore, quite sensibly, invests in making sure his internet is already very fast. The internet, as a service, in the middle of one of Australia’s largest cities, is going to be a competitive thing where you get what you pay for.

I came into this sort of expecting a glimmering-eyed utopian vision of how thanks to the NBN, his work would be improved, and so would the lives of everyone around him; instead, he –very sensibly – listed a small number of possible applications of the NBN. Improving a specific program process. The possibility of running Australian-based cloud servers instead of risking legal ramifications of running those servers in the United States. The long-term availability of such infrastructure presenting applications he hadn’t considered.

The thing that this conversation really made me realise was how, from the perspective of the technologists, most of this is just an inevitability. Right now, I’ve freshly moved houses; my old home had decent, tolerable, but bad internet connectivity. I could stream Youtube videos or listen to streaming audio while at home. Since moving, I had a full month without any internet connectivity at all, followed by a slow and steady improvement to a current transfer speed that means this blog post won’t be going up until sometime after the cut-off time, just because of the basic demands of connections. To talk from this perspective – where streaming media doesn’t exist, where the internet disconnects constantly – to someone with Mispy’s perspective was strange indeed.

Mispy’s perspective, as best summarised was that improvement in the internet, and shifts towards the internet, were simply inevitable. The internet would improve things; the only question was how quickly, or how soon. His own mobility wasn’t even a considered issue – I had to bring up that NBN access would make it easier for him to move to and from homes.

With that impression moved, he talked statistics a bit; the numbers are quite impressive, the technical side of it very distinct. More people will be online. More people will have higher-speed, more reliable internet. That then lead him to talk about availability of media.

“Yeah; Australia is currently one of the countries in the world with the highest levels of piracy in large part because regional restrictions tend to ignore its existence. Netflix, for example, has a large Australian audience who have to use VPN tunnelling just to pay for the damn thing… Just recently an American friend was talking about a game she liked. I cannot buy that game by any means other than importing an entire console from the US.”

I think there are other barriers for easy exporting to Australia. While infrastructure is definitely a thing, when it comes to videogames, media has to pass through our strange censorship process. There are still standards and rules that are being considered even though they’re essentially unenforceable.

Throughout the conversation, I honestly felt a little crestfallen. I had expected Mispy to be full of bubbling enthusiasm for it, because, to me, it represented something wonderful. Something I’d never had – an access to an online space of great speed, where I could compete on a level playing field with other consumers and providers of media. So penultimate question was to ask him, very simply, what his impression of the NBN was:

“I think it is excellent! We will never reach post-scarcity without serious overhauls of the basic building blocks of society.”

Mispy is a person who thinks of the world in these terms, and this is how he sees the future. Post-scarcity is not a thing that exists in science fiction – it’s an attainable, real-world goal.

Week 3: The Spaces They Can’t Touch

Physical, tangible space is one of the easiest forms of spatial relationships to consider. We all leave little handprints everywhere we go. It’s the sort of thing we like to tell science fiction stories about, some utopian but mostly dys.

Talking about tangible spaces and audience measurement is actually something strange, for me. It’s not something I’ve a lot of direct experience with; I’m not actually a TV watcher. The medium I primarily experience is a digitised one; since being an adult and making my own choices, I just don’t much care for those forms. There isn’t much audience measurement in books – usually sales figures are enough, unless some genius is working on making a book-reading position that stays comfortable for the entire duration of a reading binge.

The strangest thing I realised, as I thought about this, was the way that the desktop computer, a fixture of my life, had become a symbol for a type of work. Now, at the risk of being crude, something I’ve noticed commonly amongst males my own age is desktop computers being oriented away from doorways. That is to say, when speaking with guys my age about computer spaces, it’s common for us to not want to have our screens observed unawares.

That’s just an observation, though; it’s not measurement. It’s not seeking out audience engagement, it’s not turning a fact into data, into trends, into spreads of statistics. What we do, out of privacy or embarrassment, are not easily estimated.

Well, Facebook manages it.

The Facebook update window is a virtualised space that a recent study decided to analyse. Now, you may have heard this discussed in horrified tones – facebook records what you don’t even post. That’s not quite what it does. To delve into specifics, in the paper, the methodology is that the recording software triggers when at least five characters are entered, and then a pause is made. If the user posts, that’s it, no more, the program shuts down.

If the user enters five characters, pauses, then deletes the post, the software logs that, and a time. The actual message communicated is not tracked. No, that would, it seems, be a step too far in violating privacy (and let’s face it, Facebook is fond of skirting that line).

What’s being measured – and has indeed been collated alongside all the other wonderful demographic information is how often and how readily people are inclined to censor themselves. In this way, they monitored a very, very small space indeed; the space that sat between a user’s send and delete impulses.

Liquid Labour, Contents Under Pressure

For all that I dismiss ideas as being truly new in the subject of digital communication, the Internet has broken through many limitations as we understood them and thrown us into new contexts without the slow, gradual change that normally lets us acclimatise. While some elements of liquid labour have been with us for generations, they have been mostly isolated to pursuits that can be considered points of high information transfer. Perhaps appropriately, those points are mostly academic. Peer Review is a kind of very slow liquid labour, where an experiment and proof in one city could, slowly, spread out to other places to be studied, tested and re-tested on a variety of schedules and times.

Another, closely related field, was education, where teachers would officially work from nine to three, at a school. The teacher’s task doesn’t end when the student leaves; the job sloshes and swirls out of those boundaries and fills every part of the teacher’s life they’re willing to give it. It’s easy to joke that teaching is easy, because teachers have short work hours, and it’s an easy joke because it devalues every part of a job that isn’t directly being on-site in an area.

Examples are plentiful of this sort of ‘concrete work bias.’

What this has created is this strange devaluation, in this digital area, of liquid labour. One famous example is the way graphic designers are being treated in online spaces. There’s an almost never-ending well of people looking for graphic design work, extensive amounts of it, for free:

Liquid labour creeps in through the cracks. It slips into your personal time, and it takes genuine discipline to push it back. It even requires a cultural mindset, where not working is an ethically acceptable thing. In The Dilbert Principle, Scott Adams argued you could use Liquid Labour to appear hardworking when you’re not, by replying to emails only at midnight, to imply non-stop work at home. On the other hand, the German department of labour actually deletes emails sent to employees when they’re on holiday.

Liquid Labour isn’t a bad thing, but as long as the mindset of the market is primarily concrete, we’re going to see this sort of abuse and devaluation increase. The digital age hit very hard, very fast, and there’s a lot of media that’s not changing fast enough.

Virtualised Spaces and Cyberliberterian Ideals

“Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you.”

– Posted by a Swiss man on a public information network developed and financed by governments

God bless the naivete of utopians.

I’m serious, these people are utterly adorable.

If you think of the internet in terms of revolutionary change, then yeah, this is all brand new stuff, it’s going to fix everything, we’ll have this magical special nation and we can leave behind all the old-world thinkers to their dusty ball of rock and laugh as they die off. This is very indicative of Cyberlibertarianism, which is an outcropping of libertarianism, which is stupid.

types_of_libertarian1

Without being overly glib about it, libertarianism is a worldview that states, more or less, the problems we have in the world right now are too many rules. If we just got those pesky governments out of the way, if we could just be cyber citizens and discorporate our bodies into digital substance, we could have this wonderful, perfect, utopia, where everything was fine and there was no racial prejudice or privilege. I think it’s quite telling that this manifesto didn’t even mention sexism or gender issues, because, hey, those things probably aren’t really actually problems.

This outlook suffers from a deeply-seated Garbage-In Garbage-Out problem. When a system promises to be completely ‘fair’ and detached from pre-existing systems, all it does is duplicate and amplify those existing prejudices.

This is all without even touching on the idiocy of claiming that the internet is somehow free when it still relies on infrastructure, businesses, and pre-existing societal systems that are ridiculously expensive. I have a special kind of rage in my heart for people pointing to children using iPads as some sort of utopian ideal, when that iPad is a seven hundred dollar piece of equipment that you’re confident enough in not getting dropped you’re willing to hand it to a child. These are expressions of monstrous privilege, and the most dire thing of it is these people proudly espouse themselves as if they are somehow beyond those things.

That isn’t to say that the internet’s virtualised spaces are identical to real spaces. While this GIGO problem exists, cyberspace does allow for people to use those spaces to find elements of their own identity.

The Revolution Will Not Be Atrophied

In the reading we outlined the conversation about the internet as an ecological system, as a structure of nodes that has grown and has interdependent connections within it. The argument was forwarded that the internet did this (and I agree) and that this is new (which I do not agree with).

One of the things I am growing more and more resistant to over time as a digital native watching people’s immigration and cohabitation in my spaces is their discussion of the internet as a new thing. The internet isn’t a new thing, it’s the latest extension of the old thing, the latest, fastest, most interesting replication of the same thing we’ve been doing since time immemorial.

The medium is the message. The internet is just the next part of the wheel. it’s not a revolution. A revolution leaves cities on fire. A revolution destroys an old order overnight and supplants it in months. This is not revolution.

What we are seeing is evolution. Evolution is a misunderstood idea in common and popular media. Evolution is not fish sprouting wings; it’s about the distribution of working genes across populations over time. It’s the way that a thing that works spreads across systems that test that thing. The internet is just the latest predator swimming into this environment – and it hasn’t been this way all the time! When the internet was new, it was mostly used for short, fast, asynchronous downloads of simple information, like newsgroups and email. These days, email is actually seen as a slow, less reliable form of communication – people are more likely to use instant messenger systems, or twitter, because people are constantly tuned to them.

The internet grows and swells and develops new pieces out of old pieces. Because it is a message – and it is a media.