Science and the Long Tail

In his new book The Long Tail, Chris Anderson takes a broad but unsystematic look at the myriad manifestations of “the long tail” in the modern world. One of the more striking anecdotes moves beyond economics into the realm of science: amateur astronomers, equipped by the thousands with high-tech telescopes, provide skywatching breadth to complement the depth of professionals. Amateurs often observe or confirm unexpected events that no one knew to watch for (such as the appearance of novae), and the astronomy community has accepted a two-tiered system in which amateurs often play an important part.

Anderson provides a useful scheme for analyzing how long tail systems emerge, which apply just as easily to science as to movies and music. The three critical elements are:

  1. Democratizing the tools of production – making it so one doesn’t have to be in Hollywood (or a well-endowed university) to produce a successful movie (or do good science)
  2. Democratizing distribution – bypassing the necessity of a marketing campaign (or publication in a high-impact journal) for one’s work to matter
  3. Connecting supply and demand – providing a system so that a potential consumer (or fellow scientist) can quickly and easily find what will interest them within the sea of uninteresting/irrelevant cultural products (or scientific publications)

Science has made some strides toward the long tail in recent years, but in for the most part the often very undemocratic world of science is slow on the uptake when in comes to sociocultural change. The most obvious barrier in exploiting the potential long tail of scientific production and “consumption” is the continued dominance of big-name journals.

Journals, in their current form, are barriers to elements 2 (distribution/accessibility) and 3 (custumized search/filters) of the long tail. Especially the most-prestigious in individual fields, they serve an important purpose in tracking the overall important development in a field. But modern scientific disciplines are so highly specialized that every high-impact journal, almost by definition, publishes a smattering of (at best) tenuously related topics.

Publishing in the best possible journals is a necessity for scientific success, but the proprietary nature of nearly all scientific jouranls means that content is restricted to those who pay for access. While there are some efforts to change this, for the most part published scientific content is not nearly as freely accessible, cross-linkable, and modifiable as it should be.

Oddly, unlike in contexts like the entertainment industry, centralized control and restriction are actually quite at odds with the ethos of scientific culture. In their early manifestations, scientific publications were, de facto, freely modifiable and unrestricted; the main restrictions on what could be done with other people’s content were primarily social rather than legal. Journals gradually become economic entities as well as socio-scientific institutions, and are becoming more and more of an impediment to scientific efficiency. Most of the important channels for distributing scientific information created in recent years (such as the Protein Data Bank and newer online-only scientific journals and pre-print archives) break from the proprietary journal mold, but the journals are too much a part of the social systems of science to be easily supplanted. Efforts to add long tail services onto the existing system (the Chemical Abstract Service‘s SciFinder, for example) are useful, but suffer from the same problem of restricted access.

Element 1 (democratizing the tools of production) is a more complex problem in science. In part, earlier scientific publications are tools of production themselves, so again, journals are a bottleneck. Small universtities much choose carefully which journals and electronic services to subscribe to. But equipment and training (not to mention funding) are also crucial tools of scientific production. There are no obvious long tail fixes for these factors. But, as in video, the growth of a scientific long tail would probably involve shifting focus from traditional capital-intensive forms toward smaller units of scientific production that could be accomplished with less equipment and without training (and intellectual patronage) by best-of-the-best scientists.

Obviously, the potential for squeezing good science from the long tail would vary by discipline. High-energy physics is probably as long-tail as it can ever be, given the material requirements of the field (though regarding journals and division of labor, it is probably much more long tail than most other disciplines). A revival of natural history (assisted by modern digital video equipment and mass-produced all-purpose measuring devices) might be one powerful possibility. But overall, it’s hard to say how the scientific landscape might change if one valued aspect of science was how easy it was to do (i.e., how much could be done for how little).

If I were inclined to jump on board with Chris Anderson’s techno-utopianism, I might predict long tail science to usher in an era of social responsibility and a Renaissance in public interest in and understanding of science. As with the rest of Anderson’s rosy predictions for the long tail, that’s probably too much to hope for. But science certainly has plenty of room for improvement.

Ragin’ ain’t easy

About a year ago, I dug up a skinny maple sapling, stuck it in a flower pot, and decided to learn the art of bonsai. Since then I’ve dug up a lot of other small trees and shrubs, killed a fair number of them, bought some others from places like home depot, and spent a lot of time taking flak from my family (especially Faith) about what a lame hobby I have.

Since we moved to West Hartford a few months ago, I’ve gone to several events with the Greater Hartford Bonsai Society, and it’s been really great. They had their annual bonsai show recently, and I showed one of my plants, a sagebrush I dug up in Reno over Christmas. I also traded away the other two surviving sagebrush for plants from other people.

You can see some pictures from the show, and other excerpts from by adventures in bonsai, in my flickr set, Miscellaneous Lifeforms.

We got a new kitten, Halley, last week:

And Melinda’s wedding was a great success; all the assorted parts of the family behaved and got along well, and it was beautiful. My dad let me use his camera for some shots; it has a great telephoto lens and made me want to get serious about photography. You can see some of the results on flickr. Unfortunately, I probably won’t be able to get a nice camera for a while, but it’s something to look forward to.

Reading: The System of the World

Watching: The Colbert Report

Listening: NPR, Blindside – Silence

UPDATE: This picture of Halley has been making the rounds on the internets; it even found its way, randomly, onto a video podcast called “Ask Mind Candy“.

review of The Long Tail

I was fortunate enough to receive an advance reading copy of Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail (which was just released yesterday). Well after Anderson announced 100 free copies for blog reviewers (which were claimed within hours), I sent him an email about my previous Long Tail related blogging and my brief thoughts on the potential for a Long Tail analysis of science. His publisher apparently thinks blog review buzz is a good investment, because I got a copy just a few days later (this past Saturday). I plan to post about science and the Long Tail some time soon (update: see post here) , but without futher ado, my review of the book:

Chris Anderson’s concept of The Long Tail (read the Wikipedia article if you’re unfamiliar with it), widely known since his Wired magazine article in 2004 of the same name, is one of those ideas that opens up a box of other ideas; an intellectual tool for creating insights into many different domains. It started as a sort of pop-economics idea applied to digital entertainment: the internet opens up the entertainment market so that people can find niche content that appeals to them, rather than lowest-common-denominator radio hits and blockbuster movies.

Pretty soon, Anderson realized that concept had potential far beyond the entertainment industry; eBay, Google, Amazon, iTunes, and a host of other businesses were tapping into information technology-driven Long Tails. Anderson decided to expand his ideas into a book, and along the way, blog about the ideas he was developing.

The Long Tail blog was and continues to be a very interesting read. It often features fairly detailed econometric discussion along with speculation about the cultural implications, with mathematical digressions and nice graphs. The readers’ comments pushed Anderson to be thorough and precise, and gave him plenty of new ideas.

Unfortunately, the book does not deliver on the potential of Anderson’s concept. Anderson looks at the “Short Head” of watered-down hits and says “good riddance,” but his book is written to appeal a little bit to everyone. The graphs are almost uniformly qualitative (in fact, almost every graph of the long tail has the same proportions), the numerical detail is minimal, and structure is loose and repetitive. At a slim 226 pages, mostly anecdote and repitition, the book version is unlikely to challenge those already familiar with The Long Tail.

At times, the prose seems like the output of a context-free grammar program (like the classic automatic complaint letter generator, or the scholarly PoMo version) built from infomercial transcripts. To give you a taste, the following phrases appear on a single page (with a few liberal paraphrases on my part):

  • “In other, more obvious words, [the same thing I just said]”
  • “The calculation goes a little like this”
  • “It doesn’t have to be that way”
  • “A traditional retailer would have to… Yet as we’ve already learned…”
  • “That’s the dirty little secret of traditional retail”
  • “In a nutshell, [act now and The Long Tail can be yours for just three easy payments of $49.95]”

In part, Anderson seems to have ignored the very lessons he tries to teach his readers, about the value of niche content and uncompromised cultural products. Or maybe he learned the lesson too well; an early anecdote in the book explains how a strong online following can pave the way for mainstream success once a potential hit does finally hit the market. And Anderson’s blogger fanbase has already launched the book to #10 (and probabably rising) in Amazon’s daily sales rank for books. I guess he knew when to ditch the nerds and go for the mainstream jugular. Too bad he didn’t publish two versions, as the people who would ultimately get the most out of this are not well served by the “hit” version.

See some other reviews here.

When I start publishing, I’m going to have three versions of my book, so that the 2 or 3 people who would actually want a scholarly monograph on whatever my subject is will get it, other professional historians can get a normal-sized academic book, and grad students and, perish the thought, even a general audience can a concise book that doesn’t bog them down with details.