Kevin Laws over at Venture Blog wrote a great piece on the non-monetary costs of long tail transactions and how search and psychic costs specifically dominate when the price point of a niche asset drops below certain thresholds. While I appreciate the effect of both of these costs, it would appear that psychic costs are easier to minimize in long tail transactions through various billing mechanisms. However, search costs (or as I call it, time and attention costs) are a much tougher nut to crack.
In thinking about these issues, I had a conversation yesterday with David Sabel over at www.Upto11.net about context and its importance in minimizing time and attention investments in these transactions. David’s basic point is that while several technologies exist to minimize these costs (such as collaborative filters and folksonomies), time and attention expenditures remain high enough to render much of the long tail essentially unreachable (at least today).
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand how to solve these issues for CozmoTV, a product we’re planning to release this summer. Initially, CozmoTV will focus primarily on simplifying access to mass-market content, but our business model depends upon our ability to create a vibrant marketplace for niche video. And, while I firmly believe that consumer contributed content will (eventually) become an enormous component of this marketplace, resolving our target audience’s time and attention limitations remains our most pressing challenge in achieving this goal.
To understand the issue more clearly, we can look at the blog community. If you believe Technorati’s (somewhat inflated) number, somewhere around 8 million blogs are up and running today with somewhere close to 80,000 new blogs being contributed to this number every day. While blogs are still a relatively new phenomenon, the marketplace has gained enough mass to serve as a valid demonstration some of the inherent limitations of long tail content. I’ll use my own experience to illustrate my point.
I’ve been spending a lot of time reading blogs recently. I have around 40 blogs that I check on daily and another 40 (or so) that I check on weekly (give or take). This is an enormously time intensive exercise. And, even with tools like Feedburner, Technorati and Del.icio.us at my disposal, the information yielded from my time investment is sub-optimal. It’s still (significantly) better than what I would get from watching CNN and reading the NYT, but we’re still talking about a relatively inefficient process of information consumption.
Now, my feed roll is highly targeted to my interests, it’s on-demand, and it’s up-to-the-minute. These are all dramatic improvements over where I was before, but the fact is I’m still tending to gravitate towards high-traffic sources (they just happen to be “A-List” blogs rather than traditional MSM sources). This has to do with many factors (including the volume of postings, the quality of the material, the credibility of the sources, etc...), but two of the primary reasons I’m gravitating to a smaller number of sources is that:
- I don’t have time to read any more than I currently do, and
- finding new relevant blogs just exacerbates point a).
Now, I’m sure that every day there are dozens of other postings out there that would be even more interesting and relevant to me than what I’m reading now, but most of this content probably doesn’t reside within “A-List” blogs on any given day and is therefore pretty difficult to locate (or even if it does, it operates outside the A-list community in which I’m currently spending most of my time). So, I’m faced with a basic question, do I commit more time to looking for these ideal posts, or do I settle for posts that are less ideal but more easily accessible. Well, I’ve already answered that question.
Anyway, the point is that time and attention limitations are the primary threats to the success of a truly democratic media movement, a real meritocracy. In an ideal world, the best content could filter up from the bottom and reach intended audiences with extreme efficiency and speed regardless of its point of origin. And, while this happens far more frequently today than even 3 years ago, this process is still incredibly inefficient and unreliable.
The fact is (as I said in an earlier post) the tyranny of a few guys in Hollywood deciding what you can watch threatens to be replaced by the tyranny of popular opinion (in which some amalgamated list of preferences decides what’s most relevant, but not necessarily to you.) This may result in a slightly better selection of higher quality mid-market content, but it is a far cry from the goal of a truly level playing field in which an individual piece of content is evaluated on its individual merits and not necessarily its proximity to other high-traffic assets.
Video is even more challenging when it comes to these limitations than blogs. Unlike text that can be easily skimmed, video relies much more heavily upon titles, descriptions, tags, and other metadata supplied by the author or the network (although closed captioning will help). Also, as opposed to just being able to scan the article in a few seconds, the file must be downloaded and watched. This whole process of finding and consuming video is orders of magnitude less efficient than blogs (searching is more difficult and less accurate and consumption of the content is far more time consuming).
The bottom line: getting consumers to venture down the long tail is very, very difficult (especially with audio and video).
I tend to agree with David that the solution to this problem lies in taking a multi-pronged approach to the issue (using collaborative filters, tagging, etc.), while also maximizing the concept of community in whatever content network you develop. I think Upto11 is doing a nice job of this for audio. Providing for the ability to develop ad-hoc communities around specific niche content is critical to driving content to its ideal audience. But even these communities threaten to buckle under the weight of their own success (one extreme) and limit their utility through overwrought stratification (the other extreme).
I’m not yet sure what the final answer is, but I am sure that relieving these non-monetary costs is critical to truly delivering on the promise of long tail content. Without it, we’re still going to wind up watching a lot of the same crap as everyone else, it’ll just be somewhere in the bulging neck of Pareto’s curve rather than the (already fat) head.