Archive for April, 2008

The Individual In the Aggregate

Juli, Matt, and Gabe are writers and avid readers.  They are also proud Midwesterners.  The three of them believed there are other individuals out there who are also writers, avid readers, and proud Midwesterners.  So, they started a literary journal—endearingly called Ugly Accent—to fill this intriguing niche.  The printed copies of the journal are popular in the locally-owned coffee shops in Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago, but the financial burden is becoming too much to continue printing the quarterly issues.  Therefore, Ugly Accent is joining the trend many literary journals and magazines and going exclusively online.  When it comes down to it, the cost/benefit analysis is clear:  Go online.

The long tail, as described by Chris Andersen in The Long Tail, is an interesting concept from a social perspective.  The power of the individual in the aggregate is not only illustrated in the economy through the statistical representation called long tail distribution, but also in society, at large, through open source software programming.  The individual has always been an economic and social force to be reckoned with, but with the advent of new mass collaboration tools, the aggregate has a much larger scope with the ability to pull from the smallest of niches.

As Anderson notes in his introduction, niche markets have always existed, but they were constricted in their scope since they were locally based.  As we see a rise in niche-fillers online, we are conversely seeing small, locally established storefronts disappear.  Perhaps these businesses have just replaced their storefronts with websites, but then we must ask: What is happening in the physical space left behind?  If you have internet access, a credit card, a mailing address, and are computer-literate, you’re all set.  You can shop online to your heart’s content.  But, what if you don’t have these things?  With the niche and small business flight, all that’s left to fill our physical consumer realm is big box retailers.  The loss of small, independent businesses not only shifts the local economy to corporate headquarters, but it drains the local personality.  The irony is in the paradoxes:  The rise in small online businesses causes a loss in small local businesses; The rise in online innovation and creativity causes a loss in local innovation and creativity and personality.  Are we investing in our online community at the expense of our physical community? 

For many, like Juli, Matt, and Gabe, this is a question that they can’t afford to ask.  For Ugly Accent, it is either online or nothing.  I am optimistic, however, that there will come a time when the paradoxes do not exist—when we can shop online and in-person at small, independently-owned niche businesses and innovation and creativity will not be exclusive to one realm of our lives.

We the economy

The theoretical basis of wikinomics is not new.  And it is not revolutionary.  Inventions that have greatly impacted society and created new verbiage tend to be met with similar hope for (or fear of) a paradigm shift that will topple the elite and allow for the voice of the masses.  The printing press.  The radio.  And now, the world of wiki.  Each of these has indeed shifted the power structure, but only shifted.  Heads of State and CEOs remain, and the voice of the people is only as a whisper when we are at our loudest.

“We the people” already hold the potential for a great deal of power; we just haven’t understood the power we hold.  Americans buy things everyday and drive our economy and that of the rest of the world.  And yet, we continue to ignore the fact that our dollars are our voice.  The internet is a new forum for us to express our power, but it is not the only way.  Just as our collective dollars drive our economy, our collective brain-power (in the form of wikis) has great potential to drive it as well. 

I find the authors’ (of Wikinomics) attempts to maneuver through their description of mass collaboration quite interesting.  They, like so many others, are so afraid of the word and idea of communism that they must debunk any potential attributes immediately, lest they be labeled communists.  Communism, like anarchy, are both such loaded terms that the authors cannot even publicly recognize that there are, of course, elements of both within mass collaboration. 

Mass collaboration—as a movement, so to speak—has instead adopted words like “collaboration” and “open.”  Both of these words, as the authors point out, have positive connotations.  “Peering” is also a perfectly positive word, even if inherently unrealistic.  Peering, one of the four principles of wikinomics, tries to transcend our human need for hierarchy.  I do not assume that there are no viable alternatives to hierarchy, as the authors suggest, I just believe it is human nature to fall into hierarchical patterns.  As with communism, “though egalitarianism is the general rule, most peer networks have an underlying structure, where some people have more authority and influence than others” (25).  We will always identify the natural leaders in the group and recognize that certain people have strengths that we do not have, and this is how hierarchy is created…even online.

The technology that allows for open source and wiki-ing is not revolutionary; it has built upon itself for years and developed into a form that has immense potential.  The desire for people to collaborate and explore and think and be challenged is also not revolutionary.  So, while we have seemingly ventured upon a new horizon in human history, I believe it is just another mountain we have climbed.