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.

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