I haven’t formed a complete opinion on the book yet (I should probably finish it before doing that, eh?), but something I have enjoyed so far is that certain passages have made me put the book down to do my own research, or to start my own discussion. A good book should do that!
It isn’t really necessary to understand what “The Long Tail” means to appreciate the rest of my post, but if you’re interested Wikipedia can tell you, or you can just trust me to summarize it as follows:
The Long Tail is essentially a model (not necessarily of business) where end users have an tremendously huge number of choices – a number typically impossible to amass in any kind of bricks and mortar establishment (think of Amazon’s book and CD selection vs that of Borders or the currently liquidating Tower).
Given this huge number of choices, it turns out that significant user demand for choices continues far past the initial popular choices – ranging even beyond the choices typically offered in a more limited format such as a bricks and mortar store. For an eBusiness such as Amazon or Netflix that incurs relatively low cost to keep these seemingly infinite choices in stock, a significant portion of their profit will be generated by those more obscure choices that a physical storefront would never offer – in effect, the “long tail” of the choices being offered.
Anyhow, back onto my topic.
One passage that had an extremely visceral impact on me as a read was this one: Labor – forced, unspontaneous and waged work – would be superseded by self-activity. [Eventually] nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes … to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.
It isn’t author Anderson’s writing – it’s a quote from The Pro-Am[ateur] Revolution: how enthusiasts are changing our economy and society by Charles Leadbeater and Paul Miller (DL it here), who are in turn quoting Karl Marx’s writing from between 1845 and 1847. And, though Marx’s meaning is diluted when taken out of context, the quote resonated with me.
(Marx’s point is that Communism will ultimately find success in the many crafts of its people, as society will “regulate the general production” through the varied skills of its members. For more on the idea of crafting, visit Craft Research)
The quote resonated with me because of a certain conversation I had towards the end of high school. I was talking about potential college majors to my good friend Robert (who I owe a call), and he said something akin to, “Peter, I want to be a jack of all trades, and a master of none.”
Now, I was familiar with the phrase, but I had never thought of its practical application to a person. Why would anyone want to be halfway good at everything and perfect at nothing? It seemed unfullfilling to me at the time.
Robert’s words reverberate in my head from time to time as I take up yet another new hobby – piano-playing and MYSQL, as of late. I don’t know that I have a hope of mastering either skill, but it hasn’t stopped me from pouring time and energy into either. So, am I a jack of all trades, and in the process have I mastered nothing?
Marx’s quote resonates because it gives Robert’s some perspective. According to him – and I agree – none of us are meant to function solely in a single dimension of production. Yes, most of us have a proverbial “day job,” but our passion carries us to work just as feverishly at acting, or mountaineering, or homebrewing, or any of the other interests of my many friends, and we shouldn’t necessarily despoil that passion by attempting to thrust that work into focus in our lives by majoring in it or making it our business.
I love communications as much as everything, and it’s a perfect thing to take up my 9-to-5 because I would never contrive quite so much communications to work on in my free time. What if I do spend my weekends struggling to debug my own code or master a new instrument? It doesn’t mean I have to get my degree in IT or Performance – if I did I might not like either as much.
That’s just one instance of the trains of thought departing from The Long Tail station; even if it’s not a superior book, it’s a superior catalyst.