Monday, August 15, 2005


An acclaimed theory for digital age economic activity gains new form in Second Life...

The theory of the Long Tail, as conceived by Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, goes something like this: Before the Internet boom, products were developed and brought to market over a short period of time, where they had a momentary chance to succeed commercially, or fall away into instant obscurity. After the Internet boom, however, products never really die— after all, with a retail and distribution database like Amazon, the shelf life of products is extended indefinitely. Graphed on a 2D chart, this phenomenon looks nothing so much like a long, tapering tail— hence the name.

Second Life Resident Csven Concord's version of the Long Tail doesn't actually look like a tail at all. But that's only because he's taken Anderson's concept in-world and transmuted it into 3D form. Last week, Concord invited me over to his elegant home of white stone and black glass on the shore of Patagonia (19, 70), where he'd set out his re-modeled rendition of the Long Tail. Then proceeded to explain why he considered it an improvement on the original-- and what it suggested about the future.

“This was something that I'd been thinking about before his Wired article,” says Concord, who describes himself as a design consultant with an aerospace background, in his first life. (Some of his real world designs are featured on a wall near his virtual drafting board.)

“So when I read it, it blew me away. In some ways, it's very related to why I'm in Second Life. The concept of product creation going into the hands of everyone. I'd followed his blog [Anderson's] off and on. But one problem I didn't see resolved were ‘cult’ products. Things like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Pez dispensers. Things that never really hit it big, but are out there and well-known. Anyway, I was thinking along the lines of thermodynamic curves. The simple Phase Diagram curves like the one on the board.” He gestures to his display, where Anderson’s flat charts have been sculpted into curving, spinning forms. “Rocky Horror has always been ‘cult’. As have a number of things. So what's happening with them? That was on my mind.”

Another challenge was, he couldn't always make sense of the flat graphs Anderson had sketched out to explain all the permutations in his theory.

“When Anderson posted some curves, it got me energized.” On the other hand, one of them “really bugged me. It was so poor. Someone even had to ask him what it meant. It's just not a well-designed graph. That got me to thinking it should be 3D. So I took the Long Tail curve and revolved it.” His solution, first created in a 3D graphics renderer, looks less like a tail and more like a wide funnel.

“That's the red and green one... While I was looking at it," he muses, "it occurred to me it looked like an upside down black hole. (Interesting analogy— pass the Event Horizon and get sucked into the corporate hole.) So I did one for that too.”

But other renditions of Anderson’s thought required a different medium.

“Then I came into Second Life to talk about it with some friends,” Concord continues. "Because the Long Tail is dynamic. Basically, while trying to explain all this to someone, I created the half-torus. I just realized during the conversation that the two images stacked gave me that shape. That's when I started seeing something cyclical. And that started to explain other issues with the Long Tail. Like resurgence. And ‘retro’. It's like Johnny Cash. Extremely popular in the 60's and early 70's, and then seemingly vanishing from the public eye. Only to re-emerge.”

“Singing Nine Inch Nails!”

Concord nods. “Exactly. The Long Tail doesn't really explain that. So I started seeing a cycle and a time-based system. That led to these three (grey, revolving) shapes.”


The three toroids simulate different historical eras in the development/distribution economy, and spin to simulate the passage of time.

"Imagine a product starts on the lower right of a toroid," he says. "The product moves along the bottom of the toroid until it reaches a hump. That hump— the one that goes with Cult items— I relate to corporate cash infusion.” (To continue the Cash analogy, Rick Rubin gets Vivendi Universal to shell out production on a CD so a beloved country music singer in his 70’s can cover a goth industrial hit.) “If something gets that support, it rockets up. And the corporation might keep feeding it until it reaches the narrowest section— its ‘Least Obscurity’ or greatest popularity. After that it coasts on Momentum. Sales continue. But that's the Market forces doing that. Not the corporation or the product creator. Eventually it falls from sight. It may fall off the toroid altogether. Or... it might go retro. Or have a ‘Johnny Cash’ resurgence.”


“The lowest prim— the bluish ring— represents hundreds of years ago," he continues. "Everything was pretty much obscure, and distribution in the manner that we think of it now was non-existent. The grey above it shows that even as something became less obscure, it still didn't gain distribution. This is all pre-Industrial Revolution.

"Last year I did some research for another consultant, all on handles. Interesting subject, oddly enough. What I found dovetails with this stuff. During the Industrial Revolution, handles didn't really change. They were as ornate and complex as before. Up to around the early part of the 20th century. Then they slowly started getting simpler. But after World War II, they became entirely different. Designed for machine output— not ergonomics. There was a change. It continued to get worse for a while and now, in the last... say... [last] 10 years or so, the shapes have started to get better.

"The bluish toroid marks somewhere during the early part of the Industrial Revolution. And the grey about it just shows how the shape changes. As manufacturing systems evolve, as marketing and distribution improve, it all changes."


The designer's flights of geometric fancy inspire me to throw some devil's advocate kung fu moves his way.

“I don't really get the power of Anderson's theory," I announce. "Doesn't it all boil down to, 'There's a lot of stuff in the world people might wanna buy. The Internet is a way of telling everyone what's out there, and how to get it.'"

"I think it might be more than that," Csven replies. "He seems to be addressing areas that most corporations don't consider. And that in and of itself is worth noting."

“[I]t's that corporations haven't really grasped the culture of the Internet, right?”

“I'd mostly agree with that. And what I'm also finding is that my instincts— which for a long time have said everything is changing in profound ways— is probably on target. The objects I made kind of explain it. Though the future version I've not nailed down.”

The top two are the future. Harder to pin down."

“The future looks like a one to one between stuff and sales," I suggest. "Desires instantly served by product, and vice versa.”

“Well, the future could be that everything gets equal exposure (more or less) because everyone is empowered to advertise. And when manufacturing is obsolete, and everything is ‘printed’, distribution is as simple as printing the object on your desktop. So does it look like the top grey? Or like the top blue? I'm beginning to think both are possible. As people develop systems for finding the things they really want, then ‘Obscurity’ really is relegated to things people really just don't want... I'm thinking that Finding the items easily will happen after we're in a position to deliver them. So we'll start off with so much junk we can't find anything. Then we'll figure out ways to really wade through it."

“A Google for desires, basically.”


Csven Concord originally came to Second Life with the idea of creating real world physical objects from 3D models created in-world, via a 3D printer.

"Back in the mid-90's," he says, "I realized how similar game content was to the CAD I was using... [but] of course no one understood what I was thinking; many still don't. But in the end, it's all 3D data." Build an ornately tooled weapon or a hip fashion design in SL, and after exporting the data into a CAD program hooked up to a 3D printer, wind up holding a real prototype for it in your hand. Concord's positive something like that is feasible, but, he says, hasn't gotten around to making a proof-of-concept demo. "I'm the kind of person who tends to relish the challenge and once I see a solution, it takes something more to get me going. I think I have a solution. So now I'm not as motivated. There's no real benefit other than doing it. At least not now."

At the moment, he says, there's more to be gained helping others create in Second Life. But he does have another business-oriented project in the works— soon as he can find someone in business who understands what he's talking about.

"I've actively gone looking for real world companies who would be interested in having their products represented in Second Life," he tells me. "That's why I made the jar opener. One of my first prim creations." When you click the kitchen appliance, an embedded code launches your web browser, and takes you right to the page on a retail site where that exact jar opener is being sold. Insant desire, instant access to acquisition.

"Anyway," he continues, "I took some snapshots and sent them in an e-mail to my contacts... they don't 'get it'. I've also spoken with some other clients and asked marketing friends (Senior VPs) and they don't get it. There's a wide section of the marketing community that is completely unaware of what's going on."

He even showed the retail company who's web page he's borrowed for his demo. "I've asked and shown them, but they don't get back to me… Well, I did get one response from a friend there. He didn't get it." Csven Concord laughs, though it's unclear if he's bitter or just amused.

Vast gratitude to SNOOPYbrown Zamboni of SL Future Salon for initially tipping me on the wonders of Csven. Also, by way of full disclosure, I should mention I’m an occasional (very occasional, of late) freelance writer for Wired’s game section.

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