10 June 2007

The Long Tail Goodnight

I'm reading 'Everything is Miscellaneous' by David Weinberger, the latest in a long line of “Hey man, Web 2.0 is going to change everything and we're all going to get rich” books to hit the shelves. I'm really not sure who these books are written for, as it essentially suggests that with search and tagging we don't need to impose an order or categorization on anything, or rather a company doesn't, as individuals now have the ability to create their own personalized order out of chaos. Wow, novel stuff.

So why, asked our good friend Tadhg who has been over from SF for the last three weeks, do I read this stuff when it is so mind-numbingly basic? The problem is that I, like he, work for a San Francisco area Internet company (though not the same one), and a lot of people in the industry do seem to read books like this, as the language used in them to make their ideas sound revolutionary inevitably creeps into the very industry that they are reporting on, in a bizarre version of life imitating art (or an approximation of art uploaded to YouTube, if you will). I have learned the hard way to keep up to date with these phrases, less I sit in the room with a blank stare and miss the whole nod and wink half talk of delight that goes on around me.

I first noticed this three years ago with the overuse of the phrase “Long Tail”, shortly after the original article appeared in Wired. Instead of referring to small customers as 'small customers', we were now all talking about the Long Tail, and how we would monatize it. When I first heard that phrase in a meeting, I thought someone had asked how we would “immanentize the eschaton”, and I said to myself, finally, after ten years I will be able to use my finely honed theological skills in a business setting. But alas it was not to be, all they wanted to do was make money from small customers, but to say it like that wouldn't have sounded Web 2.0 (or Web 1.9.5 as it was back then).

In the t'interweb industry, we seem to take perverse delight in making things more complicated than they have to be. Instead of saying 'make money', we say 'monatize', instead of saying 'income' we say 'revenue stream', it's as if English doesn't give us cool enough sounding words, so we need to make up new ones to justify the money we spent on our MBAs. It's probably not unique to the t'interweb, I remember flying on AA from NY to SF, the first domestic flight I had taken in the US in a few years, and being told by the stewardess to take care when 'deplaning', as if the phrase 'when you get off the plane', wasn't sexy enough.

Perhaps it is a sign of the increasing militarization of US society that the language itself is now adopting the military's penchant for euphemisms and acronyms. Perhaps it is actually a weird cross fertilization and the influx of business consultants working with the military and other institutions of the State is leading to a new language of the military-industrial complex, as Eisenhower warned us about in 1961. Of course this trend is not confined to the US, as I discovered when the Smurfit MBA program in UCD pitched a training course to us, whose only previous participants seemed to be the Garda Siochana. The thought of the nation's senior police referring to the 'monatization of traffic activities' and dealing with 'Long Tail Criminals' fills me with dread. That and the fact that at the same time not a single member of the Gardai seems to be able to pronounce the word 'vehicle' properly.

Feed a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to monatize his fish and you render him incapable of being understood by his family. Somebody needs to stop the madness.

(funnily enough I was speaking at the Irish Internet Association conference a few weeks ago, and when I was asked what the Long Tail was I just stared and said, "it's, ye know, the thing you monatize". Not my proudest moment)

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