Scale and the Long Tail

I am a Midwestern suburbanite, visiting the big cities of the East Coast this week. Walking through Time Square, I reflected that it was a lot like home, only bigger, more of everything crammed together. Which is of course wrong, because at larger scales more is different, which in many ways has become the point of the internet.

Before modern travel and communication, your community was the 150 people nearest you, and you had little say in the matter. Now you can go online and pick your community from 100,000,000 people (as well as the people physically near you). And things that could never be sustained in a small community can find a home once you can unite across those wide numbers.

An economist’s blog post (that I can’t find today) remembered his first time seeing pizza for sale by the slice. You need some population concentration for that, otherwise there is not enough of a market to make the economics work.

When Ravious and I met in 2002, it was in A Tale in the Desert. About a thousand people in the English-speaking world thought it would be super fun to come together and digitally pretend to live in ancient Egypt, doing things like making bricks by hand and pushing limestone blocks for the pyramids. (The game is still going in its latest incarnation.) A smaller subset around a dozen thought it would be fun essentially to form a crafters’ commune, which we did under the name “Southren Star Guild.” (Old typo, adopted as a permanent name.) After joining, I saw the guild forums, where existing members thought no one would sign onto a guild charter that more or less said, “You own nothing, we work together as a guild and everything belongs to the guild.” Which, funny enough, is more or less exactly the community I was looking for in an ancient Egypt digital simulation.

One of my online communities recently overlapped with someone who explained that they had taught classes on erotic Colonial America roleplay. (Someone out there just laughed and then remembered that he cybers with elves.) Because there is a market for that, and not necessarily just in America, if only you can find that percent of a percent.

So in New York City, we saw a musical on Broadway. Broadway shows and others tour through our hometown, but Broadway is not just the same thing scaled up for 73 times the population. A population of 8.5 million can support niche shows that will never tour, and it is the proving grounds for what is worth touring. 8.5 million people is fewer than 100 million, but it is certainly large enough to let you pick your own community, if only you can find them.

Celebrate every time you find some weird corner of the internet where people argue passionately about rarepair shipping, substandard copper ingots, or what counts as a grilled cheese sandwich. It took a lot to bring us all together.

: Zubon