Friday, August 20, 2010

The Web Ain’t Dead - The Long Tales of Chris Anderson

“Ludicrous” is how a savvy reporter of media trends, Bob Sacks, describes Chris Anderson's latest big idea: The Web is Dead advanced recently in Wired. (What did you really think, Bob?)

Anderson may have struck out with this swing but he’s scored homeruns in the past with concepts captured in his best sellers, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More and Free: The Future of a Radical Price.

Plausible does not mean true. People like Anderson and The World is Flat author Thomas Friedman, have made good careers by generating plausible and interesting “big ideas.” But they are not producing what another “big idea” author, Jared Diamond, aptly terms, “reliable knowledge about the world.”

In business, if you are forced to deal scientifically, in cold facts, real materials, or accurate numbers, you quickly discover that what people intuitively believe about their products, their markets, their operations, their customers, their expenses, and their revenues often does not hold up empirically. More humbling, you find that your own assumptions and beliefs were often factually wrong. And, if you keep a record of your own actions you will find that you have a sadly human error rate.

Guessing and estimating is much easier and often more economical than counting and establishing genuine causal probabilities. Everybody relies on intuition. Speed can payoff, albeit with increased risk. But your intuition is best tempered by actually testing the truth of your conclusions every now and then, especially if you want to be a trend-setting author.

Airy conceptual confections can sell like catchy pop ditties. Anderson’s provocative Long Tail book, published in 2006, had a good run without much critical examination. It sold because it was effectively promoted, sounded plausible and had a strong emotional appeal. Anita Elberse, publishing in the Harvard Business Review, Should You Invest in the Long Tail?, mustered some pretty good evidence that Anderson’s recipe for “Selling Less of More” did not actually apply to the entertainment markets he used to illustrate his thesis or as she wryly observed, to the way in which Anderson’s book was successfully marketed. The academic jury is still out but business quickly moved on.

Free seemed to have a shorter run. Many had the wit to question why anyone should buy the book but few commentators ever asked how new and fresh the concept really was, given the enormous volume of free information, goods, and services already circulating in the traditional economy and especially in the media sector.  Again, business moved on.

Ironically, for all the ridicule of his latest foray, Anderson and his partner in crime, Michael Wolff, make some provocative points about the growing power of specialized apps on specialized devices (blame us for loving our smart phones and tablets) and the growing power of hybrid new-old media moguls (blame them for loving profit). Wolff focuses on the Russian mogul, Yuri Milner, who might agree with your humble blogger that in Media, Size Does Matter.

If the Anderson article didn’t have an obviously misleading graphic at the top, his Web is Dead thesis would have been much better received. And there might be a book in it yet!

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Blogger Roger Wilson said...

Anderson explained that the Wired cover and general coverage of the article wasn't nuanced. "Web is dead, but the Internet is alive." he explained at a talk to students (as reported on - thanks to Bo Sacks for the link - not one of my regular reads). This distinction is evident Anderson's article as I saw by second reading after a discussion about it among publishing friends.

February 23, 2011 at 10:49 PM  

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