Based on a talk I gave at Trondheim Matchmaking on October 21, 2005
The logic of the global market for goods is changing. Since the industrial revolution, the market has been based on mass production: the idea that the same products are offered to as many people as possible. The internet introduced a new logic to markets by automating the generation of individually personalized recommendations. We follow what other people read and write, what music they listen to, what web pages they bookmark, and what photos they take.
Chris Anderson, the Editor-in-Chief of Wired, pinned down this transformation in his article titled “The Long Tail,” published just about a year ago. Anderson’s statistics show that the books, songs, and videos people buy online are not just today’s hit titles. Nor are they all yesterday’s hits. A startlingly large portion of the sales of online stores like Amazon, Netflix, and Rhapsody comes from titles that never were hits. This led Anderson to declare that the future of the entertainment business will be in the “obscure products that exist only on-line.”
Anderson implies that the long tail is endless: that all products can now be found online. But that is not (yet) the case. The long tail is limited to products available on recommendation systems, such as Amazon’s. Even the obscure products, like Anderson’s example of the book Touching the Void, were still meant for the masses (even if they failed). In this sense, the long tail covers only the products of the industrial revolution.
Alongside of the long tail there is also another kind of revolution going on. This revolution draws on affordable tools and materials, which enable non-professional people to design and construct all kinds of things. Charles Leadbeater call this phenomenon the “pro-am revolution,” Henry Chesbrough calls it “open innovation,” Eric von Hippel calls it “democratizing innovation,” and Niels Gershenfield calls it “personal fabrication.” This citizen activism through crafting takes many forms. For instance, people personalize the technology they use and modify the products they buy. There is the Make blog for hard craft, there are crafters.org and supernaturale.com for soft craft, and there is Slashdot for hackers. People make hats, copy celebrity clothes, submit their T-shirt designs to threadless.com, crochet cozies for their iPods, write operating systems, and share how-to instructions on their blogs. Some of the things people make are really amazing, although most of the stuff is pretty frivolous. Still, the bottom line is that people get satisfaction from crafting because they see themselves in the things they make, and that special connection just isn’t there in mass-manufactured products.
As it stands, most products of the pro-am revolution are not part of the long tail. Neither are most works of art, design objects, handcrafts, or the products of small manufacturers in developing countries. The reason why they are not part of the long tail is that recommendations are based on unique product identifiers. Without an identifier, the product does not exist on the market. Where product codes end, so does the long tail.
Currently, there are product codes like the Universal Product Code (UPC), the Electronic Product Code (EPC), the ISBN, and the Amazon Standard Identification Number (ASIN), but for ordinary people these are costly and hard to get. So, beyond the long tail there is this huge, ever-growing invisible tail, which spans all products without unique identifiers. And as long as there are no identifiers, there is no market for these products.
What if products codes were free?Not all product code systems are closed. For instance, MusicBrainz is a music database that stores information about artists, albums and individual tracks. Like Wikipedia, MusicBrainz is an open system, where you can create an account for free and enter the music you like into the database. When you add a new item, the item is given a unique identification code, a MusicBrainz ID (MBID). MusicBrainz doesn’t sell music; it only collects information about the music and its makers. This relatively simple, free database powers other services such as Last.fm, a commercial music-recommendation service. Last.fm users build their personal music profile by listening to tracks, and find new music through recommendations generated by the system. “Those who listen to Daft Punk, also listen to…”, and there you go.
What would be a Last.fm for the products in the invisible tail? I started to think about this after meeting Jimbo Wales at Reboot 7 in Copenhagen. With my friends Adam Wern, Jyri Engeström, and Eric Wahlforss, we came up with an example definition for a free product code called thinglink. Thinglink is an open project aiming to enable anybody to create unique product codes for free. (The Thinglinks site looks horrible at the moment, I'm looking for help setting it up so please email me at ulla at hobbyprincess dot com if you can help!)
Thinglink is really a convention for marking things. You can thinglink the objects you show on your weblog or on Flickr for instance, and ask other people to use the same code when they refer to that object. This enables the tracking of the object in search engines like Technorati. We also created an example of an open encyclopedia for products called WikiProducts. I started tagging some of my objects with thinglinks, for example a bag, a dress, my laptop cover, and so on. And in this form it already works. Try Googling the thinglink "Thing: 618736AB", and you’ll get the Flickr photo or the WikiProducts page about my laptop cover.
Free product codes can revolutionize the existing markets. To break out from the domination of global brands, a topic that Naomi Klein talks about in No Logo, it may make sense to march in the streets, but it can also be effective to encourage people to tag their products with unique codes and put them online so that we can refer to them and recommend them to our friends :)