Long Live The Long Tail (eat local fish)!

October 9, 2009

Almost a quarter century ago, I spent a year living in Varanasi, India. I was a student on the University of Wisconsin’s year abroad program with an interest in minor Hindu deities and contemporary folk art. I set out to learn all I could from the million plus residents of that holy city. But there seemed to be as many of these junior varsity gods as there were people who worshiped them.

After months of navigating the city’s narrow streets on bike (and surviving several spectacular crashes with rickshaws along the way), a few themes emerged: minor deities are a moody and fickle lot who like their sweets. And if you expect them to deliver on that new sari, don’t even think about showing up to their shrine without a ladoo or two. Picture 4Although the major deities seemed above this type of petty behavior, Hinduism doesn’t pull any punches when illustrating the consequences for no-no’s like material attachment. The goddess Kali, for example, can be seen on walls all around the city draped in bloody body parts that represent our filthy ego driven material desires.

In 1986, Varanasi had no modern communications infrastructure – I knew virtually no one with a TV or a phone. So, you could say that mythic paintings served to efficiently communicate these “ideals” to the city’s residents, many of whom were illiterate. According to the last India-wide census, the female literacy rate in this part of the country (Uttar Pradesh) is still only 43%.

Mythic paintings are just one of many ways Hindus communicate a unifying code of conduct. At night, my Indian father “pita ji” would read passages aloud from the Ramayana for our evening’s entertainment. By day, ritual plays, singing, and chanting celebrated the trials and tribulations of this or that god or goddess. The Ramayana is Hinduism’s official reference guide for good behavior – it portrays the ideal servant, brother, wife and king. But without the narrow funnel of mass media, its narrative has been allowed to stretch and grow in many unusual directions over thousands of years of telling and retelling. Add to that a plethora of cranky minor deities whose behavior is not always “ideal” and you’ve got a recipe for a vibrant religious plurality.

Something about Amanda Michel’s pro-am journalism model made me think of this mash-up of high and low deities and how their stories enrich each other in the long tail of the Hindu narrative – an ancient storytelling project that could only be shut down by the narrow confines of the broadcast model. Could it be just a coincidence that the Hindu nationalist party came to power when television replaced storytelling in the early 1990s?

Dave Winer expresses a similar sentiment when commenting on the tyranny of broadcasting: “it was mistake to believe that creativity was something you could delegate, no matter how much better they were than you, because it’s an important human activity, like breathing, eating, walking, laughing and loving.”

And in “Say Everything,” Dan Gilmore explains his own enthusiasm for blogging as a collaborative forum for his reporting: “peer-to-peer journalism, I realized, had the huge advantage over old-style journalism. It could marshall the knowledge and resources of thousands, rather than the certitude of the few.”

For sure, the certitude of the few is a major drag. And the collaborative, big hug power of peer-to-peer journalism sounds great. Gilmore’s comment and the Guardian’s experiment with crowdsourcing made me think about how a story gets better when it is told and retold by many different voices and allowed to grow and expand in unusual ways.

But with journalism, there are more than a few challenges. How to balance entertainment with accuracy in the new world of blogging where, as Nick Denton boasts: “I think it’s implicit in the way that a Web site is produced that our standards of accuracy are lower. Besides, immediacy is more important than accuracy, and humor is more important than accuracy.”  How to sustain an interest in less sexy but important stories? How to ensure transparency and disclosure without criminalizing association like the FTC seems to have done? What are the ethics of engaging “amateur” content providers who are willing to toil in the long tail for free? What is the role of neutrality and how do we assess the value of reporting by journalist who are paid directly by a small number of consumers?

Now that the core problem of publishing has been solved, what’s next? Clay Shirky says chaos. I like his idea that we need to shift our attention from “save newspapers” to “save society.” But when the ship is sinking, most people are more focused on saving themselves. But maybe that’s OK. Maybe taking responsibility for saving what matters to each of us is what Dave Winer meant when he talked about creativity and the problem of delegation.

Here is something creative and hopeful. The small boat, locally based fishermen of New England have been trying to get the National Marine Fishery Service to save them for the last two decades. Thousands of hours have been wasted by hundreds of local fishermen and their families trying to work within a management system that all agree is broken. A system that has both failed to save fish and reward environmentally conscious fishermen. But still, as with many journalist and newspapers, fishermen clung to the old business model and failed regulatory system while “demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril … that new methods will improve previous practice rather than upending it” (Shirky). It seemed that the small-boat fishermen would be the first victims of a business model and regulatory system that inadvertently rewards larger “corporate” boats.

And then the local boats tried an experiment: a Community Supported Fishery (CSF) based on the same model used by family farms (CSA). Take the middle man out of the equation by connecting sustainable fishing with consumers that want to buy sustainably caught fish. All they needed were a “thousand True Fans” to make it work – sound familiar? This experiment is in its very early days but, so far, it seems to be a huge success. One of the organizers of the CSF (who was also a main character in my film on the New England fishery) told me, “For decades, we banged our head against the wall. We had almost no hope left and then boom, we try this new thing and suddenly everything is different.”

Living “la vida loca” in the long tail … not exactly. With chaos comes equal doses of creativity and destruction:

As former Prime Minister Desai warned just before Hindu nationalists destroyed a Muslim mosque they claimed sat on the “birth place” of the Hindu god Rama (causing mass communal violence across northern India): “They are playing a dangerous game … they are making Hinduism a religion with one book (Ramayana), one place of worship (Ayodhya, birthplace of Rama) and one God (Rama). That is not Hinduism. Hinduism is about plurality.”

And just last year, a group of Hindu nationalist vandalized the History Department at Delhi University when the essay ” Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation” by A. K. Ramanujan was placed on a recommended reading list. The offence: the author argues that there are many versions of the Ramayana. This view apparently did not fit the uniform cultural perspective of Hindu nationalists.

At first glance, there’s something almost comical about vandalizing a history department. But if you’re “demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril” (Shirky), what better place?!

Two closing thoughts to get us through the chaos:
Long live the long tail! And, eat local fish!

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