June 28, 2010

The slush paranoia monster

Over at the TeleRead blog and artsy sites like Salon, a common "worry" (of the concern troll kind) is that that "self-publishing will turn the Internet into one huge slushpile." Hence the need to "come up with a solution" (that hopefully involves securing cushy jobs for wise gatekeepers like us).

This sort of hand-wringing amuses me. Does the music industry spend much time fretting about all those garage bands and (very well equipped) basement studios? Do professional sports leagues complain about the NCAA? Does the NCAA wail about all those mediocre high school athletes they have to sort through? Who have no realistic chance of going pro?

Well, at least their parents and friends love them. That's pretty much the audience for most "professionally" published work too.

Comiket, the world's largest comic book convention (35,000 sellers, 500,000 attendees), is entirely devoted to doujinshi, or self-published manga. It's seen by mainstream publishers in Japan as a net plus, a venue to discover new talent and genres (like the NCAA and the minor leagues). So they ignore all the copyright violations in the fan fiction.

Ask yourself how the average kid attending Comiket decides to spend his limited time and money. Therein lies the answer.

The underlying fallacy here is that every individual decision matrix is based on the total possible output from an industry. It's hip these days to fret that we're faced with an "oppressive" abundance of choices. But if that's the case, then with 6.8 billion people in the world, how would anybody ever decide to settle down with anybody? Dumb question, right?

(Okay, perhaps not the best analogy, as some of us don't.)

Netflix's 100,000 titles don't overwhelm me because I ignore the other 99.99 percent. Ditto my satellite service (I actually pay for only one channel). The grocery store. The Internet. I read blogs that are hyper-specific to my particular tastes and buy from hyper-specific retailers. This is crowdsourcing 101 in action. The size of the crowd doesn't matter.

In fact, when it comes to trusting the purely subjective opinions of others, the smaller and more intimate and more specialized the crowd the better.

People preselect as a matter of course. We're choosy about everything. It's human nature. Common sense, the wisdom of crowds, power law distributions, long tails, and Adam Smith's invisible hand nicely do their work when left alone. The trouble usually starts when "experts" get it into their heads that it's their duty to police the market "for our own good."

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