Anthropology’s Long Tail, or AAA 2.0

Does anthropology have a long tail? Maybe it does, but the head really is superior. Isn’t that the idea behind science anyways? The best ideas are the vetted ideas and the rejected ideas are put to rest for a reason. Or maybe its not there at all. But then again…

First a refresher is in order. “The Long Tail,” refers to the now classic article (2004!!) by Wired magazine editor, Chris Anderson. It gets its name from a particular kind of curve where one variable functions as the power of another. In Anderson’s classic example such curves are used to describe the business model of Amazon which trumped its competitors by selling “less of more.” Whereas bookstores had traditionally made their big bucks catering to customers in the green area of the graph, where more people were interested in fewer titles, Amazon is able to cater to the so-called Long Tail, the yellow area where products are more diverse and demand is low. Why does this matter? The yellow area is actually larger than the green area. Hence, cha-ching –> $$$

Long tail
‘Picture by Hay Kranen / PD’

The Long Tail, along with phrases like “Web 2.0,” come from the early 2000s when the Internet we know today emerged from its ’90s childhood. Back in the day it was, for the masses anyways, primarily a means of one-way communication, like TV or radio by other means. Now we understand the Internet to be interactive and driven by user generated content like social networks, blogs, YouTube videos, comments, tags, links, reviews and ratings, reblogs and retweets, etc. The list goes on. These are all relatively recent innovations.

While “Web 2.0” sounds passe now we may more accurately describe it as taken for granted, “forgotten” in the post-modern sense of being always already incorporated into our web practices. The Long Tail figures into all manner of explanations for how organizations can succeed in the contemporary mediascape. Just do a Google search for “long tail and _____” and I guarantee somebody has applied the idea to that context.

So does anthropology have a long tail? And what happens if we apply Web 2.0 business models to our own AAA? Stay tuned gentle reader!

In the library world, where I am now casting my lot, much digital ink has been spilled over our dynamic information environment and rapidly changing patron needs. While I am convinced libraries will persist into the future they may not forever be large buildings filled with books. They will undoubtedly become something else. In thinking about how to reimagine the library, information professionals coined the term “Library 2.0” to resonate with Web 2.0 and the changes it wrought on the Internet. Although it boasts an embarrassingly gauche moniker the Library 2.0 movement concerns itself with how we might leverage these new information technologies that are rocking our world and use them to reconfigure the relationship between libraries and their users. This can mean some discomfort and uncertainty as we let go of certain longstanding professional traditions that have out lived their place in this new reality. But if we do this thing right, so the thinking goes, not only will we save our jobs but we’ll be more effective at helping people too.

What if we took this line of thinking and applied it to our own profession? What if there was a AAA 2.0?

Going back to Jason Jackson and Ryan Anderson’s piece in the May 2014 Cultural Anthropology (which I might note started out as a series of blog posts on Savage Minds), Jason made the point that one of the challenges open access presents to scholarly societies is this: if journals are free to all then they are no longer a benefit of membership. Potentially this might lead to fewer people paying dues to the society. But if fewer people are supporting the society it will not be able to afford to subsidize its OA publishing program. Society publishing quickly becomes unsustainable if we don’t have a compelling reason for people to pay dues. Therefore, making progress on unlocking the content of the AAA’s journals would necessarily entail rethinking what we want out of our scholarly societies.

At the 2014 AAA conference in Washington, DC, I attended Cultural Anthropology’s roundtable discussion on publishing. Incoming society treasurer Jessica Catellino made this exact same point. You say you want more OA. You say you want a scholarly society to publish. But what is it that we want our societies to do for us if not unlock digital content and/or send a print journal in the mail?

If you will, an analogy: the journal is scholarly society as product. It comes in discreet chunks on a regular basis, not unlike how in the olden days leading software manufacturers would debut new products in a major release. By and large big, bold software releases have become a thing of the past. When was was the last time you stood in line at Best Buy to purchase the latest updates to Google’s search engine? Never. The new business model for technology is service, the software is free to use and updates are constantly going on in the background (see Netflix). Some know this as the “release early, release often” model, or the “perpetual beta” model of business.

Alright. So now imagine that the future of AAA 2.0 is not tied to products, but to services which are being continually improved. What might those services be? I have my own ideas, leave yours in the comments section below.

If the Long Tail graphs for Amazon the popularity of individual works and creators, then the long tail of anthropology illustrates the popularity of individual articles, monographs, and the professionals that write them. Say, the rate at which their work is cited by their peers. Thus there are a relatively few number of very prominent professors, our best sellers if you will, and a larger mass of rank-and-file anthropologists: tenure-track and contingent, practitioners, and graduate students.

The implications for Web 2.0 in organizational structures and/ or problem solving (think crowdsourcing) has been about leveraging the power of the Long Tail. It’s cool that we have stars out to change the world, they’re doing a great job too. But there’s literally thousands of us in the Long Tail of anthropology who don’t have prestige, secure jobs, or notable publications. We might wonder, too, if the demographics of the Long Tail are different than than the head. The Long Tail must be huge! Just consider all four fields. Consider the globe! That’s a lot of smart, hard working people. If the journal is free, what service do they need that they would pay to get it? Meeting that need should be the goal of AAA 2.0.

Professional anthropology today is best understood as an occupation. It’s a job, AAA 2.0 should be our union. We need to come to terms with what academic labor is like now and anticipate what it could become in the future. If the future is the casualization of the workforce with more and more PhD’s working part-time not out of choice but necessity, if the future of economic opportunity for anthropology is outside the academy as more and more contingents see the light and quit the rat race of chasing a tenure-track position that will never appear then AAA 2.0 must turn away from the establishment that has for so long been at the head of our discipline and turn its attention to the Long Tail.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

2 thoughts on “Anthropology’s Long Tail, or AAA 2.0

  1. Quite true. And yet the AAA still operates as if everybody can afford $2,000 junkets to the most expensive cities in North American to attend the annual conferences. Most, of course cannot, which makes the meetings little more than extended cocktail parties for the tenured elite and their well-stocked expense accounts. Let’s see the AAA finally acknowledge CLASS in its membership. The proof that it has done so will be when the annual meeting is held in Wichita or Boise, Tuscaloosa or Amarillo, or Colorado Springs or Reno.

  2. CLASS must be considered, but SCALE is also an issue. When I started graduate school at Cornell in 1966, John Roberts told me that he could remember when the entire membership of the AAA fit into one large ranch house outside of Tucson. My first AAA was in Pittsburgh. It was memorable less for academic excitement than a casual elevator conversation with a member of the hotel staff. He mentioned that hotels rank professional associations and that, as of that year, Anthropologists were No. 1. Why? We drank more and stole less linen than any other group. Now a AAA requires facilities that can house a meeting for 5,000+ participants. Reno might make the cut. Wichita? Boise? Tuscaloosa? Amarillo? Colorado Springs?

    The following membership figures are from Wikipedia and may not be current. Still, as a starting point for further discussion,

    American Anthropological Association 11,000
    American Sociological Association 14,000 (as of 2010)
    American Economics Association 18,000
    American Psychological Association 137,000

    Ed Liebow has, I hope, better data at his fingertips.

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