The Long Tail of Politics


When Chris Anderson’s ‘Long Tail’ theory took off as a way of explaining internet commerce, it made immediate sense to business people like the folks at Google and Amazon, who have been mining the tail with great success. But it has not been properly discussed by people interested in civil society.

The great lesson of the Long Tail is that, freed from the limits of terrestrial production, storage and distribution costs, an economics of abundance is emerging. Low-cost producers are creating an avalanche of content and products. In turn, consumers have shown themselves to have wider vistas of interest and taste than ever suspected. The Long Tail suggests that, given a similar explosion in choice, political values would also be revealed as less ‘mass’ than they appear.

Given that mass taste in culture can now be seen as much as a function of limited choice as of group dynamics (as I argued in a previous piece for New Matilda), it stands to reason that mass politics is as susceptible to Long Tail change as the recording, publishing and entertainment industries.

If politics were a field with low costs, widespread participation, cheap communications, clear product differentiation and independent review and referral mechanisms we would see that, just as people have more interesting taste in books than we ever suspected, so too do people have more interesting ideas, opinions and goals in politics than we ever suspected. As it happens, these conditions are emerging right now.

Back at the dawn of the internet, people like Al Gore were evangelising the democratic potential of getting online. Along with all the porn and shopping, that first leap online delivered a plethora of socially useful web sites and blogs and drove much of the organising muscle behind the decade’s citizen activism movements, particularly the anti-WTO phenomenon.

Since then, the internet has given voice to journalists in Iran,   punk rockers in Algeria, Christians in China, and created communities of interest and support for the previously alienated, isolated and persecuted the world over. While there has been a gob-smacking amount of rubbish generated, it pales in comparison to the enfranchisement created.

But it’s with the emergence of the new software that drives Web 2.0  that we are seeing the beginning of a genuinely mass participatory opportunity. If it’s true that there is wisdom in crowds, then the potential of ‘crowd-sourcing’ is phenomenal.

At the end of 2006, TIME Magazine  declared that its annual Person of the Year was ‘You.’ You, with your surfing and blogging and mashing and scrobbling and uploading and downloading and creating the information future in your own image.

More accurately, it was the year of ‘Us’, for none of the Web 2.0 websites would be any good at all if they weren’t full of other people. YouTube  only works because millions of people make and watch videos. MySpace works because millions of people are creating and sharing content. Amazon prospers because we generate the reviews, recommendations, lists and information relationships which make it the premier book-buying site.

Web 2.0 has been described as the second coming of the Internet. It refers to the new web services designed for ‘social networking’ like Friendster, Flickr, MySpace, YouTube and collaborative information mining and management projects like Google and Wikipedia.

It also refers to the collaborative design of coding systems themselves, building on the Linux  legacy, which challenge the global dominance of proprietary systems like Windows. Web 2.0 replaces the global but ultimately linear communications of email and static webpages with technology that mines collectively generated data for relationships on which to build social networks, collective decisions and collaborative authorship. Many of the key books emerging in the field, including Wikinomics, Smart Mobs and The Long Tail itself, are based on blogs which encouraged ongoing peer review during their gestation.

The first flush of this new participation is being played out in sites built for entertainment, social interaction and hobby sharing. However, the potential is being swiftly explored by business. Google has picked up YouTube and Rupert Murdoch has picked up MySpace. ‘Wikinomics’ is the hottest buzzword in business but there is a pittance of debate about its potential for improving civil governance.

Recognising the significance of the Long Tail for politics, in July last year Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales launched Campaigns Wikia writing in his opening blog, ‘If broadcast media brought us broadcast politics, then participatory media will bring us participatory politics.

How? Wales isn’t sure but he is sure that the answer lies in the collective intelligence of the global citizenry he is empowering to connect through this political networking site. My dozen years in public service have convinced me that while it’s not possible for one person to solve all the problems of a country of 20 million people, it’s likely that inside 20 million brains are the answers for one community.

Which brings us to the fundamental question: do we trust the citizens to make the future? Will millions of ordinary people create better policy than a few experts, special interests and politicians? And what rules do we need to ensure we get the best results out of this opportunity?

Many people currently making decisions about how we should live believe that government is too important to be handled by average citizens. It is argued the average person is ill-informed, self-interested and too full of popular myth and superstition to make sensible choices about public policy. They believe that an open process would put the lunatics in charge of the asylum.

Evidence from a range of fields suggests otherwise. There are compelling scientific, economic and sociological arguments that networked or group decision-making is something humans not only do instinctively but do well.

The human brain devotes large capacity to recognising people, keeping score of debts, evaluating trustworthiness and forming alliances. Reciprocity is as essential to our genetic success as self-preservation and we have a mutual interest in living in big communities where we can, through sp
ecialisation, increase exponentially the resources available to all.

This was as true 5000 years ago when humans made tools and hunted, as it is now in an age of highly mechanised production. Nobody can fully prosper making their own clothes, killing their own food and defending their own territory, but if we form a group and each person does one thing well, then we can have more of everything than we need.

There is growing evidence from the deliberative budgeting movement afoot in Latin America that citizens can be generous, far-sighted and innovative when put in charge of their own public expenditure priorities. This process, which empowers citizens to determine as a community where and how a portion of their taxes are spent, has been extremely successful. Deliberative budgeting is now supported by the World Bank, which has found it a powerful tool for creating consensus around necessary reforms and has been introduced as part of the Bank’s reform work in Africa.

It’s also important to realise that keeping out prejudice, ignorance and zealotry is not a good reason to exclude average citizens. Those barbarians are already well and truly inside the gates in the form of not only elected politicians but also self-appointed leaders, NGOs, lobbyists, unions, peak bodies, victims’ groups and other professional advocates. The single issue crusaders and self-interested cliques are already inside the tent. It’s the voter/citizens who are not being enfranchised under the current system.

For as long as we have had politics, there has been debate about the merits of direct versus representative democracy. Deliberative budgeting works because it injects a degree of Athenian directness into representative democracy. That change has reinvigorated citizens, including children, by making their participation more meaningful and rewarding.

Thus far, deliberative processes have been mostly undertaken in mass meetings. This poses limits to participation for those with family commitments or travel difficulties or whose work schedules conflict. The technology of Web 2.0, however, means that not only can those barriers to participation be removed but that information can be processed in new ways to create deeper understanding and more productive co-operation.

The rise of the citizen and the inevitable erosion of the mass Party system instinctively bodes well for small Parties and independents but they in turn should beware that as the mass invades the periphery, the politics of oppositionism and professional dissent will be forced to change as well.

It is not the political fringe dwellers who will inherit the Earth but rather a more complex, informed and activist mainstream. The centre will reveal itself not as the butt of elitist and fringe derision but as the dynamic and diverse rightful core of our democracy.

Democracy itself is the greatest crowd-sourcing experiment of all. What’s changing is not the principle of enfranchisement but the reality. Crowd-sourcing our future together is a profound leap forward for citizen-driven democracy.

Understanding its potential and shaping its application is an urgent challenge for public policy all around the world.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.