So I’m here with the gang at NHC ‘tute, and not surprisingly there’s been a fair bit of discussion on “our generation” and why our Judaism looks so different from the previous generations. Day before yesterday, 40 or 50 of us looked at The Continuity of Discontinuity, a report about just that. We discussed the values of our generation demonstrated by the spectrum of organizations we represent, but I want to look at it from another angle.
Shortly before leaving home, I watched McLuhan’s Wake, a documentary on Marshall McLuhan, the father of media theory, and coiner of “the medium is the message.” One of the points hammered home in the film was that the tools we create, be they cars, hammers or laptops, end up, in a sense, creating us. That is to say, the technology with which many of us have grown up is inextricably linked to our expectations and desires for a Jewish community. Let me explain.
The phrase The Long Tail (as a proper noun with capitalized letters) was first coined by Chris Anderson in an October 2004 Wired magazine article to describe certain business and economic models such as Amazon.com or Netflix. Businesses with distribution power can sell a greater volume of otherwise hard to find items at small volumes than of popular items at large volumes.
First, I think it’s important to note that we’re talking about web business here. This isn’t a model for a bricks and mortar business, but the net allows, even encourages, this model. That is to say, serving the many tiny niche markets is really where it’s at. The top few sellers may account for a significant percentage, but the one or two copies of rare books or movies that only a few people want to watch actually make up a larger percentage of sales as a whole (because selling 2 copies of 1000 books beats selling 1000 copies of 1).
We’ve grown up with the internet, and our experience of commerce and of consumption are both linked to that. My wife was explaining to me yesterday how when she’s shopping for clothes, she often experiences the desire to be able to sort items by price, ascending and descending, and by popularity, etc. Our experience of the web has altered our expectations of reality and the Jewish niche communities we create seem to follow a similar model.
So the way I see it, JCCs, Federations and Synagogues are the blockbusters, and the long tail is playing out in the myriad Jewish social justice orgs/minyanim/blog communities/whatever. Our tiny mission-driven organizations are not intended to be for everyone, but for a small segment of the population. But, given the ever growing number of small organizations, I think we can foresee a time when the tail will be populated enough to contain more of us involved in small organizations of a few folks than huge movements of thousands.