Network theory and power law have been the focus of attention in the University of Washington’s Digital Media and Politics course during the last couple of weeks. This might sound rather academic, but I think the theoretical background can provide some useful insights into the challenges we face communicating the European Union.
The Long Tail
In October 2004, Chris Anderson published an article in Wired magazine called “The Long Tail”. This was followed up by a book under the same title in 2006. Chris Anderson’s analysis was based on a power distribution curve (see illustration below) used to demonstrate the ranking of popularity. Scientists have found that many natural and man-made phenomena follow the Pareto principle, which states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. The “long tail” is used to describe the large number of less popular events.
Chris Anderson applied this theory to the changing economics of the entertainment industry in the digital age. He described how companies like Amazon, iTunes and Netflix had built a business model based on the long tail (ie demand for less mainstream music and films). Digital media made this possible by removing the physical constraints (production, distribution …) that had shaped mass media during most of the 20th century. The subtitle of Chris Anderson’s 2006 book was “Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More”.
These trends also have implications for governments and the public sector. In a paper entitled “The Civic Long Tail” published by the Demos Foundation in 2011, Charles Leadbeater wrote:
“Social media are creating the conditions for the emergence of a civic long tail, a mass of loosely connected, small-scale conversations, campaigns and interest groups, which might occasionally coalesce to create a mass movement. From now on, governments everywhere will have to contend and work with this civic long tail.”
The Demos paper goes on to stress the importance of increasing government openness and opportunities for civic engagement in order to take account of these new phenomena. These issues find echoes in books like Dan Tapscott’s Macrowikinomics and other publications on open government an open data.
In the European context, the “long tail” phenomenon makes me think of the many ways that digital media are beginning to allow the EU to connect with different niche audiences that have specific interests in particular areas of policy.
For example, Antonia Mochan from the European Commission’s Representation in London has engaged with parents on issues relating to maternity leave and parental leave on the influential UK website Mumsnet. Ian Anderson from our interpretation service has done pioneering work using social media to connect with language students in order to motivate them to follow a career in interpretation (see the Interpreting for Europe Facebook page). And, when I interviewed Steve Clark from the European Parliament for this blog last year, he stressed the importance of listening to and engaging with online communities in each EU country in the run-up to the next European Parliament elections.
Charles Leadbeater’s comments on the civic long tail occasionally coalescing into mass social movements remind me of several recent debates at EU level, for example around the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement and the “Hugh’s Fish Fight” campaign.
The Long Neck
Gerry McGovern is an influential web communication expert. He has advised many public and private sector clients, including the European Commission, on content management and developing an effective web presence. Gerry’s take on the power distribution curve is rather different to Chris Anderson’s. In his book “The Stranger’s Long Neck”, he argues that:
“Much of the long tail is a dead zone. It’s a dead and useless tail full of dead and useless content.”
Gerry’s research shows that the “long neck” is a lot narrower than the Pareto Principle suggests. He found that 25% of the effects came from just 5% of the causes, which Gerry describes as “top tasks”. He advises website managers to focus on these top tasks, rather than risking confusing users with a plethora of “tiny tasks”.
This is certainly sound advice, which has inspired the rationalization and simplification of numerous websites in recent years. A task-based approach to website management helps to serve users better by focusing on real needs, rather than organizational thinking or attempts at public relations that don’t really work on the web.
However, Gerry’s focus on top tasks and “the long neck” appears to be in direct contradiction with Chris Anderson’s #1 rule: “Make everything available”! So, who is right? I would argue that both approaches are relevant, including for EU communication.
The “long neck” can help us to focus on people’s real needs and issues that are of relevance to the greatest number of EU citizens (based on user feedback and statistical analysis of the preferences of the millions of people who consult our websites). This, in turn, can help to inform the corporate communication priorities and the design of a core narrative about the added value of the EU that is likely to resonate as widely as possible.
The “long tail” points to the new opportunities offered by digital media for the EU to connect with niche audiences. Engagement in this case means making sure that the EU’s voice is heard in online discussions, but also listening and providing opportunities to feed back into the policy process when issues are “bubbling up” (to borrow an expression from a recent LSE study on the “Bubbling up of subterranean politics in Europe”).