The Linux Long Tail Clarified

10 September, 2005

So, in addition to posting my previous entry on "the Long Tail of Linux developers" to this blog, I also emailed a version of it to Chris Anderson himself. Much to my surprise and delight, he responded within a day and indulged me by participating in a little bit of back-and-forth in which I tried to clarify and make explicit some of the (it became rapidly clear to me) mudled ideas in the original post. I think that by the end I convinced him that there was something to my idea, though it may not have turned out to be exactly what I thought about the situation that was important, but rather something more basic.

What I had been taking for granted was the idea that the development of the Linux kernel as a whole represented an example of the Long Tail. That is, if you put lines of kernel code on the y-axis and contributors on the x-axis, you'd get a power law distribution where the portion of code supplied by vast numbers of small contributors added up to equal that of the small number of developers who lead the movement. What really makes it an example of the Long Tail is how this distribution of programmers was enabled by new tools for online communcation and collaboration amongst all those developers. The email discussion lists, universally downloadable source code, and open acceptance of contributions that make up the Linux developement process (Andrew Morton's role is much like the Public Editor of a newspaper, soliciting input, culling through it for quality and appropriateness and then properly placing it within the public enterprise as a whole) served to make it economically feasible for so many isolated indivduals to participate in a single large scale project of such great public importance. In other words, these new communication technologies and the lowered cost of participation they created (both for the central authority trying to do the organizing and the individual contributors who want to participate) allowed the Linux movement to effectively harness (or market to) a large and diverse wealth of programming power that would otherwise have been unavailable to it.

Further, the effectiveness of the ad-hoc Linux programming team as a whole was a product of the fact that so many of its members occupied niches. This fact ensured a diversity of talent and interest which meant that the right person would be there to take on each of the "thousand tiny projects" which Morton describes as making up the larger project of building an operating system.

Thinking about the story of Linux in this way leads me to wonder about the web programming/scripting skills I've acquired in the last couple of years. In terms of a power law distribution of programmers as a whole, as a Liberal Arts graduate with a degree in Art History currently spending his time as a musician and pastry slinger, I am way down the tail of productive programmers (on a graph where the y-axis is rate of effective software production and the x-axis represents individual programmers I am somewhere out of frame to the right). But the heart of my experience as a nascent web programmer has been the discovery of the new tools and platforms which are emerging for web programming -- PHP, mySQL, and Ruby on Rails for example -- tools which make it possible for me, with my limited knowledge and abilities, to complete more and more sophisticated and complex programming projects. These tools lower the barriers to entry and the opportunity cost of creating businesses and services of every stripe on the web. They are why I, along with a Philiosophy graduate/recording engineer and a history professor, have been able to create a Flickr-like grassroots music distribution site, which uses all the hip technologies such as tagging, RSS feeds with enclosures, and an open API to allow anyone to upload and sell their own music, make comments on music made by other people, and form social network links to other artists and fans.

When fools like us begin to be able to make sites like this one, not because we are expert web 2.0 programmers, but because we love and make music, the whole ballgame is wide open.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , ,