Entertainment, Time and the Long Tail

Over the past year or so I’ve fallen into an unexpected crisis. I have more entertainment to consume than I have time in which to consume it. We’re not talking about just a few unbeaten video games or a small pile of unread books. We’re talking about a person only having ten or so hours a week in which to consume entertainment with hundreds of hours of quality entertainment becoming available in that same time.

When I was a kid, I could never get enough entertainment. I had lots of free time, I had very little money and the Internet was not what it is today. All my video games were beaten promptly. Any time I got a book, toy, movie or game I would immediately start consuming it. I remember putting together small LEGO sets in the car on the way home from Toys ‘R’ Us. I was not a spoiled or rich child who could go buy new toys every week, so the entertainment media I already possessed was consumed multiple times. Those were good days.

So how did I get from there to here? Well, having a full-time job certainly decreased the amount of free time I have available. I used to be able to watch an anime episode or two between classes, not now. Having the money from a full-time job has increased the amount of money I have with which to acquire entertainment. I went from buying a few meager comics once in awhile to getting a box full of trade paperbacks monthly. I also stopped watching TV when I started college, and that freed up a lot of time for other pursuits. However, now we’ve got digital anime fansubs, bittorrent, Netflix, YouTube and Google Video more than making up for the lack of content from ignoring television. Oh yeah, podcasts got thrown in the mix as well.

So, what is so bad about this situation? I should be happy that I will never want for entertainment media. Let me tell you that I am, and I do not take my situation for granted. Although, it is not all sunshine and roses. The major issue is that the mere existence of the entertainment glut has an opportunity cost beyond merely the time it takes to consume it. Due to the increased risk of consuming bad media, I have to spend lots of time selecting media to consume. If I select poorly, not only have I lost the time consuming media that was not worthwhile, but I lost the time I spent selecting it.

The next problem follows directly from this. As much as I dislike it, I am forced to judge books by the cover. I am forced to judge new anime series with a quick skimming of the first episode. I am forced to judge comics by the first few pages. Spending more time testing something to see if I might grow to like it is too risky an endeavor. I have to use a very selective filter on the enormous amount of content coming in. I’m certain that I am missing out on some great stuff, but that is preferable to risking wasting my time with something terrible.

Another consequence of having all this media is that I consume it much more rapidly. I used to read books slowly, watch movies carefully and play video games methodically. So now when I read books quickly I miss out on some things and do not get the full experience. I play video games without exploring every possible area. Also, many works simply fall outside of what I have time to do. Japanese style RPGs are simply out of the question because of the amount of time they require to play. MMORPGs are laughable.

Not only do I consume media quickly rather than absorbing every detail in its fullness, but I hardly ever revisit anything. As I said, I get boxes of comics in the mail every month. These comics are read once and put on the shelf. It’s cool because friends borrow it, but I have no chance to reread any of it. I can’t go back and play a beaten video game because a new video game always comes along and pushes it out of the way. With Netflix I just feel like its a waste getting a movie I’ve already seen. Music is just about the only thing I have time to repeat, but that is because I can listen to a song while doing something else like writing a blog post.

Oh yeah, blogging and podcasting. With all these new technologies making distribution and acquisition of content easier we also have a situation in which making content is easier. Making entertainment content is in itself a form of entertainment, perhaps it is the best kind of entertainment. But even with these new technologies, content creation takes an enormous amount of time and takes away from content consumption time.

The long tail is an idea that with democratization of media creation and distribution we will be able to get away from our homogeneous pop culture. Sure, the most popular music might have a million CDs sold, but the sales of all the less popular genres combined will be greater than the sales of the most popular music. This is really a poor and oversimplified summary, you should really read up on it.

Anyway, what does the long tail have to do with me having no free time? It means increased competition within the tail. In the days when the best sellers were the only option, I didn’t invest lots of time trying things out or hunting things down. I bought the one hit and consumed it again and again. Now because I am so much more discerning of what media I ingest, only the best of the best makes it through. Good art just doesn’t cut it anymore, it’s either a masterpiece or crap. So while a much broader range of genres and styles of content is reaching its audience, only the best in each category will make the cut.

You can see this happening already. There isn’t room for both Digg and Slashdot. There isn’t room for more than a few podcasts in each category. In times past the head of the snake was the only part that mattered. In the new wave, each segment of the snake’s tail will have its importance, but each segment will be dominated by a few players. It’s the old model within the new model. People with a broad range of interests skim off the top of everything leaving the soft underbelly still unexposed.

Are there solutions to this problem? Maybe, but nothing complete. We can definitely use technology and manpower help each other out. Meta conversations about media can serve as entertainment themselves while lubricating the decision making process. Changing jobs and lifestyles can free up some time to make a significant difference, but not enough to clear the problem entirely.

The only solution I can see is to narrow my horizon. If I were to concentrate just on video games or just on books and stop caring about other mediums, like I did with television, I would have an achievable goal. If I narrowed my horizon by genre, only caring bout science fiction or only about fantasy across all mediums, that would do the trick as well. Though, there is no way I will do this. There are many ways to narrow the scope of my interests to create a situation in which there is less of a mountain for me to ascend, but all of them are even far more prejudiced than judging books by the covers.

So what’s the conclusion of all this? As far as entertainment media are concerned, we are living in what appears to be a Utopia. Supply far exceeds demand. The rate of production is greater than the rate of consumption. It’s an infinite harvest of the highest quality. I personally perceive this bounty to be a dystopia in disguise. We will delight in eating the greatest new varieties of fruit from the greatest trees. Meanwhile, I fear that many more perfectly good, but less perfect, fruits will rot on the vine.

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