Newspapers come and the news is gone the next day. TV reports are even briefer. Magazines tell their stories week by week, or month by month, and then they’re forgotten. But content on the Internet has a more persistent life cycle. Now, content can live forever — or at least, a lot longer than it used to. And, in our current information age, content of all types can prosper even if it lies in the eddies and swirls along the edges instead of the mainstream of pop culture.
Chris Anderson, the editor in chief of Wired magazine, wrote an entire book (and blog) about this phenomenon, called The Long Tail. Here’s his theory, in a nutshell:
The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of “hits” (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail. As the costs of production and distribution fall, especially online, there is now less need to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers. In an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, narrowly-target goods and services can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare.
This idea of the Long Tail perfectly describes my experience with an online tribute page I created for my friend Alan Dumas, who died suddenly of a heart attack in April 1999.
Alan was a raconteur, writer, actor and radio personality in Denver for many years. I first met him when we both were writers for Denver’s alternative weekly newspaper, Westword.
He was a lifelong Grateful Dead fan, and as a budding young rock critic, I hated the Dead (I like them much better now, in my old age). Back then, I really hated the Dead. Whenever he saw me, Alan would give me crap about not liking the Dead, and we’d fall into a good-natured argument about the band’s musical merits.
One summer, before the Dead came to town, we decided to record our arguments, so we sat over pizzas at the bar below Westword’s offices in Lower Downtown, and did just that. The transcript of the argument ran in the next issue with the headline, “My Dinner with Dumas,” a reference to the then-popular art film of two friends having a long talk over a meal.
Later, I found out Alan had written about his favorite band in one of the very first issues of Westword but managed to misspell the name as “Greatful Dead” instead of “Grateful.”
That was Dumas for you — smart, funny, loud (he had a voice that boomed like a foghorn, which made him perfect for radio), and full of shit.
He was well-known for several personality quirks, including his passion for “Star Trek” and “The A-Team” (keep in mind, he was one of the most well-read and intellectual guys I’ve ever known) and his penchant for lying and telling outrageous stories.
He swore to anyone he’d meet that he once dated John Wayne’s daughter when he was in high school in California. He told me once, and for some reason I believed him for a while, that his father lobotomized his mother. He told everyone for years that he had three testicles, and I think most of us believed him. It took his ex-wife at his memorial service to bust that myth.
Through various life changes, jobs and ups and downs, Alan and I stayed close. For years, we would go and watch football games together with our friend Phil Murray, and we took to calling ourselves “The Commission” — not for the NFL commissioner, but because we were obsessed with the JFK assassination and wanted to redo the work of the Warren Commission.
Alan had myriad health problems as he entered his 40s (which seems weird since I’m about to enter my 50s!). On April 19, 1999, just days before the Columbine Massacre (as a journalist, I benchmark my life with news events), I got a call from Phil, who told me Alan had died of a heart attack, in the parking lot of a local shopping mall.
I was asked to post a Web page to report details of Alan’s memorial service, which I did. And then I kept updating it because people in the local media kept writing tribute to the guy, which I copied onto the page, and then his friends sent me tributes to post to the page.
The Alan Dumas Tribute Page is still up there on the Internet, even though Dumas himself was something of a Luddite and wasn’t big on using the Net. He had just given me his e-mail address a few days before he died, and we hadn’t had the chance to exchange e-mails.
And amazingly — and this is where the Long Tail comes into play — I still get reminiscences to add to the page.
That’s both a testament to Alan’s impact on people, and to the Long Tail of content that the Internet makes possible. His old friends, and even former students (he was a journalism teacher for a few years, which he thought was amazing and easy), think of him from time to time and Google his name and find the tribute page.
So once or twice a year ever since he passed on, someone else makes a connection with Alan, and e-mails an addition. I just posted the latest two (one was one I received several months ago but I had been between jobs and computers, so I didn’t get to it right away). The most recent entries are at the bottom of the page; it starts at the top with the details of Alan’s memorial service and the published tributes.
I’m glad to be able to keep alive the spirit of one of the most unique and interesting people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, and the memory of a good friend.