When we were out shopping recently, I found a copy of The Long Tail by Chris Anderson in the discount bin of audiobooks and picked it up.  The Long Tail had a profound effect on my thinking when I first read it, and it seemed time to revisit this book again.  So this morning, while out and about, I started listening, and thinking about how the reduction of information from physical form- books, albums, CD’s, DVD’s and more- into digital form- downloads of audio, text and more onto portable digital devices- is a huge factor in not only how we distribute knowledge, but how we value it and the “sweat equity” it takes to create something.

For example, Chris Brogan wrote a post about A Perfect Dichotomy, in his search to find a logo.  In a nutshell, Chris went to a site that business people love- because they can get great work inexpensively, and designers hate, because they think it cheapens the work they do.  The problem here is essentially that as a business-side person, we know we want something, but we have no idea whatsoever what the process of creating that something is.  We have no easily accessible yardstick that tells us how much education, labor, passion, experience or more goes into one design over another- we’re only interested in the end product and pricepoint.  And at times, things like design, art and other important, yet less physically tangible goods and services can seem equivalent from a seasoned professional and a beginner, and the purchaser has no clear way to understand the difference between cheap and expensive.  (The ethics of buying work on spec is important, but you can’t eat ethics, so that argument alone will only get you so far.)

When you look at a car, for example, you can see lots of parts.  Heck, my Toyota Highlander has so many buttons and nobs it feels like I’m driving the space shuttle.  It looks complicated, and I can’t put the thing together myself, so I must be prepared to pay not only for the cost of materials that went into making the thing, but the designers, and workers who riveted the thing together, and the computer nerds who make the thing operate, and probably a share of that purchase price also goes into the marketing that made me want the thing in the first place.  There is obvious value on display, and we feel like we’re making an exchange of cash for value add that’s clearly tangible.  Likewise,when I buy shoes or clothing, I know that I am exchanging money for physical items I can’t make myself.  The same with food at the supermarket.  The value held in the physical items seems real.

When an author has their book in their hands, it feels like all your ideas and thoughts are now real.  My book on Public Assembly Facility Law (yes, esoteric and boring, to be sure…) sits proudly on my shelf, a reminder and a memento of hard work and writing.  It stores that value.   But take the unpublished book projects that sit on my hard drive.  They have value in terms of my time, my passion and more, but as long as they sit “in the drawer” they have no value to anyone other than me.  Even if I put them in PDF format and make them available to everyone, where is the value exchange?  Does anyone appreciate what went into that writing, or do they even care?  If I put a tip jar on the site, is the value of the work based on the money I receive?  What if I get none?  Does that mean I wasted all my time?

What I’m trying to say here is that as we start to digitize information, information that has some value, even if dictated by arbitrary price points on Amazon and iTunes, I think we start to value it a little less than we did when it was harder to access.  The intellectual work is the same whether the book itself is printed on paper or is merely bits and bytes, but the printing, distribution, marketing and other middle man expenses seem to act as a value filter and as a value add to make only the “best work” to make it into print.

Or at least that’s what I think our monkey brains believe, because that’s what has been true up until this point.  Only a select few got to write for a living, and got paid for it, so therefore, if you were an author, that meant something.  Just like being a journalist meant something special, and why the editor of the local paper was someone to be revered and even feared- he was the gatekeeper to the community’s sense of importance.  I don’t think we’ve really figured out how to value the digital information we get, because we get so much of it.  While some is fantastic, much of it is unimportant, so the general supply of information and ease of access overwhelms demand, and price plummets.

Bill Gates once said that Open Source was the enemy because it was essentially relying on people doing things for free and while it was creating value, it wasn’t distributing any.  He felt this meant that sooner or later, people would stop contributing to open source, because in the real world, there is still rent to pay and kids to feed.  (I’m clearly paraphrasing here.)  Yet Open Source and blogs and more exist because people want to express themselves.  This need will never go away.   There may be no more HUGE hits the way there once were, because people can find and feed their niche tastes, and the choices are close to infinite.  We no longer have restricted choice, dictated to us by what only a few people running the three major networks thought we should see, like when I grew up.  (Except, maybe for Law & Order, but even that franchise may be reaching its end.)

All of this choice sometimes means we get overwhelmed and decide to make no choice, rather than risk making the wrong one.  It means we can’t always see, know or appreciate the difference between an original designer purse and the knock-off that’s “good enough” sold on the street corner.  The ubiquitous nature of choice makes it more and more difficult to determine actual value, and as a result we either make no choice or make choice based on reputation, convenience and price.  This means if you are choosing someone to work with on something largely intangible like design, logos, even consulting work, you are forced to vet them by reputation, and then by judging whether the value they add to the project or the relationship you gain is worth the premium you pay as a result.

(Just as an example, there are a gazillion people who call themselves social media experts on twitter,  but you can probably sort out the wheat from the chaff not just by followers, but by checking the date they started using the service, and those with more experience are probably more valuable to you than the folks who joined up yesterday.)

It also means from someone working in an “intangible” digital arena, you’ve got to make your value proposition real.  You have to be able to explain why your work, your company or your stuff is so much better and deserves premium compensation.  You have to have a track record, and you have to master those relationship skills that make working with you so simple and so enjoyable, people will come because you constantly exceed their expectation.

This is what Chris Penn refers to as “You have to not suck” or as I would say simply- The first rule of business is to be the best at what you do, and to be the exception, not the rule.  Otherwise, you do end up being one of the multiple choices out in the long tail, with only a few hits of business over time, and probably not enough to sustain yourself long term.  Independent musicians know this, actors know this, and now other people in creative fields are learning this: When you do something artistic, you have to find an outside source that values you and will support you through good times and bad, just like Michelangelo and Da Vinci had the de Medici family.  You need to offer them something they cannot do themselves, and makes their life or reputation richer in the process.   Otherwise, you are merely a struggling and starving artist, and will still need to wait tables to eat.

Finding your value and articulating it, unambiguously, for all to see is the challenge everyone faces is a world of infinite choice.  I’m working on this for myself- are you?