One important theory, only made possible by the digitisation of commerce and communications, is that of the ‘long tail’ (Anderson 2004). In a nutshell, the theory suggests that because products can be distributed and sold more cheaply, vendors can now stock a broader range of goods each of which appeals to a small customer base (the tail), rather than focus on a narrow range of goods that appeal to a large number of customers (the head). For example, the virtual shelves of Amazon contain almost every type of product conceivable, whereas the physical shelves of a retail outlet are limited by the space available. Through the internet, niche products can appear alongside mainstream ones. With a literally global audience reachable through the internet, even the most obscure ideas (about, for instance, political ideology, religious convictions, business ventures) can find someone to appeal to. There are both benefits and drawbacks to this phenomenon.
On the one hand, people living under repressive regimes may be limited in their ability to communicate both within and outside their country. With digital technologies this repression can be sidestepped, allowing the expression of grievances and bringing to light issues that might otherwise be shrouded from view. The Arab Spring, as discussed above, is a case in point. In Egypt, the Mubarak regime even switched off the country’s internet services in acknowledgement of the role they were playing in the organisation of protests. The fact that protesters were nevertheless able to bring down Mubarak’s regime shows how the internet can empower people to overcome repression. This is also true in cases where communication is not actively repressed, but simply ignored or lost. With a ‘long tail’ to communicate to, people have a greater chance of making themselves heard. With greater reach of communications, the presentation of a novel idea is more likely to garner support, dissent, or comments than an idea presented to a smaller audience. Consider, for example, ‘crowdfunding’ platforms, where budding entrepreneurs can present their ideas to the public and appeal for funding to make them a reality. The idea does not have to be a physical product, it can also be the manifestation of a political or religious conviction. The internet makes it possible for ideas to gain traction that in the past might have fallen by the wayside. In this way, digital communications can increase shared knowledge and foster conversations that lead to the reformulation and improvement of ideas.
On the other hand, the long tail also gives a voice to unsavoury constituents of society. Just as the repressed can make themselves heard, extremists may find a foothold in the murky depths of the internet where bad ideas can be picked up and amplified. Perhaps the most notorious beneficiary of this has been the Islamic State group (also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh). Much has been made of their mastery of the internet to radicalise and recruit new members and spread propaganda – particularly through social media. There is no shortage of people, including Muslims, who renounce the group and actively seek to combat its message, but in the online world the majority view does not necessarily eliminate others being expressed. Previously, a bad idea might have faded into obscurity for lack of an audience, but with a long tail even the most heinous ideas can find adherents.