The Long Tail: Kids With Homemade Flamethrowers

One of the most entertaining panels at SXSW last week was What We Learned Watching Kids With Homemade Flamethrowers. For those of us who are unfamiliar with that microgenre here is a short introduction:

"Mega Secrets" Homemade Flamethrower Music VideoYouTube Video

What can we learn from this?

On YouTube alone on this topic there are some 1,500 videos with a total duration of 25.2 hours. There are videos on almost every topic, however bizarre they may be. Even on topics that aren’t any topic at all, like “we got some food at McDonald’s and film now how we eat burgers.” Who watches that stuff? Hardly anybody. Welcome to the “long tail,” the niches of exponential decline accounting for a large amount of more than 100 million videos on YouTube.

There is a point when those niches become unmarketable. We’ve seen in the video above how larksome kids set their car on fire, or half a forest. Others test flamethrowers in their bedroom or try to light a cigarette with a flamethrower. These are rather silly actions, not mentioning obviously illegal things – alone on the consuming of psychoactive salvia (prohibited in Germany) there are 13,700 videos on YouTube.

Nobody would buy adverts on such a video. However, YouTube is financed by advertising. At the same time it becomes exponentially easier to produce and upload videos with a camera on your mobile: the “long tail” gets longer, thus the costs for hosting and streaming. Well, at the same time those latter factors get cheaper by the hour, but with the commercialization of those platforms the question arises: are those microgenres endangered? And what would we miss if we didn’t have these obscure contents any more?

Microgenres are the primeval soup of the Internet. Here the trends of tomorrow crop up, therefore they are also an economic driving force.

Even if there’s no such things as a community, a subculture of youth with self-made flamethrowers – for example the discussion whether there is a danger of flames flashing back into the container appears over and over again – still those contents create social relationships.

With those single irrelevant snapshots in time our society has the unique opportunity to create a comprehensive archive of everyday life of the 21st century. Just think of the scientific value of these recordings today or in a hundred years! Therefore yes, what we consider trivial today will have considerable historic-documentary or scientific value tomorrow.

And yes, in the hands of a company like Google that is subject to commercial constraints and changes, this content is in danger of getting deleted. Out of the top 100 companies existing a hundred years ago, today still three exist. While commercial, expensively produced content has linear growth, non-commercial content grows exponentially. When there is a point where the marketable part cannot support the other any longer, we are facing the loss of this archive of amateur recordings. Unless Google knows and speculates with that value?

A possible solution might be a new initiative by Wikimedia: let’s get video on Wikipedia. Because even while today 1,500 flamethrower videos are still irrelevant for an article on Wikipedia, they could find a new home at Wikimedia Commons.

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