Part of our pre-reading for the Peoplehood Project is Erica Brown and Misha Galperin’s Case For Jewish Peoplehood. While it reads at times like the condensed reading room syllabus for a survey course in sociology and religion, the authors make several forays into topics that remind me of Chris Anderson’s Long Tail view of disperse populations.
Anderson uses the long tail to describe distributions of goods that have a “head” – a few blockbuster, high sales volume but low margin products – and a longer “tail” comprising orders of magnitude fewer units of a correspondingly larger cardinality of product. Think amazon.com, where the Top 100 Book (or Electronics, or Toys) bestsellers represent the head, and the next two million books are the long tail. You can buy from either end of the curve with the same simplicity, and if you take the net profit returned (margin per item times the number of items sold), there’s a lot of money sitting under the long tail. Hard problem: how do you move demand from the head of the curve down the tail? It’s about recommendations, networked relationships, and establishing micro-niches.
There are the large, head of the curve things that define our Jewish context: Israel, holidays, bar and bat mitzvahs, the laws of keeping Kosher, even references to food like bagels. Peoplehood, however, comes from those contextual items much further down the curve. It’s nigh impossible to get people to agree on how to observe holidays, how, when and where to attend synagogue, and the degree to which you agree with the myriad policies and positions of Israel. Much easier is identifying ten or fifty much smaller, specific things around which we cluster our interests: Jewish basketball players or rock musicians, proper Yemenite schug, a particular liturgical melody. Peoplehood means utilizes the long tail in reverse. Rather than working from the big items down to the disperse population, the diaspora finds common ground and establishes a way to talk about the larger, harder problems.