Size does matter
I get sent a lot of ideas for web services that will "appeal to a niche" and, thanks to that book, we're all expected to bow at the Alter of The Long Tail and drink the nectar of the microbrand. I've never been so sure. If you ask me to make the call between a half-empty macrobiotic boutique restaurant and a packed, noisy French bistrot with music that's just a tad too loud, you know which one I'd go for. For ideas to come into existence you only need two. To thrive and survive towards a sustainable future it needs more than village.
The size of the communities around us does matter. That's why more and more of us head to the city, for sure. The more people, the more opportunity to interact, the more opportunity to make good things happen. Or so we'd like to hope, anyway.
I like this WSJ colour piece by former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, who features in the video above, as he describes what makes the perfect city. His opinion on size is revealing in the physical world, and sends a reminder to those designing communities in the virtual one: size does matter:
A city can't be too small. Size guarantees anonymity—if you make an embarrassing mistake in a large city, and it's not on the cover of the Post, you can probably try again. The generous attitude towards failure that big cities afford is invaluable—it's how things get created. In a small town everyone knows about your failures, so you are more careful about what you might attempt. Every time I visit San Francisco I ask out loud "Why don't I live here? Why do I choose to live in a place that is harder, tougher and, well, not as beautiful?" The locals often reply, "You don't want to live here. It looks like a city, but it's really a small village. Everyone knows what you're doing" Oh, OK. If you say so. It's still beautiful.
There's a lesson in here for lots of online initiatives in education: the attempt to encourage rather than lead by mandate the use of Scotland's national intranet Glow, the desire to evolve the TeachMeet form of unconference professional development towards something that 'makes change happen', the desire to shake the often unnecessary constraint of national testing in the US and elsewhere.
I still stand with my gut firmly in place: the niche is useful for getting a new trend or fad started, but to move beyond the fad and into the mainstream, for general acceptance to occur and change to follow, you need size. You need the distractions and noise of the city, the niches you don't appreciate, to make your own ideas fly.