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The digital scholar
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1.4  No/low cost penetration

An image of a black and white photograph of the inside of a television studio.
Figure 4 Moving to frictionless broadcasting

The advantages of a move towards a frictionless long-tail model are largely related to costs and resources. Because its cost is free or relatively low, it means that, unlike large-scale projects or traditional broadcasting, there is no need to consider audience demographics, to establish specific projects (with the associated management costs) or to set objectives and goals. The result of this means that, taken as a whole, the university can embrace the kind of unpredictability that is at the heart of the internet, what Jonathan Zittrain (2008) refers to as ‘generativity’. Unpredictability is an undesirable goal for any specific project to have as an aim because budget allocation entails project objectives, measures of success, intended audiences and lines of responsibility. This is one of the areas of tension for universities (and other large organisations) with the internet culture – the project-focused method of working ingrained in many organisations is at odds with the bottom-up, unpredictable nature of internet innovation. There are two ways to address this; the first is to invest considerable amounts of money creating content which might take off and the second is to generate content at low cost as a by-product of normal operations.

A small, non-educational, example of this is that of the Downfall meme. These videos take the same segment of the (excellent) 2004 German film Downfall, when Hitler in his bunker rants against his imminent defeat. By overlaying different subtitles the first parody depicted his rage against being banned from Xbox Live. The ease with which it could be altered and the inherent comedy in seeing a despot savagely bemoan the unfairness of obscure topics led to it going viral. It generated thousands of reinterpretations and millions of hits, until the production company ordered a takedown notice of all parodies in 2010. In this it exemplifies the unpredictability that can occur online and the creativity which can be unleashed.

Memes such as Downfall (and others such as ‘David After the Dentist’) are a rarity, however. It is not that large numbers of views or remixes are possible that is significant, but that unpredicted use and adoption can occur. Very small viewing figures are the norm in the long tail.