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Prefiltering v. Postfiltering

Chris Anderson on prefilters vs. postfilters:

In the existing Short Tail markets, where distribution is expensive and shelf space is at a premium, the supply side of the market has to be exceedingly discriminating in what it lets through. These producers, retailers and marketers have made a science of trying to guess what people will want, to improve their odds of picking winners. They don’t always guess right–there are surely as many things that deserved to make it market but were overlooked as there are things that made it to market and then flopped–but the survivors get a reputation for some sort of mystical insight into the consumer psyche.

But in Long Tail markets, where distribution is cheap and shelf space is plentiful, the safe bet is to assume that everything is eventually going to be available. The role of filter then shifts from gatekeeper to advisor. Rather than predicting taste, post-filters such as Google measure it. Rather than lumping consumer into pre-determined demographic and psychographic categories, post-filters such as Amazon’s custom recommendations treat them like individuals who reveal their likes and dislikes through their behavior. Rather than keeping things off the market, post-filters such as MP3 blogs create a markets for things that are already available by stimulating demand for them.

Three unintended consequences of this phenomena:

  1. The problem with postfiltering is that feedback arrives after publication, not before. Editors catch typos and errors before mass distribution or distribution. This is bad. Comments from users/readers/viewers are good, but often they are about general impressions and not feedback the content creator can actually use. For the independent writer, typos can be a big deal and a blindspot when combined with lack of feedback. Prefiltering ensured that artistic works appeared in good final form; without that help, everything seems to be rough works-in-progress. On the flip side, readers can still assume much of the burden of pointing out typos and errors. Also, because distribution costs are so low, it is much less painful to publish newer versions of a work. Over time content can ripen in the public garden. (Ironic Note: I edited this awful paragraph three hours after first publishing, although not because of feedback).
  2. Critics and taste arbiters become more visible to the public eye. In the past, acquisitions editors and people who signed the talent toiled in obscurity, rarely establishing a distinctive voice or a public presence. Now editors are fulfilling these functions post-production. That means these editors/critics have time to attract a following, time to establish an idiosyncratic body of opinions which readers can track over time. That gives readers and viewers the opportunity to follow individual critics more closely than ever was possible.
  3. Many people fulfilling the postfilter role do it on an unpaid basis (and in the case of amazon.com, reviewer comments are owned by the company that solicits them). Relying on a band of amateurs to perform these functions has plusses and minuses. More postfiltering out there, less critical independence, more dependence on physical review copies and other bribes in exchange for attention (See my article on Disclaimers & Conflicts of Interests 101 for the blogcritic ).

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