The following is a post by Reed Esau, Mile High Skeptic and creator of the increasingly popular speaker driven Skepticamp events:
In my October 2008 essay “Raising Our Game” I lamented the near-absence of good opportunities for skeptics, particularly those new to our community, to get involved. Their enthusiasm, I asserted, is being squandered. Without good opportunities to engage, these new skeptics eventually lose interest and move on.
Even for those of us who have decided to stick around, getting involved and contributing is the exception to the rule. Roughly 95% of skeptics aren’t active beyond small-scale efforts like subscribing to a skeptic magazine, interacting in an online forum or attending a local meetup. In contrast, the remaining 5% represent such people as podcasters and the full-time professionals like Michael Shermer who are producing the bulk of the content and moving skepticism forward.
This unbalanced level of contribution is actually quite common in many domains and shouldn’t be too surprising. However, what should catch the interest of our community is the potential that lies within this majority of skeptics, who I term the ‘Long Tail’ of organized skepticism.
Business empires have been built by those who have figured out how to tap into the long tail. For instance, Amazon lists millions of book titles in its inventory, far more than any brick-and-mortar bookseller could match. They are able to meet the most obscure needs of book buyers, where each purchase can contribute to their bottom line.
This suggests a strategy to tap into the long tail of organized skepticism: we must develop granular ways for each of us to contribute, where each of those ways can build upon our enthusiasm and fit within the constraints of our busy lives. Furthermore, those contributions must not only provide great value to the individual, but also to skepticism at large.
Fast forward from last October to now. Last week Junior Skeptic editor Daniel Loxton published a detailed collection of 105 opportunities for skeptics to get involved, annotated with the comments of a dozen notable activist skeptics. This panel project is titled What Do I Do Next? and follows on Loxton’s popular 2007 essay Where Do We Go From Here? that ignited a discussion on the future of organized skepticism.
Can this recent project help us to tap into our long tail? The answer is a qualified ‘yes.’
Most of the 105 are ill-suited to the long-tail skeptic and instead require the time and expertise of a dedicated activist. To be a podcaster (#85) for example, not only depends on the rare convergence of time, talent and energy to develop content and produce the podcast, but also the discipline to keep it going week after week without burning out. For those of us who have an active family life or a demanding job, this form of activism is largely out of reach, at least as a solitary effort.
Nevertheless, Loxton’s project mentions several entry-level or granular opportunities that we long-tailers might find compelling. In some cases it can be a solitary effort, such as to “Contribute Responsible Edits to Wikipedia” (#96) where one can take deep satisfaction in helping to add value to this great resource. Group efforts also exist, such as my beloved “Participate in a ‘Skepticamp’ event” (#29) where one can present on a skeptic or science-related topic to her peers.
Tapping into the long tail of skepticism is no easy task, as there must exist compelling opportunities that can fit within our busy lives. To succeed in this effort can not only open up new avenues for growth but can add value to skepticism as well. “What Do I Do Next?” gets us a couple steps further down that path.
(Full incestuous disclosure: I was one of the proofers of Loxton’s piece, and he provided feedback on a draft of ‘Raising Our Game.’)