The Hollow Core of Kevin Kelly’s “Thousand True Fans” Theory

Dave Karpf takes a look at the foundations of former Wired editor Kevin Kelly’s “thousand true fans” theory, and finds that it hasn’t aged very well:

A Thousand True Fans is a rallying cry for our current podcast/youtube/Substack economy. Kelly declares that the digital revolution has made it more possible than ever to find your audience, build a relationship with them, and make a good living doing something you love. Thousand True Fans tells us that a better world is possible if we just believe in ourselves, trust each other, and embrace the wonderful opportunities the internet provides. In Thousand True Fans, Kelly writes, “A fundamental virtue of a peer-to-peer network (like the web) is that the most obscure node is only one click away from the most popular node.”

In other words, the most obscure under-selling book, song, or idea, is only one click away from the best selling book, song or idea. However, Karpf notes that this is only true when the peer-to-peer networks are small. “As the network gets bigger, the platforms develop algorithms to help people discover what they are looking for/what they want but might not be looking for yet. It results in a power law/rich-get-richer phenomenon, driving attention and audiences toward the biggest successes and away from the niches.”

There are other problems with the theory, Karpf writes, including the fact that “We’re also less disintermediated than Kevin Kelly thought. Thousand True Fans is premised on the assumption that you can develop a direct relationship with your “true fans.” That rarely turns out to be the case, though — iTunes and other digital distributors take a 30% cut of everything sold on their platforms. Spotify replaced iTunes as the go-to music platform, and they pay in fractions of a penny per stream.)”

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