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The Long Tail

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The Long Tail Book Cover Ugh, I really need to ‘catch up’ with writing about some books I have read. If not for your amusement, then for my own future reference, so I can look up what I read. My brother gave me The Long Tail for christmas and it was a quick read. The cover punnily points out that this edition is even longer with an extra chapter and notes that the author, Chris Anderson, worked at Wired magazine (uh, the 1990s called and want their ‘hip’ stuff back), studied Quantum Mechanics and Science Journalism at […] Berkeley and began his career at the two premier science journals Science and Nature. So, apart from each of these statements sounding like a joke or piss-take, what’s not to like?

The ‘long tail’ (which just like the word ‘internet’ is spelled with capital L and I throughout the book) is a bit of internet folklore by now: If there are many products available in a category, only the most popular ones will be profitable to sell in a physical store because the space needed to store each of them is finite and expensive. A supermarket shelf can only contain a certain number of products and a movie screen can only be used to screen one film at a time. With digital technologies and networks enabling companies to reduce their cost for storing products, by shipping them as bits and bytes (iTunes) or by letting other people store a small range of them (eBay) offering a more complete range becomes feasible. With more powerful search and classification/tagging systems, one can also provide customers a guide through the larger choice of products. The effect of that is that not just the ‘top 100’ products which sell in large quantities can be sold today but it has become feasible to sell more specialised stuff. Which is great for the people making the specialised stuff as well as the people wanting it. Voilà, the ‘long tail’.

The idea may have been tricky to pin down correctly (was it? didn’t all the ‘business’ ‘academics’ figure this out decades ago?) and simplify to such a nice punchline - apparently even using data of some online companies. But of course none of those data are actually seen in the book. Instead many words are in there. Coming at 250 pages I kept thinking that 50 pages may have communicated the same ideas as well, if not better, as it would have been less tiring and there would have been extra space available for the discussion of concrete examples. Which exact shape does the tail have? Roughly a straight line on experimentalists’ favourite double-logarithmic scale. But what do those graphs tell us? Where do the cut-offs come in? When does even the minimal cost of selling a digital item play a role? Will it be covered by selling a single copy in a year? in ten years? To me it seems that these seemingly tiny details will play a role if people want to make a profit out of the ‘long tail’ - just like the difference between x-1 and x-2 may seem irrelevant until you try to integrate.

While Anderson discusses the democratisation of production, this is mostly limited to what people call ‘content creation’ these days. With computers it has become feasible for people to mix their own music without massive investment. But once people want to create material things, the costs of production and distribution won’t be quite as convenient. It also seems safe to assume that the ‘long tail’ mainly benefits the people who trade and consume goods because they suddenly have a whole ‘long tail’ to choose or reap profits from. But what about the producers? They will benefit as well as more people can discover what they are doing but if they’re sufficiently ‘niche’ will that suffice to sustain them? A question which is neither asked nor answered in the book.

The most interesting point I took from the book is the importance of search and filter services. A wide range of options is only useful if you can find the things you are interested in there. Classification and statistics are needed to make that work. The Googles and amazons have shown amazing progress in those areas but whenever you are looking for something you quickly start thinking that they probably only managed to do the first few steps on that path and that many more improvements will be needed (and will be developed). The amazing thing is that today, in 2010, we take a lot of these services for granted, and we must do, because we’d be lost without them. It does work all right in many situations, but it also makes me feel uneasy because I have to give up any hope of controlling this system which I cannot possibly understand.

Bonus Material: When trying to figure out what the expression ‘Eurobeat’ means (apparently it and the long tail have to do something with House music) one can read a somewhat incomprehensible Wikipedia article or use Dave’s explanation which is comprehensible, short and even funny. Also amusing: The blurb on the book’s cover claiming that it is the most important business book since The Tipping Point. Either they’re lying in that blurb or you can safely stop wondering why the business world seems so clueless. Just sayin… • It may be interesting to read this Economist article observing that today’s media consumption may actually have stronger top hits and a longer tail but quite a dent in between.

Bookmark: 17-03-2005, KL598 CPT → AMS.

January 9, 2010, 17:14

Tagged as book, chris anderson, long tail.

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