New Media Trainee

March 27, 2007

The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

Filed under: Long Tail — tenftpole @ 1:02 am

I think it was around 2001 when I thought of buying a couple music CDs I wanted that I previously had on cassette tape. I remember looking at several stores such as Borders and Best Buy, and even going to a used CD shop that specialized in rare finds. Unfortunately, it was a waste of time. The next day I decided to check out Amazon online and sure enough, I found used copies of the CDs I was looking for and had them by post in the next few days. It was gratifying to find exactly what I wanted and to be able to do it from my couch. It has pretty much been that way ever since. It’s easy now to find what was considered rare in my twenties.


The transactions I describe above are exactly the type of commerce that is made possible by digital technologies which have created The Long tail described by Chris Anderson in the book of the same name. eCommerce, made possible by the internet and the evolution of Web 2.0, has brought back ‘niche’ cultures. Niche cultures existed in the 19th century because of geography (every small town had its own culture). Then, in the 20th century, technologies from radio to TV to films brought us the blockbuster hit. Now, the internet has presented us with the ‘niche’ again. However, it’s different this time, because it’s about consumer choices and interests, not geography. We also still have access to the hits if we want them.


What makes it possible is how the internet combined with search and aggregators like Amazon and eBay have made distribution fairly cost free. The service they provide is connecting supply and demand through their services. In other words, it’s easier to connect a potential buyer to a product. Furthermore, because there’s no inventory (this is typically handled by third parties), aggregators can list a product that might only sell 1 or 2 copies a year because it doesn’t cost them to list it.  This is the 98% rule. Anderson discovered when researching digital jukeboxes. 98 percent of the songs sold at least once a quarter and the total profit from all those rare songs were equal to what money the major hits brought in.


Products are part of the long tail, but there is a ton of other cool stuff that’s actually created by users from films to Web 2.0 applications (blogs, freeware, wikis, and peer to peer networking). Take YouTube as an example. It’s now pretty easy to create your own film/video, put it on the web, and let it spread through viral marketing or recommendation based rankings. YouTube even has its own awards now. As technologies improve, I believe that the best of YouTube actually has the possibility of moving into the “hit” portion of the graph associated with the long tail.


Speaking of Web 2.0, Amazon and eBay are deserving of the term web 2.0 as defined by Tim O’Reilly. Web 2.0 uses the web as a platform, and the users add value through production or recommendations. Because of web 2.0, it is no longer the application that everyone wants, but the data. For instance, comparing Google Maps to MapQuest…they both have the same data, but Google Maps allows the user to add points of interest with comments that anyone can see.


I have to admit that when I purchased my CD’s online that I didn’t contemplate any of the above and what it all meant. I just thought it was really cool. It’s hard to think of why digital technologies and Web 2.0 are changing cultures or the way we communicate. But, it’s easy to understand the cool factor.

Anderson really provides a very good general explanation as to why The Long Tail matters. I’m just glad that I don’t have to rely on Casey Kasem to tell me what music is cool anymore or what movies I have to suffer through at the local theatre.

The Long Tail phenomenon made possible by digital technologies has given us all endless consumption based on individual interests whether it’s a movie, song, newspaper, or a particular type of grass seed we can’t get at the local store. Even if it’s crap in someone’s eyes, it’s still there for the one or two people who think it’s gold.


Having recently read Rheingold’s Smart Mobs, I can see a number of parallels between these two books. Primarily, I can see Reed’s law at work. All of this is possible because of the exponential increase of networks which is made possible by technology. Certainly the Long Tail has also resulted as a result of cooperation and reputation, both well covered topics in Smart Mobs.


I learn a great deal from books like these, but the question at the forefront of my mind is how and why will it change our society and culture as it pertains to interpersonal relationships? The ‘good’ thing about so many of us watching the big movie hits is that we can all talk about it and feel we are keeping up with what is going on. Fragmentation is occurring with digital technologies. Our interests are many and we spend more and more time looking at completely different things than our friends and family. I don’t consider this a bad thing. Perhaps it could even make people more interesting. I actually think that the really good stuff in the long tail will make it’s way to be witnessed by significant audience numbers. In the end, the best of the long tail will continue to give everyone something to have in common with a large group of people. To me, it’s the best of both worlds.



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