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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Long Tail

Is anybody else out there reading Chris Anderson's new book The Long Tail? I got it a couple weeks ago and am about halfway through. I keep stopping because I read something that gives me an idea, and I start sketching it out and stop reading.

If you're unfamiliar with the concept of the long tail, read Anderson's blog, linked above, or check out the Wikipedia entry. Basically, he uses a nifty little graph (the long tail) to argue that thanks to the Internet, it makes economic sense for businesses to offer their customers access to lots of niche content as opposed to offering only the mainstream hits. He often cites Netflix (as opposed to Blockbuster Video) and Amazon (as opposed to Barnes and Noble) as good examples of this model. This is reflected in the book's subtitle, "Why the future of business is selling less of more."

He also apparently talks about how this is changing the culture and why it's a good thing, though I haven't gotten to that part yet. I'm not so sure that eliminating mainstream mass culture is a good thing. I wonder if he'll convince me?

I first heard about the long tail at a blogger conference in North Carolina a year and a half ago, and was captivated by the idea. It's a neat little concept that, if true, presents some exciting possibilities. I say "if true" because I read the house copy of the Wall Street Journal this morning at Uncommon Grounds in Burlington and saw this skeptical review.

I don't feel prepared to offer any kind of comprehensive analysis yet, but I'd say that most of what I've read so far rings true to me. As a former zinester and as a current producer and fan of microniche web content, I think it's all pretty exciting.

July 26, 2006 at 08:48 PM in Media/Keeping an eye on the competition | Permalink


I'm skeptical of the skeptical review. I haven't read the book, but the underlying truth in the idea of the long tail seems obvious, as your own blog (and mine and most other VT blogs) clearly shows. The little guys do have an audience. It may never come to pass that the cumulative effect of the little guys will out-perform the big hits, but as more and more people have access to more and more diverse content, it sure makes sense that the content people have access to will be accessed by some of them. Does that make any sense?

The reviewer wrote:
Bloglines, the widely used blog-reading tool, lists 1.2 million blogs; real ones, not computer-generated "spam blogs." The top 10% of feeds grab 88% of all subscriptions. And 35% have no current subscribers at all -- there's clearly no 98 Percent Rule in the blogosphere.

That's not clear at all from those lame stats. How many of those 1.2 million blogs listed by bloglines are never updated? I wouldn't be terribly surprised if the number was close to the 35% listed as the amount with no feed subscriptions. For the statistic to be meaningful, one would have to disregard not only spam blogs, but blogs that get started and then abandoned, which account for a big chunk of all blogs according to Technorati.

I know from personal experience that all you have to do to get a readership is update your blog regularly with original content. That's not enough to make you famous, but there is at least a small blog audience for ANYBODY who wants one and who doesn't abandon their site. It remains to be seen how this will affect the world of online vs. meatspace sales, but the long tail is definitely real.

Posted by: Bill Simmon | Jul 27, 2006 11:41:31 AM

I second your thoughts about blogs. I hadn't thought of that, that the total # counts sites that haven't been updated in eons, but clearly it does.

And RSS feeds is a stupid way to measure blog popularity, anyway. It doesn't track the random visitors that sites get, and if you're listed by Google, you get plenty. A small number of people will still click on blogs that haven't been updated.

But whether or not you can make any money on that long tail, that's the real question.

Posted by: cresmer | Jul 27, 2006 1:08:42 PM

Re economics: Anderson's reponse to the WSJ article points out that calculating the extent of the economic impact of the long tail based upon percentages is flawed because the definition of what the "head" is keeps changing. Fascinating stuff. In ten years, one of them will be right. My money's on Anderson.

Posted by: Bill Simmon | Jul 27, 2006 2:13:28 PM

I'm glad to hear that the book seems to be as ubiquitous over there as it is here. Jeez, you can't open a newspaper or read a blog without catching some reference to it. Still haven't read the damn thing, but what you wrote makes me want to even more.

Posted by: Yankunian | Jul 28, 2006 3:55:52 AM

I can think of two reasons why everyone is talking about this book:

1) The publishing company is spending a crapload of money to promote it (no doubt).

2) Everybody's grasping for some kind of theory or paradigm to help them understand the massive cultural shift we're experiencing, and Anderson is a credible enough spokesman that his theory merits debate.

Media people in particular are working hard right now to figure out how to adjust their business models. That's pretty much what the book is about, so it makes sense that we'd all be reading it.

Posted by: cresmer | Jul 28, 2006 9:29:48 AM

I haven't read the book and don't know much about commerce on the internet. However, I know the internet has been a hayday for fans of music down in that long tail. And, as a result, bands that exist down in that tail have been able to sell more albums without having to steer their sound to the mainstream.

That's the key. Once upon a time, bands would be "discovered" by a major label playing in small clubs, signed to that major label and the re-shaped to meet mainstream tastes. Now, bands like Arcade Fire can remain on small independent labels, guide their music wherever they want it to go and still sell 500,000 copies.

Arcade Fire is an extreme example but they aren't alone either. So, I don't know if the same scenario has played out with books, potholders, foot massagers, bed linens and all of the other crap people buy on the internet but it certainly has been good for music.

Posted by: Murf | Jul 28, 2006 10:16:26 AM

In terms of blogging, anyway, the key to the long tail *really* is in original, niche content.

Over the years I've written a fair amount typical blog fodder -- commentary that's ripe with links to other places -- and a lot of original content about coffee, life the universe and everything.

The blog fodder posts without question get the most page views up-front... and then, when they're no longer relevant and timely, they simply fade away.

The original content is another matter. Coffee reviews, gear reviews, tales from the coffee house, and more recently articles about life in Vermont, all continue to *grow* in their readership. So even when I'm something less than active in my posting (shame on me) the readership for Bloggle continues to climb.

Timeliness -- or timelessness -- is a factor. Equally so, I think, is an original voice with a point of view.

Posted by: deCadmus | Jul 28, 2006 10:53:19 AM

Murph and Doug, all excellent points! I really think the niche thing is important. It's fascinating to me that in traditional forms of popular media (Hollywood films, network TV, novels, major label records, etc.), the goal is to appeal to the widest possible audience. With blogs and podcasts and other residents of the long tail, the opposite is true: find your niche and your audience will find you.

You two guys are great examples of that rule working very well, while Candleblog is sadly mostly nicheless. I had intended it to be a lot more filmmaking-focused but then it just sort of turned into a more general "look at this cool thing I found" site with occasional personal stories thrown in. As a result, my readership is smaller than it probably would be if there was a more specific niche being served, but whatever... I have fun and that's the most important thing to me.

Posted by: Bill Simmon | Jul 28, 2006 12:03:10 PM

Bill -

Dude, you had a totally unique content thing goin' with Friday Coffee Blogging, which I know *I* enojoyed... even if I was never (sniff) invited. ;)

I'd hope you could start that up again in some manner... meanwhile, I have some episodes safely packed away on my iPod.

Posted by: deCadmus | Jul 28, 2006 10:19:16 PM

Aw, that's good to hear. I miss FCB too and I hope to start something up again soon along similar lines, but it's hard to devote time to something like that and not get paid for it. That said, the new thing, if it ever happens, should prove to be even better. After my wedding in September it will be easier for me to begin work on something, and you'll TOTALLY be invited.

Posted by: Bill Simmon | Jul 29, 2006 12:53:51 AM

check it out
Day of the Longtail (YouTube)

Posted by: Yankunian | Jul 31, 2006 11:41:43 AM

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