Thursday, 14 October 2004

The Long Tail

Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson writes about the Long Tail effect - that the Net's ability to offer unlimited selections (unlike traditional bookstores or record stores, which are bound by constraints of local demand and physical space) creates a "long tail" of demand that counters the standard assumptions of a hit-driven media culture. As Anderson aptly points out, "Hit-driven economics is a creation of an age without enough room to carry everything for everybody." This seems natural - after all, it's the same Internet that allows people to agglomerate very specialised interests that their residences may not allow them to explore - yet it still seems a long way before people understand the volume contained within the tail.

Anderson's article is particularly good when citing killer statistics that are counter-intuitive: 99% of the top 10,000 titles in any online media store (Amazon, iTunes, Netflix, etc.) will rent or sell at least once a month. More than half of Amazon.com's book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles (which is the number of titles in the average Barnes and Noble)
You can find everything out there on the Long Tail. There's the back catalog, older albums still fondly remembered by longtime fans or rediscovered by new ones. There are live tracks, B-sides, remixes, even (gasp) covers.
Yet it's not always easy to adjust to the fact of abundance that a "long tail" world holds. We're used to thinking that "only hits deserve to exist", because we think of hits as making back the costs of production. I wonder about bemoaning the death of the album. On the one hand, one can say the move towards the single format that MP3s seem to engender prevents us from ever getting masterpieces such as Abbey Road (just to name the record that's framed on my wall). On the other, how many tracks on albums were/are filler material anyway? And I think that applies to not just entertainment, but to other spheres of life. I know Gmail gives me 1GB of e-mail space, and that's enough that I should just archive even seemingly irrelevant e-mails (after all, who knows when something is going to trigger my mind and I go, hey, yeah, I saw that on offer in my Bluefly e-mail). But somehow I seem to adopt a scarcity mode of thinking despite this surfeit of space: I still delete shopping offers and other random mail.

Scott Rosenberg also takes off on Anderson's piece, linking it to the blogosphere and the fact that numerous blogs only have a handful of readers. The New York Times seemed snobby about the fact of small readership, but Rosenberg notes that this is a similar example of not understanding the power of the long tail.

Of course, this means an end to two activities I very much treasure, but that are ultimately driven by scarcity: crate digging in record stores for obscure vinyl, and browsing musty old bookstores for out-of-print works.




to crave something for its scarcity is somewhat... irrational but understandable. =)


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