I've been digging around in Chris's blog for more than a year now, pitching the concept to friends, rolling it around in my head. Some of the early reviews say there isn't much in the book that wasn't in the original Wired article, and that is perhaps a trend these days with the short-attention-span nature of book publishing business, which is putting out more titles than ever, yet people are actually reading less (or so I hear, could use a solid statistic on that).
That in and of itself has ramifications for the Long Tail, I suppose, or it acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Who knows? The mysteries of book publishing often do not make sense to me, and not because I am unfamiliar with the industry. Like much of the media business, I see companies making decisions that appear to hurt their own long-term viability/profitablity.
Six Apart and Typepad are featuring Chris Anderson's Typepad blog on the Long Tail, and include this blurb in the notice about the book:
TypePad News: What is the Long Tail?
It was originally an idea...
Back in October 2004, Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson penned one of the most influential magazine articles of recent times, "The Long Tail." The Wired cover story explored the impact that improved searching and better filters have had on selling products and services, making it possible to profit from items that aren't "hits" in the Top 100 sense. Increasingly, Anderson suggests, niche products that alone sell relatively few units will together make up the majority of sales for many businesses.
The idea has become one of the most popular memes for bloggers who write about business and culture, and over the past 20 months has taken hold in the mainstream as thinkers and consumers alike realize the implications of the shift.
Then it was a TypePad blog...
Inspired to continue the work he began with his article, Anderson turned to the natural habitat of the Long Tail — the Internet. He launched his TypePad blog, The Long Tail, the very month the article appeared, and ever since, he's been revising and extending his thesis, under the watchful and helpful eyes of "thousands of smart readers," as Anderson describes them. The blog not only served as a workshop for the author's continuing research, but also as a clearinghouse for any and all information related to the concept. To this very day, you'll find Anderson posting about the developments and data that surround the economics of unlimited choice.
Now it's a book...
So there you have it, the Long Tail in a nutshell. I've also written about it a bunch on this blog.
To counter my previous enthusiasm, I want to mull over some contrarian thoughts. I'd still sign on to the idea of the Long Tail as an element of radical democracy theory online, just as much as I was an early signatory on "The Cluetrain Manifesto," long before it ever was a book. Philosophically, I am in alignment with these ideas.
So now, let's play the skeptic. The 80/20 rule, for instance. Chris says the Long Tail turns the primary assumption of the 80/20 rule on its ear. And the numbers appear to bear this out.
And that fits with what we have learned about the distributed (democratized distribution) model of technological power, such as how the proliferation of weaker desktop PCs trumped the more powerful world of mainframe computers. The principle reveals itself in the construction of the Internet, a distributed and deliberately decentralized collection of nodes that route around disruption in the same way Christmas lights (and Al Qaeda cells) operate, where if one light goes out, the rest stay lit. Solar power and other off-the-grid energy generation projects work on this model as well.
Even the relatively weak SGML-knockoff code HTML, replicated itself widely because of its ease of use (despite people who don't realize this now 12 years later... you can teach yourself HTML in two days, seriously. Don't waste your money on a class. Take a class in CSS instead).
And to illustrate this point even further, the blog social movement and the Blogosphere exist BECAUSE the distributed model of ease of use/limited template choices create a lower barrier to entry for well-distributed web pages and personal content management systems.
Google even made more power freely available to just anyone than Lexis Nexis ever charged a boodle for (I'll bet folks who banked on the scarcity model of value at Lexis Nexis and other "elitist" databases are still cursing at Google over this).
Forces of centralization and exclusivity (and elitism) have a real hard time wrapping their heads around how a non-scarcity, distributed model creates power where there was not power before, out of seemingly thin air. Asymetrical, perhaps. To their minds, you don't give away dollars to increase wealth, you hoard them (and these days, there are many people sitting on big pots O dollars, practicing their hoarding to the tune of seven thousand square foot homes and upward).
But distribute power among the many INSTEAD of hoarding it, and the total set of goods grows, devaluing hoarded wealth in the process. Bummer, that. Or is the point "wealth" generation just to have more relative to those around you? Is the point central control of the borders and the gates, choke points of power, regardless of the wampum of the day? Or is it just to be Uncle Scrooge McDuck, swimming around in your vault of coins?
See, I get the distributed model. But is the Long Tail as it is currently envisioned a true distributed model? Ah, there's the rub!
This just occurred to me, so excuse me if I sound a little half-baked. I'm thinking out loud.
The Long Tail looks at the AGGREGATE value of the tail end of the selling curve (or collecting curve, if bits of information are what's exchanged, instead of wampum).
Aggregate. That means the 80/20 rule only reverses as the long tail is mined for MASSIVE CENTRAL DISTRIBUTORS. Like Amazon. Like Netflix. (yes, I am still in love with the Long Tail at Netflix, so shoot me).
INDIVIDUAL authors, like, say, Chris Anderson, do not realize the power of the 80/20 reversal, because they are not large scale aggregators. I'd imagine Chris is sitting there watching his Amazon rank, as some of my friends have done when their books came out. And what part of that curvey graph does he hope he's on?
My friends still had to deal with being remaindered and going out of print when they got dumped off the steeper end of the curve. Maybe that's residual horseless carriage old media stuff, but for one author with one book, the Long Tail can be a lonely ride.
What about bloggers who ride the Long Tail care of RSS feeds and Google? They have no barriers to keeping their permalinks up, so long as Google's Big Daddy doesn't unceremoniously decide to dump them out of the Index of Everything.
Many bloggers say their Google AdSense revenue comes from their archives, and I know my archives are my greatest value as well, and of course I don't have stockholder pressure for quarterly results and projections like those odious and highly profitable blockbuster-focused old media companies do. As if the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel "Dead Man's Chest" ISN'T a dog movie, even if Johnny Depp remains a god?
Push-button enforced audience-passivity marketing is still producing results, and these are issues to be reckoned with.
So Chris (Anderson), if the Long Tail pattern only pays off in the aggregate (I suppose you could make the same claim about how PCs trumped mainframes, yet PC power quickly centralized into massive aggregators, didja notice?), where is the payoff/power for the granular producers? The collectors of the dollar/wampum/link votes?
That's the part I'm still trying to work out in my head. Is the Long Tail a tool of greater centralized control, and therefore in OPPOSITION to the distributed/democratized model?
Or is it truly empowering for many of us little littles, just as HTML was, just as a content-neutral DARPA-created packet Internet was, just as blogs + Google/RSS pings are?
RSS is not Push. RSS/Atom/Feed Readers are in the hands of Everyone. Push was in the hands of pushy aggregators who sought to cage up all the benefits for themselves and their REAL audiences, not users, advertisers.
That's where I think we wander into the fog of this gray area. Do we get to wander around freely in this fog? Or are large aggregators sending out border collies to herd us around, secretly nudging us back into a passive media universe where push-button marketing still rules?