The Missing Tail


July 12, 2006


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Oh dear. Another red hot business notion that is going to level the old paradigm, change the world as we know it, and create piles of dough for those with the capacity to think outside the box and the gumption to stay ahead of the curve.

I’m losing track of all these paradigm shifts. But the new one is called The Long Tail, and it comes to us via a book of that name, written by a fellow by the name of Chris Anderson, who is the editor of – who would have guessed? — Wired Magazine. Anderson’s argument is that computers and the Web have changed not just the mechanics of selling but also the nature of what is sold. In the old days, people bought a lot of a relatively few things. It was the 80/20 rule: eighty percent of sales came from twenty percent of the stock.

Those days are gone. The Web has created a lot more traffic for the less-trafficked inventory. At Blockbuster video stores, 90% of the rentals are new releases. That’s the old model. At Netflix, the Web-based rental service, by contrast, 70% of rentals are from the back list. Many are documentaries and the like that never were shown in major theaters. At Amazon, meanwhile, a quarter of all book sales come from outside the top 100,000 sellers.

That’s the long tail. “[W]hat we thought was a naturally sharp drop-off in demand for movies after a certain point was actually just an artifact of the traditional costs of offering them,” Mr. Anderson writes. Put the back list on the shelves, open it to a large enough customer base, and product will move. “If you combine enough of the non-hits, you’ve actually established a market that rivals the hits.”

Anderson contends that this means the gradual demise of the blockbuster. There will be more niches, and less mass on top. But as John Cassady points out in the current New Yorker, it more likely means the demise of the middle — that is, the items that sold pretty well but not extraordinarily so. “A long-tail world doesn’t threaten the whales or the minnows,” he writes. “It threatens those who cater to the neglected middle.”

I wonder if it’s a total coincidence that what’s happening to merchandising on the Web is happening to peoples’ fortunes in the society at large. Is there a connection between a world in which the mechanisms of selling tend to drive out the middle, and one in which the very rich get richer while the middle morphs into a long tail at the bottom?

Cassady doesn’t address that question directly. But he does observe that we need to ask not just what’s selling but also who’s selling it. “Even as Anderson speaks of plenitude and proliferation, you’ll notice he keeps returning for his examples to a handful of sites –iTunes, eBay, Amazon, Netflix, MySpace.” He writes. The long tail has rapidly become the domain of the handful of companies that have the capacity to handle it. Oligopoly is something we associate with old paradigm industries such as broadcasting and airlines. Yet here it is, on the Web.

“Has the New Economy really moved past the familiar “winner takes all” dynamic?” Cassady asks. “That depends on whether you’re looking at the long tail – or at who’s wagging it.”

That is a good question. But it’s not the only one I think. There’s also this matter of what is called “democracy.” Long tail enthusiasts, like technophiles generally, see democracy in market terms. It’s selection, stupid. The greater the selection we get, the more democracy there is. So the long tail represents techno-dem in full flower. We all get to select exactly what we want – or at least, what we think we want. A niche in every pot.

Which is true, up to a point. Yet what happens to a community when every member has his or her head up their own little niche? One of the advantages of the old model – or paradigm, or whatever — was that we sometimes had to listen to things we didn’t entirely agree with, or like. We had to moderate our annoyance and leave room in our psyches for someone else’s views.

Now people can crawl into their cocoons and spend their lives nursing their outrage at people who don’t think exactly as they do. Cf the political arena today. Isn’t “polarized” just another word for “niche-ized”? There’s something to be said for not always having exactly what we want.

There’s also something to be said for a culture that does not see life entirely in consumption terms. As I read the rhapsodies to the long tail, I keep asking, “What about the part of life that isn’t commerce? What about the things that people don’t buy but do – hanging out on front stoops and porches, the story telling on family car trips, the Main Street banter and park bench chess? What about the part of the culture that people themselves create, outside of ‘the market’ – that is, the part we do for the heck of it, and not because someone is trying to make a buck?”

Is the long tail also a long maw that reaches into this non-market realm and cannibalizes it? You could make a case. A story in the New York Times a few days ago dipped into the world of male college students who spend 4-6 hours a day playing video games, with a corresponding deficit in social skills. The long tail, Anderson writes, reflects new technology that can “tap the distributed intelligence of millions of consumers to match people with the stuff that suits them best.”

Intelligence? That’s market orthodoxy with a techno-futurist spin. Everything we do as consumers is a “market choice”, and therefore by definition intelligent and good. There’s another possibility, which is that the market can be as dumb as we humans who comprise it; and therefore technology that provides greater range for market selections also provides greater range for this dumbness as well.

That stupidity includes the capacity to destroy that which ultimately sustains us and which we ultimately hold most dear. The long tail sounds to me like just another version of the old tale, which is the effort to get people to define themselves as consumers, and to seek happiness in things they buy.

Hey, I’m glad I’m not stuck in Blockbuster’s mass drek. But I’m even gladder there’s a revival of public spaces and the like, so I can be around other people and not have to buy anything at all. That’s the tail that’s really new, and needs to be told.