July 26, 2006

Long Tail Imbroglio

Or maybe it's a full contretemps. Lee Gomes of the Wall Street Journal questions the data and the premise of the book.

It would be wonderful if the world as Mr. Anderson describes it were true: one where "healthy niche products" and even "outright misses" collectively could stand their ground with the culture's increasingly soulless "hits."

But while every singer-songwriter dreams from his bedroom of making a living off iTunes, few actually do, mostly because so many others have the very same idea. And to the extent that Apple is making money off iTunes, thanks go to Nelly Furtado and other hitmakers. Indeed, you can make the case that the Internet is amplifying the role of hits, even in relation to misses, not diminishing them.

So maybe Mr. Anderson really has unlocked the sort of new business rules the cover promises. I say we wait before ripping up any business plans. Let's see how the tail shakes out.

Chris Anderson defends himself on his blog. (The Anderson link is free, the WSJ link is paid).
I'll take it as a compliment that I now warrant a proper Wall Street Journal takedown for crimes of...well, I'm not quite sure what the crimes are. But Lee Gomes has tried mightily to find flaws with the Long Tail theory and deserves a response of some sort. I have no doubt that there are many parts of my analysis and data that could be improved. Unfortunately, Gomes, in his haste to find them, stumbles over statistics and more, and in the end simply makes a muddle of what might have been an interesting debate over the magnitude of the Long Tail effect.

As an impartial observer with an admitted emotional attachment to The Long Tail, I'll have to give it to Anderson on points.

Might he have over-enthusiastically extrapolated data into a trend? That's possible, although I think we have seen countless anecdotal examples of the long tail in action.

Gomes, in my opinion, disproves claims that Anderson did not make. Anderson, for one, does not predict that you're going to make it big with a niche selection on iTunes. But he does describe the changes that enable a small, unsigned player to offer and sell music -- and be found -- on iTunes.

That is a valid trend and Anderson has developed it for years, from his magazine article in Wired, through his blog, and the book. I counsel skepticism in everything, but would dismiss those who are overly dismissive of the long tail.

Posted by John Kranz at July 26, 2006 1:13 PM

I would suggest that Anderson's Long Tail concept is pretty much the hooey that Gomes pointed out. The Internet reduces shipping costs for media to zero. That's it. You still have to make the time and effort to produce the stuff. Users still have to make the time to consume it.

There is not an infinite demand for content since there isn't an infinite amount of time. People still visit their favorite sites and they still visit the key ones to make sure they're not missing out on something. That's why there's a big difference in the traffic statistics between Instapundit and The Scratching Post. By choosing to visit Instapundit, you have consumed time that might have been spent on "the tail." Most of those tail sites never get visited at all.

Posted by: K T Cat at July 26, 2006 2:33 PM

As a blogger waaaaay down the tail, I hear what you say, yet the fact that my news comes from blogs and not a major broadcast network is a tail phenomenon.

I have visited more than a dozen blogs today (a project took 87 minutes to build!) A few big sites, yes, but I also stretched a bit down the tail, exploring the blogroll of another site. I read the Wall Street Journal and bits from the NYTimes and WaPo -- I haven't had a paper delivered to my door that I requested in five years. This is big tail news aggregation, I have been up and down the tail today (as have you if you've been on Instapundit and ThreeSources).

You can question how much the tail has transformed things, and you can even question whether it is an unalloyed good. But it is wrong to completely dismiss Anderson's book. His explanation of the forces enabling the long tail, the higher signal-to-noise ratio down the tail, and the transformative power of moving from scarcity to abundance are well stated and integrated into our daily patterns.

Posted by: jk at July 26, 2006 3:30 PM | What do you think? [2]