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June 19, 2005

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I've been toying with Chris Anderson's Long Tail ideas for a few months now; turning them over in my head and trying to resolve some perceived discontinuities: "cult" items, functions of Time, aso. All this in order to arrive at a more complete... [Read More]

Comments

Ryan Muldoon

I would suggest that you not model your book after Malcolm Gladwell. While his books are rather easy to read and pretty engaging, this is largely because issues are over-simplified. As someone who does academic research in the areas that he has written on, I found myself very frustrated with the gloss he put over the issues, and, quite frankly, the numerous false conclusions he drew. These issues are relatively deep. Don't pretend that they are simple. Your thesis is an important one. I would personally be much happier with a book that had a more serious grounding than something that was filled with amusing anecdotes. It doesn't need to be like a scholarly manuscript, but it should be able to assume a relatively smart reader.

deus ex Machina

You might want to get your definition of a powerlaw distribution right first. perticularly its relation to free choice and differentiation, which are the driving forces behind the distribution of vasdt inequality. small difference create vast changes in outcome.

merkley???

go with your own inclination. when i read your writing and subject matter i am reminded of another piece of work entitled "bionomics". it was a fascinating read, not only because the author wrote from his own perspective and research but because the clarity was such that it felt like a good conversation with a smart well researched man.

you are on the right track -- don't overthink the approach. LONG TAIL -- that's all you need to remember.

mrf

Agreed, here's another vote that you're on the right track.

Ed Brenegar

The only thing I would add is some description of methodology. How do we take this insightful thinking and apply it? While anecdotes are helpful in describing a phenomenon, they are not very useful in helping people apply an insightful idea.
Answer how to use The Long Tail. I know you are onto something, I want enough practical application that I can take your book and spend time over several months applying in my context. There was really no application in The Tipping Point or Wisdom of Crowds. They get referenced because they have an explanatory power, but there is really isn't much methdology there. If the Long Tail is to have long legs, it will need an application methdology.

Frank Ruscica

I would shoot for an actionable blueprint for a business that will fulfill the promise of the Long Tail.

A good place to start is my Amazon.com-/Microsoft-approved business plan for a provider of customized education and career services, the industry Peter Drucker says will the the world's biggest within thirty years.

Extensive details at Landof.OpportuniTV.com.

Enjoy,

Frank Ruscica
Founder/CEO
The Opportunity Services Group :: Have Fun to Get Ready

David

Chris, I haven't read The Wisdom of Crowds, but I'd say shooting for a middle point between the other two books is a good bet. Gladwell's book did, as Ryan notes above, oversimplify some complex issues, but the benefit of that is that the reader comes away with some useful general principles. They're not detailed enough to be applicable on their own to one's business, but they offer a good starting point for a conversation. The anecdotes help give the reader a sense of how the ideas play out in the real world, and that's good, but a little bit goes a long way. In the end I found myself wanting more real detail in the concepts themselves.

Kevin's book, on the other hand, is a wonderfully rich exploration of an idea. It's at the other end of the spectrum from The Tipping Point in terms of detail, with lots of anecdotes too, but I think Out of Control is possibly much longer and covers much more ground than is appropriate for The Long Tail.

My guess is that most readers of The Long Tail would be looking for some ideas about markets that they could directly apply to their own endeavors. Make it more rigorous and detailed than The Tipping Point, shorter and more narrowly focused than Out of Control, and leave the reader with some ideas about how to apply Long Tail principles in their own marketing efforts.

Roger Lawton

I wouldn't base your decisions on those Stanford MBAs. I thought your signal/noise post was the most insightful one since the original Wired article. Maybe you need to phrase the situation more cleanly, but if you're going to make any mistakes or miscommunications, a blog is great testbed for promising but half-baked ideas, so don't "dumb it down" please!

BMN

How about modeling it on Innovator's Dilemma? It's explanatory, anecdotal and prescriptive.

Jayesh

I think the Innovators Dilemma would be a useful model to discuss the long tail, but that book had only one example (the 3.4 inch vs 5.25 floppy) going on for eight-nine chapters. Although Malcolm Galdwell's books are filled with too many examples (very engaging nonetheless), in my humble opinion, one could give a lengthy engaging example in one chapter (say DVD movies) and the next chapter could be concepts around that. So the book could have different examples in different chapters but with each chapter devoted to a particular example, thus combining the positives of both Galdwell's books and the Innovators dilemma.

T J Neville

Chris,

I’m surprised to find myself in the camp of a bunch of supersmart MBAs, but I do think you have taken a bit of a detour.

It's commendable to pursue first principles, but (IMO) the quest for a grand unified theory of The Long Tail is a sideshow. The Long Tail chart has been used for at least 25 years in corporate media presentations to depict media consumption in an era of limited distribution. But network distribution and free digital copying are now obliterating the constraints of shelf space. In an era where media grazing is the default media consumption posture, neatly tabulating discrete content blocks into Longer Tail distributions is like measuring the speed of light in units of horsepower (…or multi-channel TV consumption with monthly paper Nielsen diaries.)

It’s fine to frame the question in terms of the economics of abundance, but information products are almost certainly a special case. They are non-rivalrous virtual experiences consumed by the mind; they are promiscuously copied, recycled and remixed; they are uniquely adaptable to wide and instant electronic distribution.

I think one reason you are at this juncture is because you haven’t articulated a theory of media consumption. You act as if media products are like physical goods, and thus neglect to ask basic questions like: Why do people dedicate so many hours consuming information products? What is going on inside their heads? What do reading books, listening to music, watching TV, and playing video games have in common? And how does distribution over electronic networks alter/enhance how they are experienced?

Yes, a first principle-like approach to all of these questions is possible. Believe it or not, the guy who addresses these issues in the most general & illuminating way is Marshall McLuhan – the “patron saint” of Wired. But reading McLuhan is a slog. Since you are a writer, and have clearly thought a lot about writing, I suggest you check out Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy - an amazing book (a Classic!) that provides a worthy template.

Ong argues that regularly ingesting uniform sequences of print literally rewires the brain, and gradually changes how you think; and that the spread of print-based literacy reoriented how entire populations organized their worlds. This (both Ong and McLuhan agree) is what every new medium does – it subliminally changes how you think and act, including how you consume media. Today, cognitive neuroscientists will tell you something similar.

Anyway, make no mistake about it, distribution of content over high speed digital networks is not just a more efficient way to distribute old media products. It is an entirely new medium that is changing the organization and consumption of content, and ultimately how everybody thinks(... and are starting to act.) And, (IMO) I think you are struggling a bit because it’s difficult to get your arms around this using old media mental frameworks and metrics.

RG

Why not model it after Jim Collins' "Good to Great"? I see several similarities:
-Your affinity for data and first principles.
-The method you're going through with this blog and your MBA students is most certainly an update of his "discussion reviews"
-You clearly have Long Tail co's and non-Long Tail companies which you can compare and contrast.

Oh, and don't worry about obscurity. Isn't the irony of this posting that you're empowered to discuss whatever you see fit and that not all of your readers will be interested in what you have to see all of the time :)?

Adam Marsh

Hah! As it so happens, I went to graduate school in physics as well. If you want to see some *really* wonky thoughts about the long tail from that perspective, check this out. At least for me, it helped sort out some long tail "first principles," and related them to more traditional topics like probability.

Tim Bragg

Since I left my degree in my other pocket, I’ve had to rewrite this comment a few times to bring it up to the quality of its predecessors. No spell check has ever had to work so hard.

With the article as an introduction to the thesis of the Long Tail and this blog keeping the meme timely and relevant with current examples and elaboration; it seems like the only thing left for the book to do is supply the principles and statistics needed to incorporate the Long Tail into existing business models, expand upon the definitions alluded to here; and to keep the reasonable critics quiet with cool charts that prove the critical mass for niche content is approaching. By the time the book comes out, everyone will have an informed opinion and those of us who have “drunk the Kool-aid” will need something with teeth rather than another, “Meet Mr. Next Big Thing."

Referring to Hollywood, David Mamet said, “nobody knows anything,” and while it’s nice to believe the same is true about the impact new technology is going to have on media and beyond, I am not the one with the insight to declare it. We have an exciting future ahead of us and the Long Tail is just one of the many territories we’ll get to explore. I don’t think we need to worry about the skills of our guide.

One last thing. Keep making detours. Where else would you make them?

Proven Ways to Get New Customers

Chris,

1.) To be remembered as a guy who sells a shitload of books, pitch the conversation to the Homer Simpsons among us (+/- 95%)

2.) To be remembered as a guy who contributed something lasting and meaningful to marketing theory, pitch it to academics (+/- 5%)

Wow! I think I'm finally getting the hand of this Long Tail thing!

Harry

csven

my minor contribution to the wonkiness - LT3D

John "Z-Bo" Zabroski

MY RESPONSE TO: "But their polite bafflement was a useful reminder not to get too abstract here. It also raises the question of what level to pitch the discussion in the Long Tail book."

I know there are a lot of intelligent and successful people providing opinions here, and I feel out of place because I only make $8 an hour (just got a raise baby!). As a "Homer Simpson" or Peter Griffin, I hope you have taken the time to pose a very important question: Why are you worrying about this?

If I may be so bold, you need to put _yourself_ on a "Less-Controlling Strategy."

Recently, Peter Merholz of Adaptive Path wrote an incredible essay about the Long Tail and "Less-Controlling Strategies" (http://www.adaptivepath.com/publications/essays/archives/000501.php). A Less-Controlling Strategy is where the entity doing business exerts as little control as necessary over the consumer. Consumers do not want to be controlled. This may be demonstrated by the America's Do Not Call List initiative, the rise of the FireFox Web Browser taking upto 33% of some regional market shares in only six months, and various news reports about marketers "difficulty of reaching new demographics." This all plays into the Long Tail, of course.

You might be saying, "How does a writer shift control to the reader?" HELLO! What is a blog for? :-) Pay close attention to the comments you are getting and make sure to clarify what you want to say.

I agree the Innovators Dilemma is very close to the style your book should be written in. It starts small and builds up. Never assume people know exactly what you are talking about. Actually, the greatest tome on economic theory is Adam Smith's An Inquiry into the Cause and Nature of THE WEALTH OF NATIONS. Why was it so great? Because I was able to read Adam Smith's tome as an 18 year old college freshman. Honestly, I think you write a lot like Adam Smith and that is probably why I enjoy reading your blog so much.

Finally, if writing is your weakness then check out the link below.

http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifehack/fifty-50-tools-which-can-help-you-in-writing.html

John "Z-Bo" Zabroski

I just found this link that is something your Long Tail book should cover:
http://arxiv.org/pdf/physics/0505087

Fifteen Minutes of Fame: The Dynamics of Information Access on the Web

Z. Dezso, E. Almaas, A. Lukacs, B. Racz, I. Szakadat, A.-L. Barabasi

Abstract

While current studies on complex networks focus on systems that change relatively slowly in time, the structure of the most visited regions of the Web is altered at the timescale from hours to days. Here we investigate the dynamics of visitation of a major news portal, representing the prototype for such a rapidly evolving network. The nodes of the network can be classified into stable nodes, that form the time independent skeleton of the portal, and news documents. The visitation of the two node classes are markedly different, the skeleton acquiring visits at a constant rate, while a news document's visitation peaking after a few hours. We find that the visitation pattern of a news document decays as a power law, in contrast with the exponential prediction provided by simple models of site visitation. This is rooted in the inhomogeneous nature of the browsing pattern characterizing individual users: the time interval between consecutive visits by the same user to the site follows a power law distribution, in contrast with the exponential expected for Poisson processes. We show that the exponent characterizing the individual user's browsing patterns determines the power-law decay in a document's visitation. Finally, our results document the fleeting quality of news and events: while fifteen minutes of fame is still an exaggeration in the online media, we find that access to most news items significantly decays after 36 hours of posting.

John "Z-Bo" Zabroski

I gave your entry about The Tragically Neglected Economics of Abundance a readover...

I have a lot of questions...

What happens when "abundance" reaches its zenith? That is to say, we are overly abundant. What can we do to "waste" it then? Are we really "wasting it" if each waste does not change our marginal cost? The flip side of this is whether "waste" is the appropriate word usage, since it's clear a company could have millions of terabytes of hard drives, but only use a fraction of the storage (I find it hard to believe there are many users of Gmail who have used anywhere near 50% of 1 gigabyte). There can then be "perceived waste" and "actual waste" as it is highly unlikely Google's Gmail service actually has the physical disk space to support its gaurantee of 1 gigabyte per email account. Hopefully it is carefully calculated by actuaries.

Furthermore, as social networks become more powerful and more innovative, it stands to reason they also should become more efficient in their function. This is like the line in The Matrix: "This is our third time destroying Xion, and we are becoming exceedingly efficient."

While the "economics of abundance" suggests that many things can be sold at lower prices due to the fact there is less physical storage requirements, it does not necessarily gaurantee that consumers will be saving money due to reduced costs. Businesses who sell abundant products will have more revenue streams and the chief governing principle at play here is likely The Universal Law of Conservation -- Money is neither created or destroyed. If I make more money, I am taking away some of your piece of the pie. This can create a relative scarcity, and the corollory to this should be obvious: Higher entry points to production and market the long tail. Business partnerships will require connections and financial acumen. Already, the development kit for the Xbox 360 is 750,000$$$!!! Clearly, the entry point in many fields has increased.

There is then the issue of where does all this innovation come from? Small companies can be bought out and pushed a side and never become another "Google." Competition can become scarce.

Finally, there is the myth of "pervasive computing", which is truly a myth when you consider that it requires money to purchase "pervasive" components and the overall financial commitment it would take to have a truly "pervasive computing" environment.

I also recommend you read the philosophies of Aristotle and the Plutonian Democracy. Plato's Republic should serve as the backbone of any intellectual debate involving the comparison of narrowcasting versus broadcasting. Politician's narrowcast things. They tailor messages to the individual. More than ever, we may be seeing society become more sectional and desiring what's best for them. This is speaking a bit of Game Theory I think, a subsystem of which (Auction Theory) is heavily involved in the Long Tail.

None of this, however, explains social phenomena such as Shubik's One Dollar Auction.

Tim Oren

Between falling off on the side of 'meme so fuzzy it becomes a Rorschach blot' (Gladwell) and 'so wonky it's niche from day one' (Bionomics), you've probably got more risk on the former side, judging from what's already occurring. You've got your own voice pretty well under control here, but I'd pick KK's work as the prototype if one is needed. The interesting thing about Long Tail is that it lends itself to intercutting anecdotes with more theoretical explanations and implications, given the number of relevant theories and technologies that are implied, e.g., transaction cost economics, information theory, database technology. The reader could just graze on the stories, or dive into the theory and notes, or more likely somewhere in between.

Contra some other commenters, I wouldn't go too far in spinning particular business models or predictions. That's a path to a short shelf life.

Custom dissertation

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Tidbits

The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

Notes and sources for the book

FREE was available in all digital forms--ebook, web book, and audiobook--for free shortly after the hardcover was published on July 7th. The ebook and web book were free for a limited time and limited to certain geographic regions as determined by each national publisher; the unabridged MP3 audiobook (get zip file here) will remain free forever, available in all regions.

Order the hardcover now!