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August 30, 2006


Tony Leach

Now that content creators can circumvent the control of the music industry (video, publishing, games, etc.) using the newer democratic tools of production, we'll get to see a lot more creativity that people actually want to see, as clearly evidenced by the fan-created OK Go videos. Can't wait!

Gregg Wager

Looking Down on a Trend: Chris Anderson, The Long Tail (Hyperion)

I admit that I was jealous when I learned that the editor of Wired magazine had written a book with a campy title that explored how our society was being radically altered via the Internet and new computer technology. I’ve been shopping my own book on making music on home computers for five years now (as a companion to my New York Times piece, “Going the Way of the Victrola”; my tome also carries a campy title, The Virtuosic Mouse).
If you don’t read Wired (and I don’t, although I’ve perused it now and then), the editor’s name is Chris Anderson. He is taking credit for inventing the term “the Long Tail” to describe a fairly self-explanatory aspect of shopping on the Internet: what happens when you can buy almost anything? You’ll still have conventional commerce involving products in big demand that move in large numbers, but then you’ll also have a “Long Tail” of commerce involving every obscure product imaginable.
In the past, retail stores typically carried only the best-selling products, that is, the “hits.” When we are not bound by the limitations of shelf-space and everything is available through Web sites like eBay, buying the more obscure products can be as lucrative, if not more lucrative, than peddling only the “hits,” says Anderson.
He demonstrates this with the curve on a graph reproduced in the book a total of 15 times (16 if you count the dust jacket): a curved version of the letter “L”. Because the “hits” sell in quantities of up to millions of units at a time, they appear as the vertical trend on the graph, while the “Long Tail” is the horizontal trend.
If I have explained this satisfactorily, you have the gist of the book. So what does Anderson have to talk about for 200 pages once he explains what “the Long Tail” is? Good question.
The premise of the book is built on a great contradiction: here’s a book designed to be a “hit,” even though it heralds the importance of obscure products. As I write this, The Long Tail is 17th on the New York Times Best Selling Nonfiction List and climbing. Likewise, Wired magazine depends on its conventionality as a coffee table magazine. Why should Anderson be the one to name and popularize a phenomenon that he really has nothing to do with?
As much as that is a valid quibble at best, I still haven’t answered the question: why does it take 200 pages to explain this phenomenon? Anderson fleshes out the book with anecdotes and what appears to be anything he clipped out of magazines and newspapers over the years that might be relevant to his theme. In this way, the book is structured as a collection of instances of smart people expounding on the phenomenon, or actual examples, such as SNL’s acquiring lonelyisland.com Internet comedians Andy Samberg et al. (pages 78-82) and the popularity of their online video “Lazy Sunday.”
One must admit that Anderson is also smart and has his ear to the railroad track when it comes to new trends in technology and e-commerce. We must also take note of his humble beginnings (he claims to have been working as a cashier in a record store during the 1980s; me too). Then again, he slips when dabbling in classical thinking, such as when he tries to compare “the Long Tail” to David Hume’s “Black Swan Problem” (page 120), which is supposed to be a statement about scientific empiricism, not finding your obscure product on the Internet.
Still, if you have the patience, the book is worth a read. There are some genuinely compelling points, such as how he describes Google’s advertising method (pages 210-6). One of the more interesting “Long Tail” graphs (on page 187) lists the popularity of “mainstream media and blogs” to demonstrate where people get their information (I was happy to see that my old employer the Los Angeles Times was ninth on the list while Wired was only eleventh).
Yes, I’ve already admitted I’m way jealous of Anderson, so take that to heart. Don’t flinch too hard when I say The Long Tail is the product of what happens when a writer has the dough to install an espresso machine in his or her kitchen.
As disparaging as that sounds, it could be worse. Still, Anderson is not in “the Long Tail” himself, so his thesis a bit patronizing. He should leave the topic to us who still operate a Mr. Coffee each morning.

Mike Abundo

Ok Go's A Million Ways video is purpose-designed for mashability. The Japanese are doing that, too.

Gary Brolsma has unleashed a monster.

Tony Leach

Wow Mr. Wager. I'll overlook the fact that this comment doesn't apply to this post at all, but I feel the need to defend the idea here. The "Long Tail" may not be a new term for statisticians, or economists, but as a mainstream media term, Chris Anderson deserves full credit.

I'm curious why you attack Anderson himseslf here? To many of us who have long used the Internet to find our niche pleasures, his book presents no surprises. But for most folks who spend all their time in the head, this very well-written discourse is an eye-opener, and certainly gives everyone the right language to discuss a new economic trend. He did an excellent job outlining his thesis and providing interesting examples.

And you don't subscribe to Wired? Maybe you should do a little reading before writing and criticizing.

Christine Sander

Hi, there seems a lot to do. On one hand learn to handle simple steps in the Internet. On the other learn about how to find and be found. Third try to tune into the newest options. Forth in the crumble find believability. Here I opt for historic research. Which again the web supports. Greetings, Christine


I'm assuming that this Kraft commercial which is supposed to unify us is one which appears on telivision? We have one; we use it for watching DVDs. It must be so visual that they don't run it also on the radio, where half the ads don't make sense because they broadcast them merely to reinforce the TV exposure some of us don't receive.

Jim Bursch

The time is going to come when the commercial that lodges in the collective psyche will get there on the merit of the commercial to the consumer -- be it aesthetic merit or entertainment merit. It will be the commercial that gets passed around, instead of foisted on us my a monolithic media and their ad-men minions.

At MyMindshare.com, I am working on accelerating this trend by dis-intermediateing ad-supported media.

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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!