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The Long Tail

                      …statistics…numbers…graphs…Oh My!!

I loathe statistics as much as the next guy, but don’t worry, this blog isn’t about quantitative research, number crunching, and data analysis.  What is this entry about?  The loss of “hits,” the backlash against all things mainstream, and how culture, business, and entertainment are capitalizing on selling less. 


I recently finished reading, The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson.  In 2004, he wrote an article discussing how the “new economics of culture and commerce” rests in the tail-end of the curve, and “why the future of business is selling less of more.”  At the core: the Long Tail is the collection of niche, non-hit or anti-mainstream products that fall beyond the head of the curve.    


The New Marketplace.  

Notice the shape of the curve.  The popular/most frequently used items are found at the head of the curve (green & yellow).  The long tail represents the red area.  Variety adds length to the tail and increased access builds-up the tail.  

Once upon the time, we lived in a world of hits.  During the Golden Age of Hollywood (1920s-1950s) movie-makers made money under the studio system and pumped out cinema classics like 42nd Street, King Kong, Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, It’s a Wonderful Life and Casablanca.  The aura formerly surrounding movie-stars – the icons who “once carried our culture across space, time and generations” no longer exists.  As a culture, we shy away from mainstream epics like, Titanic, and fall in love with indie-flics and foreign films.  We focus less on the small number of hits at the head of the curve and are moving towards the huge number of niches in the tail.  There are several elements I could pull from Anderson’s book, but I’ll keep it short and simple…here are four points I think captures the essence of the Long Tail.

1.  The long tail levels the playing field:  WEB 2.0 technologies continue to democratize communication and participation among people and companies.  Those with Internet access can write and share with each other on a global scale.  What’s interesting, is power of the Long Tail allows small businesses and niche products to compete successfully.  Film, music, unique items, web development software…etc. has never been easier or cheaper to create and share.  Everyone is an expert and everything is available. 

2.  The long tail provides consumers infinite choices:  Anderson says “choice” separates present and future generations from those of the past and offers consumers unlimited and unfiltered access to everything, from the mainstream to the fringe.  Bottom line – generations of today are presented with the amazing privilege to choose among pretty much anything they want.  We are no longer bound by geography or the mainstream.  Choice, fueled by the Internet, brings us added options and access to more products than ever before.  

3.  The long tail brings us a new economy:  Access and choice allows consumers to shift from being bargain shoppers to becoming unique taste-makers.  In “actual” stores, storage and shelf space is limited, so it’s only wise for managers to focus on selling popular products.  People who crave hard to find items turn to the Internet.  Sites like Netflix, Amazon and iTunes, survive by offering the public a wider range of products.  To make matters better, peer recommendations, search intelligence, and sampling tools make it much easier to find products.  This is all really good news for us because a democratized playing field, more choices, and a new economy makes it easier and cheaper to start a new and possiblly very profitable type of company.

Taking into consideration what Anderson so persuasively conveys about the profound cultural shift towards the tail, it’s easy to recognize how news consumption, entertainment, music, and small businesses…etc. are all trying to appeal to consumers shopping within the tail.  We really do live in a “Niche Culture ” – the era of massive access and choice, but what does the loss of hits hold for the future?  I’m not sure, but I do have a few questions. If we are all participate in unique niche communities, how do we form collective culture and what does “common culture” look like?  Will providing unique items help rescue failing businesses?  Will we revert back to bargain/generic products or will we see an expansion of niche products?