The Long Tail

Disclosure: I was sent a review copy of The Long Tail by the author after responding to a request on his blog for reviewers.

I wrote a few times on The Long Tail when Chris Anderson‘s original article began its journey to being one of the most talked about concepts in the blogosphere. In the months that have followed, the phrase has become part of everyday language and the buzzphrase to drop when talking about media consumption.

If you haven’t read the article, I’d suggest you do so now at Wired’s website. Put simply, the argument is that while traditional shops have limited shelf space and so have to limit their stock to guaranteed ‘hits,’ online retailers such as Amazon, iTunes, and others have unlimited shelf space and are beginning to see more and more revenue come from less popular products. When storage space is not a factor, being able to stock one hundred albums, each of which will sell fifteen copies is considerably more attractive than selling 100 each of 10 albums. As those numbers increase, so does the potential gain to both consumer and retailer.

The ideas presented in the article were attractive on many levels. For those of us whose media tastes have never sat squarely in the mainstream there’s a sense of vindication in Anderson’s thesis that going forward ‘hits’ are going to be less important, and comfort in the idea that new metrics will allow more independent artists to enjoy some measure of success, and that the unlimited shelf space of the virtual world will make it ever easier to explore back catalogues. While some of the statistics have been overstated in subsequent discussion, the figures do seem to suggest that key revenue sources for big online retailers are increasingly in their vast stock of lower selling products.

The attractiveness of the ideas does not, however, prevent me from having several concerns about the patterns that this trend is part of or of the way the information is presented. As Bruno Giussani covered quite effectively in his review of the book, one clear concern is that Anderson’s focus is very US-centric (or at best US-and-Western-Europe-centric) and that while the vast majority of his evidence is concerned with the media industry he doesn’t seem to fully address that restriction, implying that the trends apply outside of that market.

Similarly, much has been made in recent years of (in Douglas Coupland’s words) “choice paralysis” and the difficulties that arise from an overabundance of choice. Barry Schwartz’s book “The Paradox of Choice” was a major contribution to that debate, and as Anderson is talking about a market where there are literally millions of options open to us, choice management is an important question.

Anderson is clearly not convinced by Schwartz’ work, commenting:

I’m skeptical. The alternative to letting people choose is choosing for them. The lessons of a century of retail science (along with the history of Soviet department stores) are that this is not what most consumers want.

and appropriately citing Schwartz’s comment that:

A small-town resident who visits Manhattan is overwhelmed by all that is going on. A New Yorker thoroughly adapted to the city’s hyperstimulation, is oblivious to it.

Not having read Schwartz’s book, I want merely to note an interview I heard with Schwartz around the time of his book’s release. In the interview, he took his argument out of the arena of media consumption and into public policy where he argued that when it comes down to the decision between allowing patients the option of lots of hospitals, or ensuring a high quality of service in a single hospital, governments in Europe have been moving towards the former when patients are generally more satisfied by the latter. Such an argument is probably tangential to Anderson’s book since The Long Tail doesn’t directly engage with public policy at any point (other than by inference, such as in his argument for trusting the market) but should be taken into consideration when considering the appropriate scope of Anderson’s theory.

Beyond potential over-reach, however, there is a deeper concern that connects with the dangers of unfettered globalisation and with how we understand the formation and sustenance of community. In particular, Anderson comes across as very much a free-market thinker, arguing in Rule 8 of his “Long Tail Rules” (a chapter that provides clear evidence that the book is targeted at businesspeople) that people seeking to tap into the potential of ‘the long tail’ should “Let the market do your job.” While markets do work for the common good in certain areas, I have never been convinced that they are sufficient in themselves to sustain and advance the arts. While there must be a measure of public engagement with any art, a consumer culture is necessarily short-termist and doesn’t automatically provide for the development of artists or their work.

Informed patronage, or foundation or government subsidy can provide space for an artist to develop their work at a pace shielded from an instant gratification culture. While The Long Tail does talk about changes in consumption patterns, there is little in the book to indicate that that will be joined by a significant change in the nature of consumption such that long-term endeavours can be solely be supported by the market.

It may be, however, that The Long Tail can shed light on more open forms of patronage. As the oft-referenced Howard Dean US presidential campaign in 2004 demonstrated, large amounts of financing needn’t come entirely from wealthy benefactors but could instead be gathered from a ‘long tail’ where the wealthy give the principal donations but a significant proportion is gathered from smaller donations.

Moving to more general matters, there is little sense of the importance of local economies in this book, and at times it comes close to militating against them as it refers in glowing terms to the increase of choice offered first by department stores and now by online retailers. While Anderson is clearly not discussing core issues such as food, power, and so on, and the purest examples of the long tail are those that arguably have minimal environmental impact as they are purely digital creations, we must be very careful to interrogate any balance we make between depth and range of choice and the importance of locality. If we are to have a long-lasting positive social impact we need to be in touch with the rest of the world and to have some news choices forced upon us. In our day-to-day lives it is by being physically alongside people that we can begin to understand the reality of their situation and be reminded not to disenfranchise them. These ideal Long Tail systems, all so automated, could easily lack transparency.

And that automation could potentially present another cause for concern. While there’s considerable discussion of the ‘democratisation’ of tools for creation (witness the huge number of amateur video makers using youtube, or the ease of laying down some tracks with software like GarageBand), there’s little discussion of the democratisation of the aggregators, the vital tools that help us sort and sift through the huge catalogues of media now available to us. Present trends suggest that while successful aggregators are somewhat participatory (amazon’s reviews and ratings, google’s use of links between pages, etc) the core algorithms driving them are trade secrets. As the volume of information to be managed increases it becomes harder for new players to enter the game, potentially leading to a situation where we have not democratised choice but have simply replaced one set of taste-makers with another.

As the huge number of sales and volume of debate have shown, Anderson’s book has tapped into a very real phenomenon, and one that people are deeply interested in. He provides a detailed examination of many relevant issues, but the end result is a book that will tick many business boxes but does not do all it could to engage with the very real social issues that arise from its topic, and by neglecting some of them offers tacit approval of some trends whose implications should trigger considerable debate.

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1 comment

  1. You really have to write your own book James and I want to be the first to read it!! Great review of the book. I am envious of your ability with both language in general and the ability to make it flow…

    The subject matter is also interesting…