The Long Tail

Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine since 2001, has written a book to explain how the Internet has changed the economics of commerce and affected our cultural options. The Long Tail has proven itself to be required reading for both corporate leaders and entrepreneurs.

What is the long tail?

It’s a measure of how our economy and culture is shifting from mass markets to millions of niches. The rise of distribution methods with “infinite shelf space” has made it possible to offer consumers an incredible variety of products and other goods that were previously suppressed by the economic and physical limits of traditional retail and broadcast.

The long tail refers specifically to the “long tail” of the familiar fast-falling demand curve in economics – we’ve usually looked just at the high part of the curve on the left, where the hits are. But the tail of smaller sellers is incredibly long, and when you can offer all those niche products it can add up to a market that rivals the “head.”

Can too much choice become a problem for consumers?

Choice is only oppressive if you don’t have help in making it. I use data from online marketplaces to show that filters (from search to taxonomies to recommendations to bestseller lists) can reduce impossible overabundance of choice into structured choice and make massive variety not only a good thing but a force that drives demand away from a few hits.

How will the entertainment industry be affected by the long tail?

In the music industry, the number of albums released last year nearly doubled to more than 60,000. By contrast, only 700 of them made it to America’s

largest CD retailer, Wal-Mart. We’ve seen a parallel rise in the number of books published and available online at and elsewhere, and in the DVDs available at places such as Netflix.

The industry with the greatest potential in this regard – the largest ratio of produced content to content available to the average consumer at any one time – is TV, where most shows disappear after a brief window of availability.

What is the most common long tail criticism you hear or read? What is your response?

The main concern is that most of the profits in the long tail at the moment seem to accrue to the aggregators – those market-places, from iTunes to Amazon, that can gather together all the niches alongside the hits. Although that’s true, I think that these are early days yet and the tactics for playing the tail best for the little guys are just emerging.

The success of MySpace and the tens of thousands of musicians who build their audience there is a good example.

What is a pro-am economy and how does this relate to the long tail?

An economy of professionals and amateurs working together has hugely increased the number of participants in the marketplace. Because the amateurs are, by definition, working for reasons other than money, they can contribute in niches too narrow to make business sense for companies.

In the book, I talk about the varying incentives for production as you go down the curve. At the head, it’s money. In the middle, it’s reputation. And in the far tail, it’s just expression – you create because you can, whether anyone is reading, watching, listening – or not.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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