Ask not for whom the tail wags
November 20, 2008 2:20 AM   Subscribe

The Long Tail wags no more - Chris Anderson, Wired editor and populariser of the Long Tail concept admits that "radical inequality is increasingly the norm as markets get more networked", though it may still persist in some industries.

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posted by patricio (32 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Alternate idea: the more technical crowd that started paying for online services earlier was also more experimental in what they paid for. This swayed the maths towards the long tail. Please also consider that the people who desire long tail material (for instance, non-label punk) are facing a situation where bricks and mortar retail often cannot supply them, and they are therefore disproportionaly likely to move to online services early as those services are in an effective monopoly.

The mass market consumer likes more homoginised things, and does not want to invest the time to experiement with unfamiliar things whether that be new services or new music. This would indicate that the weight would shift more and more to the top of the curve as this group enters the statistics.

I would therefore posit that vinyl has shifted away from the mainstream again in terms of the top artists, and Amazon has become more hit driven.
posted by jaduncan at 2:50 AM on November 20, 2008


Alternate idea: Chris Anderson padded the whole book out with unverified conjectures and highly selectively chosen statistics that appeared to confirm his hypothesis.

Along with Gladwell, Freakonomics, and Wisdom of Crowds, I never got the feeling reading this, that any of it was ever actually true. It may resonate well with a Web2.0 types who wanted to believe its message that nerdy minority tastes were becoming the norm, but it should be no surprise Amazon was always getting rich off Harry Potter, and iTunes was still mostly selling the Billboard top 40.
posted by roofus at 3:11 AM on November 20, 2008 [10 favorites]


Also see this article in the Register: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/11/18/tom_slee_long_tail/
posted by honest knave at 3:19 AM on November 20, 2008


From the article:
Finally, it's not all about money. As I've said many times, both in the book and elsewhere, most of the rewards in the Tail are non-monetary: a larger audience for producers, and more choice for consumers.

That's great, so while I should spend my own money increasing consumer choice by forking out to record my music, I shouldn't expect to sell any of it.

Slightly off-topic - I think we'll see the same kind of realisation amongst people who are proponents of "conversational marketing" - eschewing traditional mass-market advertising for more niche-targeted respectful efforts, like setting up a blog and engaging consumers that way. Which seems great (who doesn't want to get rid of all those irritating ads) except that mass market producers need to sell x widgets everyday or they go bust, quickly. And no amount of engaging blog posts will ever shift enough units.
posted by awfurby at 3:37 AM on November 20, 2008


I'm seeing more admissions recently that all the pop-science hagiography that popped up in the last decade is nothing more than self-help for people with intellectual affectations.

From the last time Chris Anderson poppud up on MeFi:
Chris Anderson heralds a brave new era of being Chris Anderson
posted by blasdelf at 3:41 AM on November 20, 2008


For me, the long tail has nothing to do with "markets" in the usual business sense (i.e. produced by homogenized, for-profit monoliths). I get my long-tail wants fulfilled by individuals or small groups who scratch their long-tail itch by producing the content/material. Linux is a good example, but people who produce great podcasts/blogs/circuit designs/etc more-or-less on their own also exist.
posted by DU at 4:24 AM on November 20, 2008


Here's my theory:

Guys like Chris Anderson, Gladwell, Tom Friedman, etc prove that the "fat hump" theory applies just as much to "public intellectuals" as it does to pop stars. The most popular stuff is vapid and idiotic, because most people aren't that bright. Or at least they have no taste.
posted by delmoi at 4:53 AM on November 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


One should expect that a random network would give rise to power laws (PDF), so the Long Tail is not an unreasonable hypothesis (however popular this hypothesis might be). For example, you can see a long tail in the distribution of Metafilter posts (via this comment): the majority of Metafilter posts are made by the most active 10% of users, with a long tail of users who make only a few posts. The idea of the Long Tailâ„¢ in this case would say that even though a vocal minority dominates posts, the overall quality and value of Metafilter also depends on the more casual user.
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:57 AM on November 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


The Long Tail is made of fail. Now perhaps we can start on Friedman.

However, Friedman has a better defense: every Friedman unit (six months), he enthusiastically embraces something else and breathlessly describes how this new paradigm is absolutely everything we see.

Every time I read a piece by him endorsing his latest epiphany, I think I understand a tiny bit of how annoying Buddhists must find false enlightenment in others.
posted by adipocere at 5:01 AM on November 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm pretty sure I bought some false enlightenment from a Buddhist once.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 5:16 AM on November 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


but it should be no surprise Amazon was always getting rich off Harry Potter, and iTunes was still mostly selling the Billboard top 40

I've never been completely sold either. However, just a point of clarification: the Long Tail concept had less to do with Amazon and iTunes getting rich off the top sellers and more to do with the rest of creators who make money off the tail of those big suppliers due to increased availability.
posted by RockCorpse at 5:39 AM on November 20, 2008


What Anderson never took into account is that studies show over and over again that people shut down when provided with too many choices. Whether we're buying groceries or shopping for colleges, there is a limited number of options we can reasonably consider without getting overwhelmed. Most people only use a few websites, and the websites almost everyone uses aren't content website, but filtering websites: if you don't know where to find something, all you have to do is know about google, and then google will bring it to you. Same with yahoo: a search engine that simplifies the web by streamlining the number of things you have to remember in order to find what you want to find. Ditto with metafilter, or boingboing, or whatever. You can buy lawnmowers on Amazon now, for Christsakes, and there's not that much that can't be sold on ebay anymore thats legal to sell. And why is that? Its because its easier to know the name "amazon" and just go there than it is to shift through a hundred thousand different websites all hoping to sell you crap.

His theory was always going to be untrue as long as he only looked at market trends and completely overlooked human nature. People like blockbusters because they are easier. They don't require research. You've already heard of them, they might be good, and besides, your friends want to go, too.

Oh, and he also overlooked the social aspect of human beings, because we go to blockbusters because everyone else is going, and because it becomes a communal ritual where you don't want to be left out or the only one who doesn't know. What each of us wants is often impacted by our notions of what everyone else wants. The very fact that something has been popular or profitable raises the chances that other people will also want to experience it. Blair With Project anyone?

But besides not knowing how humans make choices, or understanding that people are social creatures, I'd say he has a vaguely competent theory. One that was worth about ten pages of the book he wrote on it.
posted by Kiablokirk at 5:40 AM on November 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


Every time I read a piece by him...

I found your problem.
posted by DU at 5:50 AM on November 20, 2008


The Long Tail concept was always crap. Yes, you can monetize the long tail with the internet. That doesn't mean anyone actually wants to. In other words, it's profitable, but not profit maximizing.

This post show be cross-referenced with Mutant's post above about the "Great Unwinding." Happily, we are also unwinding the neo-pseudomarketing bullshit of the last 10 years as well.

Next in line: "Everything Bad is Good For You" and anything by Seth Godin or Malcolm Gladwell.
posted by Pastabagel at 6:22 AM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure I bought some false enlightenment from a Buddhist once.

I hope you got a receipt.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:26 AM on November 20, 2008


I did not get a receipt, but I got change.
posted by dirty lies at 6:44 AM on November 20, 2008


Next in line: "Everything Bad is Good For You" and anything by Seth Godin or Malcolm Gladwell.

We should set up a market to predict who is next in line!
posted by Artw at 6:48 AM on November 20, 2008


I'm sensing a lot of hostility here. Much of it directed at a straw man.

"The long tail wags no more" is from the "via" link. Can someone explain how this phrase relates to the content from the other links?

The "via" link - Whimsley - frames statements from the main link as "admissions", as though those statements were retractions of earlier positions, but I don't see anything in the main link which seems like a retraction. For example, Whimsley quotes "powerlaws do imply wildly unequal distributions of money, power, celebrity and everything else" and then Whimsley adds " so much for 'democratization'", but I don't see how powerlaws ever implied "democratization".

It's perfectly fine to rant about whatever popularization is popular at the moment. But a rant really isn't any better, in my opinion.
posted by twoleftfeet at 6:58 AM on November 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


Next in line: "Everything Bad is Good For You" and anything by Seth Godin or Malcolm Gladwell.

And the idea that Gen Y are unique snowflakes who shouldn't be expected to do any work that is tedious or repetitive or uncreative or entry level; or to turn up to work on time, or to turn up to work at all (ideas usually promulgated by people who aren't Gen Y, of course).
posted by Infinite Jest at 7:18 AM on November 20, 2008


Metafilter: Where the poorly founded wild ideas of authors is only exceeded by the entirely unfounded wild snarks of their readers.

Although I doubt a lot of snark actually read said authors; much like the Christian right criticizing some movie they haven't seen, they go on hearsay and gut feel.
posted by Bovine Love at 7:29 AM on November 20, 2008


It's funny how Gladwell was all totally teh hotz like six weeks ago, and then Spolsky goes all meh on him and now suddenly nobody likes Gladwell anymore and what's with his hair anyway?

It's like he hit some sort of tipping point or something.
posted by ook at 7:33 AM on November 20, 2008 [6 favorites]


FWIW The long tail seems to be working pretty well from the point of view of getting me weird stuff. I suspect it's only failed in terms of making people styupendously rich, dot com boom style.
posted by Artw at 8:09 AM on November 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


I find it's best to take every one of these books with a grain of salt. None of them can be applied to EVERY industry, but they still provide interesting ideas and theories.

I liked Blink, but I don't make all of my decisions now based on my first impressions. I found some of the information about how companies are working together (in The World is Flat) to be really interesting, but the overall idea was a big DUH.

If you're taking these books as incredibly deep philosophies, ur doin it wrong.
posted by graventy at 8:10 AM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's funny how Gladwell was all totally teh hotz like six weeks ago
I don't know. The Tipping Point was kind of interesting, but utterly and completely useless. It was devoid of actual statistical analysis, and its handful of examples ("Hush puppies got popular thanks to hipsters! Linkers and Hypers are special kinds of people!") had no real data behind them.

He didn't even do the legwork of identifying those special "tipping point" people in previous anecdotes: he just asserted that they existed, because obviously, the point tipped. From what I hear, his subsequent books have been more of the same.
posted by verb at 8:30 AM on November 20, 2008


I did not get a receipt, but I got change.

Strange, I don't remember getting change or a receipt. The next 10 hours were certainly surreal though.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 9:02 AM on November 20, 2008


The Tipping Point was kind of interesting, but utterly and completely useless.

It's useful if you understand what Gladwell does. He's a kind of Reader's Digest for the social sciences. For example, he isn't there to give you a thorough grounding in Paul Ekman's work, but to introduce you to it. And he does a decent job of that.

I understand some of the antipathy, especially at some of his more interpolative insights, which have a catnip-like delight at first, but the high ends when you realize that (a) you're not sure there's any framework for applying them practically and (b) Gladwell's work is increasingly popular so just having the ideas doesn't give you anything particularly special.

Doesn't change the fact he's still doing journalism on some real topics -- that when you're done with Gladwell's depth of exploration, if you want, you can check out the work of social scientists he references. And in particular, I think that separates him from someone like Seth Godin.... you can learn a lot from watching what Godin does, you might even glean a bit from his packaging of ideas, but you're not really going to start an explorative education with Godin's work.

and then Spolsky goes all meh on him

Spolsky complaining about middle-quality insights on other people's ideas? Wow.
posted by weston at 2:21 PM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oh well, it was a nice idea.

I suppose I'd better stop listening to good music and run out to get that new Guns n Roses album...
posted by pompomtom at 2:36 PM on November 20, 2008


I've read all these books and found them interesting, but adipocere is right. These guys don't know anything. They want to act like they're experts without having the adequate knowledge or the background, and people who can't read hardcore journals like to gobble up anything that seems just a little above their head. With the exception of the guys who wrote Freakonomics (who, if I recall, never claimed causation but seemed to be explicit in that their work was the result of fun implementations of regression analysis), these books are full of generalizations made by people who can barely add (Chris Anderson and Thomas Friedman), let alone digest a serious study.
posted by onepapertiger at 4:38 PM on November 20, 2008


onepapertiger: Chris Anderson can add, to be sure. Let's not make generalizations of our own. He's still a Bay Area huckster, though, and his proteges are people I feel like punching out when I meet them in bars.

But anyway, in case I missed something, soft science is still soft science, yeah? I mean, I'm not (currently) a buzzword-spewing public speaker, so I fail to see how a windbag popularity contest is supposed to evoke any reaction except polite confusion in a sentient being.

My take: for Wired/Economist/Pop*/etc. staffers and public speakers who qualify as sentient and whose livelihood is actually predicated on the use of buzzwords and come-lately analysis, this means an onus has been placed on a particular area of gauzy-eyed, lapel-fondling pontification at parties. The rest of us just get to tell a story when someone points at that spot on the bookshelf.
posted by electronslave at 6:11 PM on November 20, 2008


Pastabagel: Next in line: "Everything Bad is Good For You" and anything by Seth Godin or Malcolm Gladwell.

Hey lay off Steven Johnson for a bit. He's a not-bad pop sci writer who just happened to write about something he knows absolutely nothing about.

Seriously, I'm sympathetic and all to the premise of the book -- It's not like pop culture was any smarter fifty years ago -- but you don't answer cultural questions with a neurological answers.
posted by Weebot at 6:12 PM on November 20, 2008


Electronslave: Good for him for having a BA?
posted by onepapertiger at 8:45 PM on November 20, 2008


I understand some of the antipathy, especially at some of his more interpolative insights, which have a catnip-like delight at first, but the high ends when you realize that (a) you're not sure there's any framework for applying them practically
Yeah, that's the biggie. I realize that gathering lots of data is hard work, but it was really disappointing to see how much of it was just storytelling. He spent such a large percentage of the time on classifying the kinds of people that exist in social networks, for example, but there wasn't really anything to base it on other than "This is an interesting classification system."

I hunger for data! I hunger for re-usable models!
posted by verb at 1:34 PM on November 21, 2008


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