The Long Tail revisited

Jun 14, 2012 No Comments by

Michael Prodger re-reads The Long Tail to see whether its theories and predictions still stand up, six years later.

When Chris Anderson, the Editor-in-Chief of the US-edition of Wired magazine, published The Long Tail in 2006, it seemed as though he had uncovered a hidden law that would change the way economics was understood. This was Einstein’s Theory of Relativity for the marketplace, with the difference being that it was entirely comprehensible. The book both garnered prizes and became a best-seller. It also established a model on which retailers could build a new type of business.

Chris Anderson

Anderson’s Big Idea, in case you have forgotten, was that the future of retailing in the digital age lay in the unregarded rump of the demand curve and not in its steep head. Traditionally, in most markets, 20 per cent of a shop’s inventory accounted for roughly 80 per cent of its sales. Hits – whether they were records, books, make-up or the latest must-have pair of jeans – dominated: it was them and the rest.

With e-commerce, however, everything was suddenly different. Traders such as Amazon were no longer constrained by the physical dimensions of their storage space: with no shops there was almost no limit on what could be stocked. With this realisation Anderson pointed out that the remaining 80 per cent of stock – endless amounts of it – could now, in small increments, earn significant sums. Sales of one or two items by those one-record bands or obscure novelists would all tot up. The action was now all about the misses rather than the hits.

Anderson’s theory was, of course, blindingly obvious (once he’d pointed it out) and it put e-commerce and e-media in a new and brilliantly pixillated light. Niche interests equalled money. But how does his book hold up six years and a million digital advances later? Has an economic version of Moore’s Law, which states that computer memory doubles every 18 months, left the Long Tail drooping?

Anderson himself updated the book in 2009 with The Longer Long Tail but he didn’t rework the original. He didn’t need to; the intervening years have seen Long Tail businesses come to dominate the consumer market – and not just its online tranche. Trailblazers such as Amazon, Google and eBay have been joined by LoveFilm and Netflix (with their near infinite array of films) and even Tesco (which, for example, currently offers 48 different types of flour). They are the proof to substantiate Anderson’s original subtitle: endless choice is creating unlimited demand. At heart they have simply followed his two-point plan for retailers: 1. Make everything available, and 2. Help the consumer find it.

Where The Long Tail now makes curious reading is not in its theory but in its details. The digital world has, like a wave, overwhelmed many of Anderson’s original examples and thrown up a host of new flotsam in its wake that wasn’t even dreamt of in 2006. Back then he cites Blockbuster and Tower Records, Eminem and Britney, and 60gb iPods as being at the forefront of long tail and pop culture: they now look old-fashioned. Cutting-edge communication was by way of Instant Messaging and there was no hint of Facebook, Twitter or blogs. Napster and Rhapsody were the big musical beasts and not Spotify. And 115 million camcorder tapes were sold whereas now it is SD cards.

When discussing books Anderson talks about the rise of print-on-demand – an idea which fell before it had managed to peak. The future of publishing has proved to be ebooks which didn’t get a look-in in his then tour of the horizon. Apps – the perfect long tail product – were then defined as “A surname (very rare: popularity rank in the US 32467)”.

More interestingly perhaps, Anderson couldn’t foretell the consequences of the long tail. Google and Amazon’s grip is not always to the public good and certainly not to traditional retailers. There were already 15 million bloggers tap, tap, tapping away in 2006 but now that is a bat-squeak in the dark: who reads almost any of them and why would they? And who watches beyond the tiniest fraction of YouTube where 60 hours of video are uploaded each and every minute?

Newspapers once sat proudly above the long tail but with falling circulations they are slipping down the body and with them certain standards of writing and public-interest investigations. The effects of porn and widespread digital piracy are being played out as we speak. And the great danger of a personalised, pick ‘n’ mix consumer culture is that the world outside each individual’s niche bubbles can pass unknown. The long tail can be impoverishing too.

Perhaps though Anderson was more aware of the future downside than he let on: for all the brilliance of the long tail idea he also quoted in the book something called Sturgeon’s Law which has come into effect as the long tail has unrolled over the past six years. It states simply: “Ninety per cent of everything is crap.”

Find out more about Chris Anderson and the Long Tail (which is also the name of his blog) here.

Buy the book here


About the author

Michael Prodger is the art critic of Standpoint magazine and was formerly Literary Editor of The Sunday Telegraph. He has judged various literary prizes including the Man Booker, the Samuel Johnson and the Costa Prize. As well as art and books he is fascinated by gadgetry of every hue.