Debunking the Long Tail?

Repeat a theory often enough and it is treated as fact. The Long Tail may have attained such status. Because it is the basis of so many Web 2.0 initiatives, and it’s both elegant and charming, many content producers no longer question it. Last week an article in The Register cited the work of economists Will Page and Gary Eggleton with Mblox founder Andrew Bud in putting the Long Tail to the test. It doesn’t fare well.

This really isn’t the upbeat fairy tale message Anderson has spent four years selling on the conference circuit. However, as he took his “message” to Davos and beyond, the Long Tail has gradually developed into a ‘Policy Based Evidence Making’. Having convinced himself of the truth of his hypothesis by looking at one US music service, Anderson widened his search for facts that might fit his theory. But he didn’t examine the numbers closely or critically enough, say the economists.

At some point the Long Tail has to prove itself in real-world business applications. Storefronts (real and virtual) and mass marketing are going to be with us for a long time, so a pure application of the Long Tail may be years away. Until it’s catalogued and easily discoverable, it’s unsellable. The iTunes Genius sidebar might be the Long Tail’s first true enabler… someday, but it’s a ways off. If an application can’t recommend something to go with a Beatles tune, how useful is it?

I’ve always appreciated the elegance of the Long Tail theory, and have been surprised that it failed to produce superior profits in the media and entertainment sector. The article goes a way towards explaining why it is failing in the market place.

Others have appreciated it for the Utopian vision the Long Tail provided of being able to make marginally marketable media, but still turning a profit on it. Who wouldn’t rather make an art film over an infomercial? Like Santa Claus, people believe in the Long Tail because it makes them feel good to believe.

At the end of the day it proves an old algebra teacher quite prescient – “Question anything that doesn’t resolve to a normal curve.” An exaggeration to be sure, but something to keep in mind.

To this I add the Capria corollary – If the guy sounds like he’s selling snake oil, he is. Chris Anderson and his theory have long been more hype than substance. He’s parlayed a single theory posited in a magazine article into a career.

2 Thoughts on “Debunking the Long Tail?

  1. Pingback: User-generated blues : Capria.TV

  2. Hi Frank

    Sept 27, 2007, I sent Chris Anderson an email politely telling him that the Long Tail really sucked from a producer’s point of view. Consumers benefit but producers starve real fast. All Chris did was give the starvation process a better name. URL below points to the blog entry he made on his blog containing my letter.

    http://www.longtail.com/the_long_tail/2007/09/index.html

    I think he is a good guy. He found something he could get traction with and ran with it. Who among us would do anything differently?
    Jeff Bach
    Quietwater Films

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