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7.24.2006 

The Long Tail

Author: Chris Anderson
Year: 2006
Pages: 226. An easy read.
Rating: 91/100. Does a good job to get you thinking.
Amazon: Buy: The Long Tail

The Long Tail, the trendy new business book by Wired editor Chris Anderson, is a fascinating look at how the digital marketplace is transforming both commerce and culture.

"The Long Tail" is a phrase coined to describe the phenomenon that occurs along the demand curve as product variety increases (due to the low cost of digital inventory.) Apparently, it never ends and the tail of the curve is repelled by the horizontal access like it is a magnetic force never allowing the two lines to touch. As more obscure products are offered consumers come out of the woodwork to buy the crap. Although the demand for these individual products is small, when compounded (like tax-free interest on your 401K) the obscure products actually create an astonishingly large piece of pie. Anderson's examples include Amazon, Net Flix, iTunes, Wikipedia and the blogosphere (man, can't believe I used the word blogosphere).

My gibberish summary in the paragraph above may very well lack coherence. If the book seems at all interesting, I would recommend that you give it a read. The examples are enjoyable and illuminate the theories. Anderson does a good job of making sense out of the online economy and explains the trends that you always kind of realized was happening but couldn't put it all together. At times the book might lose a bit of focus and struggles to connect all the dots. Anderson realizes that new technology has shifted the paradigm in many markets (commerce, media, and information) and does a commendable job explaining all the effects and trends that result from this shift.

Litty's Take
I first encountered the idea of the Long Tail in a Wired article by Anderson that the CEO of my last job passed on to me. At first it seemed that the main idea is simply that more is better. The Internet allows more products to be offered and hence a few more products may are sold.

As I try to dig deeper and really understand the "Long Tail" the idea becomes way more interesting and complex. Disruptive technology does more than just make things better/easier/more profitable. It changes the playing field and therefore changes every player, team, strategy and behavior.

A few personal examples and ideas that I will leave up in the air. The reason for this is that I'm still forming my opinions.

The Long Tail of College Basketball
My father is a proud alumnus of Bowling Green State University in Ohio. As a kid I would do anything I could to follow BGSU college sports. Unfortunately I was unable to do t for BGSU. For my favorite local team, St. John's, I watched and attended almost every game. My information typically consisted of mailing a check to buy a yearbook and reading the scores in the newspaper the next day. Even box scores were impossible to obtain. Fast forward 12-15 years. BGSU sports are widely available on television and the internet. I can watch or listen to almost any college football or basketball game.

Now, does this mean that I will watch more college sports since there are more games to choose from? Will I now watch every St. John's and BGSU basketball game in effect doubling my college basketball consumption? Will I decide to root and follow more teams or conferences? How will I make my decision on which teams to root for? Is Gonzaga a school that climbed up the Long Tail and is now a major national power? Could a school like Gonzaga have become as popular as it is in the 70's or 80's?

The Long Tail of News
I'm very interested in Middle Eastern politics. I recently spent a good amount of time in Israel and fell in love with the nation. I have tried to become as educated and informed as possible in regard to Israel's predicament with its Arab neighbors. I'm also quite cynical of mainstream media and don't have the patience to watch news from the traditional media. To do this I read the Israeli newspapers, follow pro-Israel blogs and watch my favorite news commentators. The amount of information is tremendous, even overwhelming. By searching for and seeking out pro-Isreal information (from the long tail) am I closing my self off to understanding both sides of the issue? Am I becoming too polarizing in my beliefs?

The Long Tail of Music
I have a 30 GB iPod with over 2000 songs. That is my music universe. Once in awhile I may hear a song at a friend's house or out at the bar. No radio, no visits to record stores. I'm trying to figure out if this is a good thing. Yes, there are now unlimited songs available to purchase and listen to on the internet. There are services like Pandora.com that will find new songs for me according to my tastes and preferences. But, for whatever reason, I hardly ever add new music to my iPod. I no longer know songs that are radio hits or even best sellers. I wonder how my musical taste will change or evolve or well get "locked in" to whatever is on my iPod for all of eternity. More importantly what will my kids say when I play Sublime, Jack Johnson and Tupac 30 years from now!!!

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