Book Review: The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

The Long Tail is another book in the vein of Sway, The Tipping Point, Freakonomics and many others. The byline: Why The Future of Business is Selling Less of More. Chris Anderson, the author, is the editor of a very popular tech magazine called WIRED.

The idea being that in our popular culture, for years, the way business, particularly music and movies, but also everything else, have been dominated by the Hits. In fact, you pretty much only heard of or knew of the hits, since prior to the internet there hasn’t been a great way to pass learn about the rest.

Anyways, the book is extremely interesting, but is a tiny bit on the academic, numbers, theories, side of things, rather then stories. Anyone who is in business or plans on being in business (of any kind really) should probably read this book.

The conclusion made is basically that there is a lot of room now for everyone, not just the blockbusters and platinum albums of the world. That we don’t need to be famous artist, or writers, or actors to have a place.  There isn’t a good way for me to summarize all the different things he talked about, so I’d just recommend the book.

A Visual Explanation (Hits are the most popular, but the Long Tail still has plenty of interested consumers)

I will leave you with some quotes though:

The supermarket helped create the Middle Class. Its low prices freed up substantial funds for families to spend on cars, homes, education and other needs and amenities of life. As supermarkets proliferated in the 1950s and 1960s, they played a pivotal role in creating the American middle class. On the supermarket’s silver anniversary, President Kennedy said that the supermarket’s low-cost mass marketing techniques “. . . have enabled a higher standard of living and have contributed importantly to our economic growth.” -from Food Marketing Institute p. 45

On The Long Tail of warefare:

Traditionally, warfare (the ability to change society through violence) has been limited to nation-states (except in rare cases).  States had a monopoly on violence.  The result was a limited, truncated distribution of violence (a power law).  That monopoly is on the skids due to three trends:

* A democratization of the tools of warfare.  Niche producers (for example: gangs) are made possible by the dislocation of globalization.  All it takes to participate is a few men, some boxcutters, and a plane (as an example of simple tools combined with leverage from ubiquitous economic infrastructure).
* An amplification of the damage caused by niche producers of warfare.  The magic of global guerrilla systems disruption which turns inexpensive attacks into major economic and social events.
* The acceleration of word of mouth.  New groups can more easily find/train recruits, convey their message to a wide audience, and find/coordinate their activities with other groups (allies).

The result:  a long tail has developed.  New niche producers of violence have flourished.  Demand for the results these niche suppliers can produce has also radically increased.  Big concepts (such as a struggle between Islam and the US), not championed by states, has supercharged niche suppliers like al Qaeda and its clones.

Because I’m interested in Wikipedia and wikis for InsideNorthside, I thought this was worth mention:

Is Wikipedia “authoritative”? Well, no. But what really is? Britannica is reviewed by a smaller group of reviewers with higher academic degrees on average. There are, to be sure, fewer (if any) total clunkers or fabrications than in Wikipedia. But it’s not infallible either; indeed, it’s a lot more flawed that we usually give it credit for.

Britannica’s biggest errors are of omission, not commission. It’s shallow in some categories and out of date in many others. And then there are the millions of entries that it simply doesn’t–and can’t, given its editorial process–have. But Wikipedia can scale to include those and many more. Today Wikipedia offers 860,000 articles in English – compared with Britannica’s 80,000 and Encarta’s 4,500. Tomorrow the gap will be far larger. –p.69

Regarding book sales (I never knew):

in 2004, 950,000 titles out of the 1.2 million tracked by Nielsen Bookscan sold fewer than 99 copies. Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Only 25,000 sold more than 5,000 copies. The average book in America sells about 500 copies. In other words about 98 percent of books are noncommercial, whether they were intended that way or not. -p. 76
Interesting statement regarding our society being “post-scarcity” (scarcity being a basic economic principle):
And what is the motive force behind China and India’s rise if not abundant labor, allowing them to, in a sense, waste people? -p. 145

On the Blogosphere (words of Judge Richard Posner):

The charge by mainstream journalists that blogging lacks checks and balances is obtuse. The blogosphere has more checks and balances than the conventional media; only they are different. The model is Friedrich Hayek’s classic analysis of how the economic market pools enormous quantities of information efficiently despite its decentralized character, its lack of a master coordinator or regulator, and the very limited knowledge possessed by each of its participants.

In effect, the blogosphere is a collective enterprise – not 12 million separate enterprises, but one enterprise with 12 million reporters, feature writers and editorialists, yet with almost no costs. It’s as if The Associated Press or Reuters had millions of reporters, many of them experts, all working with no salary for free newspapers that carried no advertising.

On the internet making us more open minded:

Since nothing on the Web is authoritative, it’s up to you to consult enough sources so that you can make up your own mind. This [The Web] is the end of spoon-fed orthodoxy and infallible institutions, and the rise of messy mosaics of information that require—and reward—investigation. The sixties told us to question authority, but they didn’t provide us with the tools to do so. Now we have those tools. The question today is how best to use them without becoming overwhelmed by uncertainty. p. 190-191(ht. for typing)

Probably enough quotes for one book. Hope you enjoyed!

One thought on “Book Review: The Long Tail by Chris Anderson”

  1. Interesting read. You don’t tend to hear too much about the long tail of violence part of the argument.

    You might google “Long tail is dead” (Not withstanding the rather hyperbolic headlines–gotta love the media for hype and spin) Apparently, he recanted a bit very recently and even Eric S. of Google has also echoed similar concerns about the long tail.

    Independently, despite the recant I think the theory is quite eloquent and useful. Thanks for sharing.

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