No. 19: The Long Tail
In 2006, Chris Anderson described for the masses a novel concept of the market. The basic concept of “long tail” markets is by now intuitive: the “infinite shelf space” available online means you can offer anything. In addition, once initial development cost is covered, sales of digital goods are (virtually) all profit. There is much more detail about the form and function of such markets, and many examples of different ways it is being executed. But that all seemed like “old hat”. What I found much more interesting were the way Anderson explained these trends historically, and the social changes that led to and result from The Long Tail.
The Development of the Long Tail
The long tail distribution seems new, but it was actually started back in 1886 when a jeweler mistakenly sent a box of watches to a local dealer who didn’t want them. A railway agent named Richard Sears bought them, sold them to other agents, turned a fair profit, and decided to start a watch distribution company. He partnered with Alvah C. Roebuck, who repaired the defective watches, and by 1893 they’d founded Sears, Roebuck, and Co. and started moving beyond watches.
Sears pioneered catalog sales, massive distribution centers, customizable products, assembly lines, standardized shipping, and the “superstore.” From that astounding model, the grocery store, catalogs as we know them today. Eventually, Amazon.com and online shopping developed as a result of the innovations by a railway agent and horologist.
Social Evolution and Long Tail Markets
Culture was once mainly local. The before the technologies developed that allowed mobility and long distance communication, distance prevented cultural homogeneity. As Anderson writes, “lack of transportation and communications limited cultural mixing and the propagation of new ideas and trends. It was an earlier era of niche culture, one determined more by geography than affinity.”
Then, during the nineteenth century, those technologies began to develop. The railroad, telegraph, telephone, phonograph, and radio, along with the improvement of printing and photography, created the avenues that led to “the first great wave of pop culture.” As mass media developed, cultural experience quickly (“quick” in anthropological terms) lost the boundary of distance, and “hits” began to dominate the cultural landscape. Pop stars, blockbuster movies, fast-food chains, and network TV are the result, and that led to a level of cultural homogeneity not before seen. That homogeneity is breaking down in the interplay between long tail markets and shifts in consumer culture.
In The Making and Unmaking of Technological Society, Jardine discusses the development of an aesthetic-consumerist culture, where we express ourselves by what we consume. Traditional markets, with their high cost of entry and limited shelf space, led producers to seek the lowest common denominator, so they could appeal to as many people as possible. There’s not a lot of room to express yourself by consumption if you don’t live in a cultural center, so we seek to identify with “mainstream” culture by gravitating toward popularity.
The long tail market, which emphasizes variety over volume, allows more people to express themselves more specifically. The result is that society, which once developed and diversified along geographical and familial lines, then unified under the heavy influence and limited choice of mass media, now diverges based on consumption. We are what we buy, and we buy what we are. The more niche oriented we are, the less we have in common with the people around us, and we have to seek others in our niche, wherever they might be. In what I think is the most interesting part of the book, Anderson delves into some of those niches, what their markets and cultures look like, and how they have developed.
There’s not much business advice in this book, but it’s not billed as a book of strategy or best practices, it’s just the explication of a theory. If you, like one reviewer on Amazon, want to know how “the ordinary businessperson experience[s] the success of the eBays of the world,” you’ve got the wrong book. Read this book to understand, not to participate.
Anderson’s style is not complex, but not simple, either. It was varied enough to keep me interested and on my toes; a fair read overall.