Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Power of the Long Tail in Digital Culture

"I celebrate the tail," says Ishmael in a chapter devoted to the flukes of whales in Moby Dick. I wish to celebrate, metaphorically, the concept of the "long tail" as a key way of understanding digital culture.

In a whale's tail, Ishmael explains, "the confluent measureless force of the whole whale seems concentrated to a point." As we take stock of the new powers unleashed on the world through ubiquitous computing and a liquid market for information, the "long tail" effect first described by Chris Anderson of Wired magazine may be among the most influential forces of the digital order.

So, what is this "long tail"? The "long tail" boils down to being a way to talk about both diversity of content and a new dynamics of demand for that content that has been opened up through digital means. 

The term was coined and popularized by Chris Anderson beginning with a 2004 article in Wired magazine which he then expanded into a book by the same name.
A "long tail" is a power curve statistical distribution that includes a "head" (items to the left that represent the most demand) and a "tail" (the sloping curve that represents quickly diminishing demand). As a business opportunity, it is now more possible to service the "long tail" of the distribution curve; that is, due to virtual shelving of either physical or electronic goods, retailers no longer have to keep their set of available wares limited to what could fit into a brick-and-mortar store. Moreover, this availability is changing the nature of demand, as people become accustomed to finding or consuming more than the most popular items in any given field.

To put this another way, the long tail refers to increased and differentiated demand across myriad niche interests and markets newly available in the digital age due to the amplified availability of products, services, or digital content previously limited by physical restraints. The phrase also refers to the opportunities available due to this shift in attention dynamics. In short, we are all getting comfortable with there being a vastly expanded variety of content, goods, and services because we are readily able to find and obtain those things through the various online platforms. And since the internet can leverage niche interests, those niches can be served as never before (commercially or otherwise). This is an opportunity for those producing niche content, goods, and services; and it is equally an opportunity for those seeking and consuming the same.

The long tail is an essential concept for understanding digital culture because it helps to explain how subcultures are thriving and how markets and business models are evolving today to adjust to long-tail dynamics. The long tail is a result of networked information, recommendation engines, and content platforms -- and it in turn drives the success of these essential components of the digital infrastructure.

It's not about "hits" anymore
Pre-internet culture, Anderson explains, was dominated by "hits" -- the items that were most popular or profitable. This is understandable. If you own a store, wouldn't you stock it with that 20% of available merchandise that yields 80% of your profit? Today, however, vendors can offer items "down the long tail" -- the non-hits. Sure, the great percentage of sales will still go to the popular hits. However, increasingly, enough of the sales go cumulatively to the various niche products now available that the long tail of niche goods is now in competition with the head, that 20% that gets the 80% of sales. And when a market is profitable, it tends to grow. And thus we see that lots of retailers are now emerging to service the long tail. Because the internet reaches so many people, it isn't necessary to try to capture even a large percentage of online shoppers in order to be profitable.

Example: Down the Long Tail of Music via Recommendation Engines
Today I went to the best-sellers list of songs on Amazon.com. At the number one spot, Katy Perry's "Roar."
I click on it and on that product's page I see the familiar prompt at the bottom, "Customers Who bought This Also Bought."
I swipe through a few screens of those recommendations and happen upon an artist named Lana Del Rey. I click on her "Summer Sadness" and notice that this track is quite a ways down the list of top songs, ranking at #855 in mp3 song sales.
I sort of like it, but it is easy to keep exploring, so I do the same thing as I did with the Katy Perry song, I end up browsing the "Customers who bought this..." recommendations. I click on a song by The Script, a group I'd never heard of. Their "The Man Who Can't Be Moved" is only 69 cents (half the price of the songs higher up on the list I was browsing), so there's an economic motive to give an unknown group a shot. Note that this song is even further down the best seller rank, at #1,660.
From there, I followed the auto-recommendations again until I came to Citizen Cope (another I'd never heard of), who has a best seller ranking of #4,177. I do this again, finding a group called Bosnian Rainbows (at ranking #21,556) whose recommendations take me to Brazos' album Saltwater (ranked #59,260), landing finally (and somewhat ironically) at a track on that album called "How the Ranks Was Won"-- I am far, far away from anything that would ever play on popular radio stations like the Katy Perry song I started with.

So, within only a few minutes, I am experiencing more music that is outside of the top 100 than anything all that popular. The "hits" are the obvious items on the surface of digital culture. But we love to sound the depths of sound. Music is one of the main exemplars of the long tail phenomenon. Perhaps you, also, are experiencing music that is slightly (or very) obscure because you also followed the long tail of recommendations? I know my son listens to Icelandic music and other European artists that make up a far more diverse playlist for his age than the dozen best-seller bands for which I had vinyl albums in the 70s and 80s. 

The long tail invites us to be explorers, and the various content platforms of today make going down the long tail a natural and enjoyable (and profitable) thing for all involved. Haven't you gone down the long tail of music through a platform like iTunes, or Amazon, or Pandora, or SoundCloud, or last.fm, or Rhapsody?

Not Just Music, Not Just Digital
And the thing is, following the long tail is a common occurrence-- not just with music, but with books and other merchandise. And not just with commercial products, but with information products. I've discovered recipes that I wasn't looking for with ingredients I would never before have purchased, because these were a few clicks away from something very standard that I started with. And while long tail dynamics work easiest with natively digital products, they also work with non-electronic things, too. One can follow the long tail of shoes, or crafts, a myriad of others physical things.

The Long Tail of Formats and Products
Not only can content, goods, and services be found that serve niche interests, but the same platforms and recommendation engines that drive discovery of new things also drives the discovery, production, and consumption of new forms and formats for the same things. In other words, the power of the long tail is in all kinds of diversity.

For example, if I search for "Moby Dick" on Amazon, I will encounter multiple formats and editions of the text itself -- audiobook versions, Kindle eBook versions, illustrated versions, scholarly editions, collector editions, comic book versions, a children's board book edition, editions in foreign languages, etc. One of my favorites is Moby Dick in Pictures by Matt Kish. I was also intrigued by a dramatic adaption of Moby Dick by Orson Welles, a Moby Dick screenplay by Ray Bradbury, and by a book about remixing Moby Dick in the English classroom.

But I am also taken to various film adaptations of Moby Dick, and to Moby Dick music (of many varieties, from sound tracks and opera adaptations to this Led Zeppelin track called "Moby Dick"). But that's not all! I can get a Moby Dick poster, a Moby Dick T-shirt, an iPhone case that looks like a leather-bound edition of Moby Dick (or a silicone iPhone case with whale and ship on the back), a Moby Dick model ship, Moby Dick postage stamps, Moby Dick baseball cards, Moby Dick video games, and Moby Dick charm bracelets. There are Moby Dick action figures, door knockers, light switch covers, and mouse pads. I was a bit disappointed not to find a Moby Dick branded harpoon, but I was consoled to find Moby Dick themed belly button jewelry sold by a company named Painful Pleasures.

This may seem to be a sad commentary on the kitsch of popular culture, but look at from the point of view of format diversity and the ease with which one can find it. One of the main points Anderson makes is that the long tail includes a greater quantity of low quality things. But that is the tradeoff from being stuck with the smaller set of (supposedly) higher quality "hits." There is an ocean of substandard stuff, but the point is that with databases, internet connections, and recommendation algorithms, we can harness the power of the long tail until it is a thing of beauty and power, just as Ishmael considered an actual whale's tail to be. You might have to click past some Moby Dick belly button jewelry in order to find those adaptations of the novel by Orson Welles or Ray Bradbury. But it's worth it. Just as the whalers of old had to boil down the blubber of whales to obtain the useful oil hidden within it, we can use powerful search engines and recommendation algorithms to refine our finding amid the murky plenitude of the long tail.

The Long Tail of the Long Tail
The most obvious long tails are the commercial examples offered by Anderson. But ever since he floated this idea in 2006, people have explored various long tails well beyond online commerce or marketing. See, for example, these discussions of "the long tail" of many different phenomena: