The Long Tail in the New Yorker

Last week’s New Yorker had a thoughtful review by John Cassidy of Chris Anderson’s long-awaited The Long Tail. The review is generally favorable, and a good intro to the topic for those of us who haven’t been following it, but it does offer a few interesting criticisms.

One is that the idea of technology-enabled niche marketing isn’t new. Cassidy cites dusty old futurist Alvin Toffler’s 1980 book The Third Wave as predicting an end to mass marketing. I’m sure that precursors of the idea of “mass customization” have been kicking around for a while. But I wonder, did Toffler understand it as related not only to the technology of production and delivery but also to the technology of communication? In other words, did he anticipate not only the forces driving down the price of niche goods and services but also the forces identified by Anderson (blogs, search engines, online reviews) driving up the demand for niche products?

Cassidy also criticizes Anderson’s claim that the strengthening of the long tail will directly shrink the influence of the “short head”, noting that the movie industry in particular is still led by blockbusters. As he puts it,

Blockbusters and niche products will continue to coexist, because they’re flip sides of the same phenomenon, something economists call “increasing returns,” whereby the big get bigger and the rest fight for the scraps. A long-tail world doesn’t threaten the whales or the minnows; it threatens those who cater to the neglected middle, such as writers of “mid-list” fiction and producers of adult dramas.

That’s an interesting hypothesis, but Cassidy doesn’t back it up with any data. Are Amazon, Netflix and the other enablers of the long tail really hurting mid-tier artists? I find it hard to believe. To me it looks like any cultivation of an audience willing to look past blockbusters is immediately beneficial to those who stand closest to the blockbusters’ shadow. But maybe it all depends on how you define the head, the middle and the tail.

Finally, Cassidy complains that Anderson has overlooked the fact that the aggregators of the long tail are themselves über-blockbusters. There’s nothing long-tail about the position of Amazon, Google, eBay, iTunes, or Netflix in their respective businesses. Although Amazon is the friend of the small publisher, it is the bitter enemy of the small bookstore. One interesting question is which of these businesses inherently lead to natural monopolies — Netflix’s and Amazon’s hard-copy distribution networks, for instance, have constraints that resemble those of classic distribution networks for water or electricity — and which ones would work just as efficiently as open, distributed systems that could develop their own long tails.