The Long Tail

I'm the kind of person who constantly needs intellectual stimulation. I always need to have long tail booka major mental adventure going on in my life. The more the adventure requires me to learn and discover new things, the better. The most boring times in my life, are the moments spent doing or talking about something I really mastered. You can really drive me crazy if you can put me in such a situation. This book is one such endeavor, if I may say. It's the kind of book that gives you a totally new direction to move in, and I'm quite comfortable doing this. Not only does it show you the untapped direction in which to go, the books explains how to make use of totally new markets, and how to understand, capitalize, and ,most importantly for me, enjoy the new worlds unfolding to us. There are numerous new tails created, and existing tails are elongating.
What exactly is the "long tail"?
long tail picture

According to Hellen Keller,"The world is moved not only by the mighty shoves of the heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker." This, in a nutshell, is The Long Tail.

Hits and Misses

The culture and economy we are used to live in, depends on the Pareto Principle, more known as the 80-20 principle, which basically states that 80% of the results produced are from the "mighty shoves" of the mighty 20%. If the hits are the products, songs, movies etc. that make it to the top lists, the "misses" are the ones that missed them. A closer look on these two types of products shows that they only missed the shelves, and not necessarily the value we give them. Many products are valuable enough for us to buy them, but we didn't buy them because they were just not available, due to the tyranny of geography and physical constraints, as Chris Anderson explains.

The culture and economy we are used to live in, depends on the Pareto Principle, more known as the 80-20 principle, which basically states that 80% of the results produced are from the "mighty shoves" of the mighty 20%. If the hits are the products, songs, movies etc. that make it to the top lists, the "misses" are the ones that missed them. A closer look on these two types of products shows that they only missed the shelves, and not necessarily the value we give them. Many products are valuable enough for us to buy them, but we didn't buy them because they were just not available, due to the tyranny of geography and physical constraints, as Chris Anderson explains.

The Three Forces of The Long Tail

1. Democratize Production: The means of producing goods and services have been dramatically made easy with the new technologies. And since it is easy to produce almost anything (especially intellectual property) the challenge is in the mind of the producer. If you are creative and hard working, you can do some cool stuff.
The means of producing goods and services have been dramatically made easy with the new technologies. And since it is easy to produce almost anything (especially intellectual property) the challenge is in the mind of the producer. If you are creative and hard working, you can do some cool stuff.

2. Democratize Distribution: Making the misses available to whoever wants them, is a key to pushing demand down the tail. Online sales of less-known titles is one of the key drivers. Amazon is one of the prominent examples on this, where they have millions of titles that sell less, but together, they amount to a significant total.

3. Connect Supply and Demand: The ways in which we are making purchase decisions are dramatically changed by these forces. We have recommendation engines, mainly fueled by the history of people's past decisions. At the same time, those "long tail aggregators" are giving the chance for people to share their reviews, and post their comments for whichever product they have tried. This way, we can get a good amount of information about a certain product in minutes.
I was really surprised to know that Sears had a very long tail of products and an affiliate program back in the beginning of the twentieth century. My initial thought was that such a thing can only be facilitated through the Internet, especially with physical products. There is a detailed explanation of this in the beginning of the book.

Anderson goes on to explain the details of the tail, and its relation to the head. How it behaves in certain industries, and where it might best thrive.

The great thing about this new phenomenon is that it's not only showing a new way of doing things, this new way is right in the opposite direction of where we were heading in the past. Going for small niches is a really new concept, in contrast to "think big". The fact that the customers down the tail are people who have special requirements, also means that they are willing to pay a premium to get what they are looking for.
Another important empowerment that these forces provide, is the empowerment for user-generated-content. Again, the first thing that comes to my mind when talking about it, is intellectual content; videos, text, design etc. but there is a great example about LEGO and how they are enabling this. LEGO is giving anyone the option of designing their own pictures or models, uploading them to their website, and getting a map of how the bricks should draw this picture. There is more; this "product" is shipped to the creator, with the picture on the box. This also becomes one of the products that LEGO offer through their website, and they even pay some royalties for the creator of the product if it sells well. Wow!
There is also a great explanation of the long tail of articles, and Wikipedia. An interesting analogy was drawn between Wikipedia and evolution, and the fact that they work extremely well on the macro level, and not necessarily that well in every incident on the micro level. The open source model, makes it a great encyclopedia in terms of flexibility, or more importantly, resilience. There are millions of people contributing, and constantly the articles are updated and improved on by all of us. It's a great system, and it has this wonderful mechanism that runs it, but, that doesn't mean that you won't find crappy articles with very low quality. The best way to use Wikipedia? It is the starting point in your endeavor to understand something, and not the final definitive say on that particular topic. This approach resonates with what Squidoo is actually doing. You provide some links and short summaries related to something you know about, and give the user a starting point and a guide on how to proceed with their quest.

Although these new phenomena seem to just negate our old thinking about the world, they actually don't. The only thing they do, is that they put some limitations to the theories that we know. Einstein did not negate what Newton taught us. He just proved that these theories apply on the physical level. They just simply are not descriptive of the world on the quantum level.
A paradox seems to pop up when discussing the long tail, and the rise of niches as opposed to hits. Anderson challenges the theory that says that abundant choice is oppressive and leads to less sales. This is based on a study that showed that when people are given six types of jam to taste, they buy more than when they are presented with twenty four. The solution to this, are the recommendation engines. People's reviews about a certain product give the new comers a glimpse about how well this product is performing. So, if you want to choose the best jam, you can just ask Amazon to give you top selling ones.
But, doesn't that mean that we are going back to the hits? We are actually asking for the hits this way.
Chris's answer? This is a hit within a very small niche. The best selling jam, is a hit in the jam category and has nothing to do with food, or general merchandise. Now, a hit is really a meaningful thing, within that niche.
My own theory on this attempts to utilize a group of niche skills, each being average, and maybe the aggregate of these skills amounts to a high quality "long tail person".

There's a video discussion done about this book by Anderson, hosted by Google, where he also has an interesting Q&A session that talks about his book.