TCS Daily

Chasing the Long Tail

By Edward B. Driscoll - February 7, 2005 12:00 AM

Back in October of last year, Chris Anderson of Wired magazine created a powerful meme -- the concept of "The long tail". His article discussed how e-tailers such as Amazon and Netflix are changing how we think about inventories of books, DVDs and CDs; and how pop culture is transformed by making available not only obscure titles that would otherwise consume valuable space in a physical store, but also all of an artist's back catalog.

For example, your local Borders is likely to have, say, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, Porgy and Bess, and a few of his other titles available on CD. Amazon has virtually every CD that he's played on that's currently in print (or available used) as well as almost every disc released by his myriad sidemen. (And if some of their albums aren't available on CD, they're likely to pop up in LP form on eBay from time to time.)

Anderson notes that because Netflix doesn't have to worry about shoving as many bestsellers into a limited store space as Blockbuster does, he's helped pump new life into documentaries that had brief theater runs, or shorter exposures on television:

        "Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who's something of a documentary buff, took 
        this newfound clout to PBS, which had produced Daughter From Danang
        a documentary about the children of US soldiers and Vietnamese women. 
        In 2002, the film was nominated for an Oscar and was named best documentary 
        at Sundance, but PBS had no plans to release it on DVD. Hastings offered 
        to handle the manufacturing and distribution if PBS would make it available 
        as a Netflix exclusive. Now Daughter From Danang consistently ranks in 
        the top 15 on Netflix documentary charts. That amounts to a market 
        of tens of thousands of documentary renters that did not otherwise exist."

This ability of the tail to make heretofore relatively uncommercial products viable has enormous implications for both pop culture and political discourse as mass media continues breaking apart into smaller and smaller fractals. As media writer Jeff Jarvis wrote on the day of Johnny Carson's death:

        "Carson also represented the golden age of America's shared experience 
        in media. That era lasted about three decades, from the late '50s to the 
        late '80s, when the three networks turned most cities into one-newspaper 
        towns and we all watched the same thing. I don't regret that era dying; 
        it means we now have more choice and choice equals control. But it was 
        a unique time in our culture, when popular culture became a common 
        platform, a common touchstone for Americans. We all got Johnny's 

It's not just television entertainers and their audiences that are turned upside down by the growing "demassification" of the media. The economist Thomas Sowell noted last year that during Tom Brokaw's long tenure as NBC News anchorman, he took his show from last place among the big three broadcast networks to number one. But he had more viewers when he was in the cellar, more than 20 years ago, than he had in first place this year when he retired, because fewer people now watch NBC, ABC, or CBS News. First is not always biggest if the pie has shrunk.

The first signs of the fragmentation of mass culture were documented 25 years ago in Alvin and Heidi Toffler's seminal The Third Wave. It began with cable and satellite television's ever-growing number of narrowcasted channels, then with talk radio, and now exponentially with the Internet.

The Blogosphere Has Its Own Long Tail

Although Anderson has his own weblog, his Wired piece didn't directly reference the Blogosphere -- but it also has its own long tail.

The Blogosphere's version of the long tail is its stream of tens of thousands of little known and under-publicized weblogs. They exist underneath such household names as Glenn Reynolds and Andrew Sullivan, whose blogs can receive hundreds of thousands of visitors a week, and the lion's share of attention from big media (although Sullivan recently put his blog on hiatus).

And yet, as radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt notes in his new book, Blog, underneath those well-known sites, there are about seven million more weblogs, according to a report done by the Pew Research Center (and also independently by myself, simply by crunching a few numbers). Technorati, the blog-oriented search engine, tracks over five million of them. Surveys show that less than 50,000 of them are updated daily, but as Hewitt observes, that's "the sleeper fact" of these reports. "From the big bang of blogging", Hewitt writes, "50,000 new virtual newspapers had been born."

In comparison, as of 1998, there were 1,489 daily "dead tree" newspapers in the US. Just to get a scope of what 50,000 daily newspapers means in terms of readership, let's look at a hypothetical weblog that's riding near the end of the tail. If it only has 100 readers a day, and there are 50,000 blogs with similar quantities of readership, that makes for a whopping 5,000,000 total readers. Five million readers would make weblogs the second largest newspaper group in the nation, behind Gannett, just ahead of Knight-Ridder and with twice the readership of The New York Times Co.

And it's actually greater than five million, of course, since there are many, many blogs with many more than a hundred readers. And some of the millions of "not updated daily" blogs actually have fairly consistent readership.

The vast majority of those weblogs go unnoticed by big media -- but there's another factor to them that is little understood outside the Blogosphere. They may have fewer readers than the big boys, but often those readers are much more passionate. And while tens of thousands of regularly updated blogs on the outliers of the tail also further fragment pop culture and discourse on news and politics, when groups of blogs with similar points of view unite and focus en masse on a story, they can generate amazing word of mouth. Even a small subset of the tail can be a surprising force.

The Tail Is a High Trust Environment

Which is why the Blogosphere's tail is often a place of great influence. In an interview Hewitt told me, "I would rather have 90 percent of the blogs and none of those top ten percent bloggers writing about my book, than I would have all of the top ten percent and none of the 90 percent doing so.

"Because the 90 percent of the tail operate in very high trust environments: they're read by their brother in law, they're read by their neighbors, their friends in church, their friends at work. If they say, 'hey you ought to read this book', it'll sell a lot of books!"

Hewitt says that if a highly trafficked, household name site such as InstaPundit promotes Blog, he'll obviously sell lots of copies. "But the total traffic on the 90 percent of the tail is going to dwarf the total traffic on the ten percent, or even the one percent. That's the power of the tail. And what matters is: How do you get the meme going in the tail?"

The long tail can also create what Hewitt calls "blog swarms", a spiraling vortex where one blogger picks up a story, then 10 or so of his fellow bloggers pick it up, and so on, as it continues to spiral outward. When this happens, the power of the tail becomes clear -- and it's caused major damage to the careers of Senators Trent Lott and John Kerry, anchorman Dan Rather, and to the reputations of the New York Times and CBS.

Despite this, Hewitt says, the tail of the Blogosphere is a concept that the mainstream media simply does not understand. "They've never worried about the tail, ever", he chortles. "And now they've got the tail just eating them, all day, 24/7."

And think of this: blogs only became a real force in opinion journalism beginning with 9/11 and its aftermath -- less than four years ago. Where will they be (and how long will the Blogosphere's tail be) in the next five or ten years?



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