The Long Tail 8.1 – A Note on Networks

This is another part of my critical reader’s companion to The Long Tail, and it discusses a piece of Chapter 8 – Long Tail Economics that I missed yesterday. Part 0 is here. You can find a complete list of the Long Tail pieces here.

I meant to write about page 141, but I didn’t.

What happens on page 141 of The Long Tail is that Chris Anderson acknowledges, for the first and only time in the book, how some word of mouth effects can run counter to the long tail forces he talks about. Dipper asked the question, back in comments on Chapter 1, "One reason people buy arts and cultural products such as books, dvd’s, games, clothes, cars is to participate in cultural life. that means buying what other people are buying". Anderson phrases the question here, in a section on music and how the one-big-powerlaw is composed of many little powerlaws:

The characteristic steep falloff shape of a popularity powerlaw comes from the effect of powerful word-of-mouth feedback loops that amplify consumer preference, making the reputation-rich even richer and the reputation-poor relatively poorer. Success breeds success. In network theory such positive feedback loops tend to create winner-take-all phenomena, which is another way of saying that they’re awesome hit-making machines.
Compounding matters, today’s filters make word-of-mouth even more powerful by measuring so much more of it from so many more people and for so many more products. Shouldn’t that then have the effect of making the powerlaw even steeper, increasing the gap between hits and niches rather than having a leveling effect?

I did wonder what Anderson was going to address this obvious counter-argument somewhere in his book, and this is the place he does so. It’s a very plausible argument – and one that I personally believe has some merit, especially given the shaky empirical support the book musters for an actual Long Tail shift. He addresses it in half a page. He argues that

"filters and other recommendation systems actually work most strongly at the niche level, within a genre and subgenre. But between genres their effect is more muted… Thus the most popular "ambient dub" artist at the very head of the ambient dub popularity curve can hugely outsell the others in that category, but that doesn’t mean the artist will snowball and tear up the charts to knock 50 Cent out of the top ten. The lesson from this microstructure analysis is that popularity exists at multiple scales, and ruling a clique doesn’t necessarily make you the homecoming queen."

And that’s it. There is no back-up in the end notes, not cases, no references to more detailed theoretical work, nothing. It is a tiny sketch of the beginnings of an argument, but it’s nothing more than that. Here are some obvious questions that come to my mind:

  • If the effects of filters are muted between genres, why did you tell us about the great success of Touching the Void at the beginning of the book? Is that somehow different? Is there not a mountaineering genre in the book market? How does that fit with your argument here?
  • If the effects of filters are muted between genres, where does that leave the mechanism for "pushing demand down the long tail"? Haven’t you just argued against the mechanism you promoted in the previous chapter?
  • Do you have any data from any industry to back up these speculations?

There is no answer to any of these questions in this book. It reads as if Anderson has found a plausibility argument strong enough for himself, and has then dismissed the question and moved on. Too bad – I thought we were going to get some real argument here.

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One Comment

  1. I think these are very important points. I play World of Warcraft. Do I think it’s a great game? No, I think it’s a mediocre, limited game which has poor facilities for what I most enjoy in games like this (player vs. player combat). I play it because everyone else does and I got tired of playing obscure games I couldn’t talk to anyone about.

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