The Long Tail 11.1 – Living in a Niche Culture (1)

This is another part of my critical reader’s companion to The Long Tail, and it discusses the first part of Chapter 11 – Living in a Niche Culture. Part 0 is here. You can find a complete list of the Long Tail pieces here.

We’re getting towards the end of
the book now, and it is moving on from the core material to some
speculative asides about broader issues. The material in this chapter
illustrates the reasons for the book’s success and also one of its most
pervasive weaknesses – which is all about the meaning of the title.
Throughout the book, Chris Anderson uses the phrase "The Long Tail" to
mean several different things.

  1.     It’s a business model (create a profitable business by "selling less of more")
  2. It’s a commentary on the benefits of Internet commerce (online commerce is more diverse than those old physical shelves)
  3.     It’s a trendspotting book about changes to contemporary culture (the end of the hit parade, the fall of the blockbuster)

The shift back and forth between these different meanings is what makes
the book so frustrating. Anderson wants to eat his cake and have it too
– which is the theme for this posting.

When it suits, Anderson can be very cautious about what he means by
"The Long Tail". Witness two entries in his blog. First, here’s part of
his response to Lee Gomes’s article, which I’ve mentioned a few times:

First, the book doesn’t claim that there are any cases where sales of products not
available in the dominant bricks-and-mortar retailer in a sector (my
definition of "tail") are larger than the sales of products that are
available in that retailer ("head")… Which is why the language Gomes
cites from the book jacket is actually all phrased in the future
conditional tense ("What happens when the combined value of all the
millions of items that may sell only a few copies equals or exceeds the
value of a few items that sell millions each?").

That "future conditional" thing is really a bit precious isn’t it?

Or here, in a post he calls What The Long Tail Isn’t:

There are many distortions of the term, but the most common
one is to use it as a newly-positive synonym for "fringe"… for Long
Tail effects to work, you need both a head of relatively few hits and a tail of many niches, so that recommendations and other filters can lead consumers from one to the other.

A tail without a head is too noisy and apparently random to get
consumer traction; people need to start with the familiar and then
move, via trusted recommendations, to the unfamiliar. Likewise a head
without a tail is too limited in choice; the odds of finding a niche
you want are too low to bother exploring much beyond what you already

Thus the two big Long Tail opportunities are:

  1.     Aggregating hits and niches into a one big curve, from head to tail.
  2.     Creating content and products that can plug into someone else’s aggregated curve.

He goes on to list some other things that "The Long Tail Isn’t":

  •    Commodification – The LT is about nicheification, which is different.
  •    Simple variety
    – Offering a few different choices or a bit of customization (like the
    sandwich filling options in the risible example above) is not enough.
    Long Tail effects kick in when you’re expanding variety and choice by
    orders of magnitude–from 10x to infinity.
  •     The case for an all amateur, self-published future
    – The LT will probably have as much commercial content as ever. It will
    just be joined by far more amateur fare, forming a relatively seamless
    continuum from pros to ams.
  •    The actual end of hits
    – The LT ends the tyranny of hits, shifting the market equally to
    niches. But it certainly acknowledges that some things will continue to
    be a lot more popular than others. Powerlaw distributions are as
    natural as diversity itself.
  •    A focus on small markets at the exclusion of large ones – Again, you need both hits and niches to allow the filters and recommendation engines to work, driving demand down the curve from the known to the unknown.
  •    Just any powerlaw
    – Powerlaws are ubiquitous. Long Tails are not. The first shows up
    anywhere you have variety, inequality, and network effects (word of
    mouth). The second requires massive variety and a wide range between
    the hits and niches. After all, many short tails are simply truncated
    powerlaw distributions. They just aren’t, er, long.

Mr. Anderson wants to have it both ways.

He wants to disown
the wilder uses of his catch phrase, ignoring the fact that the
catchiness is the core of its popularity and influence. Also, he is not
immune to misusing the phrase himself. He wants to say that "offering a
few choices or a bit of customization" is not Long Tail – yet he writes
about twenty varieties of flour as the "Long Tail of flour" [11], or
customized T-shirts as the "Long Tail of fashion " [50]. He disowns "a
focus on small markets at the exclusion of large ones", and yet writes
that microbreweries are the "Long Tail of beer" [50]. He says that
"just any powerlaw" is not a long tail and yet describes cities as "The
Long Tail of urban space" [150] and Al Qaeda as "The Long Tail of
national security" [50]? If it wasn’t for the aura of universality that
such misuses create then the thesis of the book would have attracted
much less attention than it has.

The first section of Chapter 11 is about The History of House Sound of Chicago,
a book by Stuart Cosgrove. The emergence of this form of music in the
early 1980s, from the embers of disco, is the story of a "proto-Long
Tail music culture" [177]. Mr. Anderson backs up the claim by reference
to the three forces of the Long Tail from Chapter 4:

  • "It
    started with the spread of  affordable technology, from mixing decks to
    multitrack recorders. That’s the first force of the Long Tail, the
    democratization of the tools of production." [178]
  • An explosion
    of records created the need for a way for people to get to them: "Which
    is exactly what clubs and warehouse parties offered, thus providing the
    necessary second force — democratized distribution" [179]
  • The "hyperspecialized genres" of house music were identified by a
    proliferation of distinct record labels, sometimes owned by the same
    company: "Indie record labels are like tags, providing clues to which
    microgenre a track is likely to be" [179]. This "connects supply and
    demand" which is his third force.

Does Chicago House music have anything to do with the Long Tail? Well,
what I know about House music could fit on a single 45rpm label, but
the answer is clearly No.

story of the House Sound of Chicago is a familiar story about the
emergence of a subculture in a particular physical place and time – it
is an example of variety and minority-interest culture emerging from
the very offline, physical proximity whose limitations he decries in
the remainder of the book.

Looking back at the criteria for
something to be Long Tail, there is nothing here about either
"Aggregating hits and niches into a one big curve, from head to tail"
or "Creating content and products that can plug into someone else’s
aggregated curve." Whereas Anderson claims that The Long Tail is not "a
focus on small markets at the exclusion of large ones", the indie music
he is invoking did just that. As for his "three forces": folk music in
the broadest sense has always been produced by cheap technology, from
harmonicas to fiddles to guitars to whistles, so there is nothing new
there. Using clubs and parties as a way to share and provide access to
music? Been done for hundreds or thousands of years. And the idea of
labels as being "like tags" is simply a way of relating the culture of
music to the culture his core audience is familiar with, which is the
online computer world.

Elsewhere, Anderson laments that the physical world limits cultural
diversity because of what we might call the Bollywood Problem: culture
that appeals to a specific group of widely dispersed people has to
reach a certain threshold of appeal in a single locale before
being viable, and so might be viable nowhere (well, in North America
anyway). One of the many things he neglects about the cultural
phenomena at the core of his book is the fact that much of culture is
not a "market" with distinct supply and demand. Culture as a
participatory activity involves an intermingling of supply and demand,
and it is precisely the specific nature of physical environments that
leads to the development of new genres and flavours of music, whether
it’s Northern Soul or the collectivist music ethic that started in Montreal with Godspeed You! Black Emperor and has now given us the snow-influenced best band in the world and has also travelled down the 401 to Toronto to produce the almost-great Broken Social Scene.

From "Or" Culture to "And" Culture
[180-182] continues with the big statements that Anderson disowns
elsewhere, starting off with "The Long Tail is nothing more than
infinite choice" [180]. Once people get on the internet "they don’t
just go from one media outlet to another — they simply scatter.
Infinite choice equals ultimate fragmentation" [181]. Yet he
simultaneously wants to say that this is "simply a rebalancing of the
equation, an evolution from an ‘Or’ era of hits or niches (mainstream culture vs. subcultures) to an ‘And’ era… Mass culture will not fall, it will simply get less mass." [182]

if "Mass culture will not fall" and the Long Tail is not "The actual
end of hits" then why does he entitle a chapter "The Rise and Fall of
the Hit", or title sections "Who Killed the Hit Album?" [33] or "The
End of the Hit Parade" [31]? or write "We are turning from a mass
market back into a niche nation" [40]. Parsing "The End of the Hit
Parade" carefully (there is no tense, not even future conditional), you
could argue that ending the Hit Parade is different from Hits
themselves, but I think it’s fair to say, in a book as rhetorical as
this one, the author is out to create an impression that we are on the
edge of a bigger transition than a mere rebalancing of the equation.

like to say that Mr. Anderson needs to make up his mind, but plainly he
doesn’t need to at all. The ability to switch back and forth between
eschatology and business models is what gives the book its appeal, and
he’s done very well by it. The fact that it is inconsistent to the
point of foolishness appears not to matter. Too bad.

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One Comment

  1. The Long TailCultured

    Tom Slee is approaching the end of his book review of The Long Tail. In his latest entry is 11.1 – Living in a Niche Culture Tom points out:
    One of the many things he [Chris Anderson] neglects about the cultural phenomena at the core of his book is the…

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