More Long Tail: Everyone Is Still Wrong

Every now and then another study comes out about the long tail and gets discussed in the usual places. More often than not, the end result is additional confusion, because the thing they are talking about (Chris Anderson’s book) defines the concept in many different ways, depending on what the author feels like talking about at the moment.

The latest is a working paper called Is Tom Cruise Threatened: Using Netflix Prize Data to Examine the Long Tail of Electronic Commerce, by Tom Tan and Serguei Netessine of the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania [PDF, summarized here]. It got slashdotted here, written up in The Register here, and Chris Anderson responds to it here.

Here is what the paper does. It  takes the sample of 100 million DVD ratings provided by Netflix for the recently-completed Netflix Prize, and breaks down the trends in ratings from 2000, when Netflix stocked relatively small numbers of titles and had relatively few users, to 2005 when Netflix had many more DVD titles and many more users. Then they ask whether demand for “hit movies” and “niche movies” increased or decreased over that time, as reflected in the number of ratings in Netflix’s sample data set. Not surprisingly, they notice that when measured absolutely (top 10, top 100) the demand for hits decreases and when measured in percentage terms (top 1%, top 10%) it increases.

The problem is that the Netflix Prize data set, while fascinating to explore, has nothing to say about the long tail by itself. Between 2000 and 2005 the DVD as a format exploded, with many old titles getting put on the new format, and Netflix exploded as the convenience of online movie rental took off. But comparing early Netflix to late Netflix doesn’t tell us anything at all about the evolution of consumer taste in the online world, or about the relative diversity of demand from online and ‘bricks and mortar’ stores, which is supposed to be what this is all about.

To be charitable, the nearest we can get is that it’s a comparison of a restricted set of choices (2000) and a broad set of choices (2005), but given that the size of the available set of titles increased by a factor of about 5 while the user base increased by a factor of 50, interpreting the results as “the effect on demand of this increase in variety [of titles]”, as Anderson does, is simply seeing what you’d like to see.

If we are going to take Anderson seriously then we should adopt his standard definition when the long tail gets challenged:

This is a good moment to remind everyone of the normal definition of "head" and "tail" in entertainment markets such as music. "Head" is the selection available in the largest bricks-and-mortar retailer in the market (that would be Wal-Mart in this case). "Tail" is everything else, most of which is only available online, where there is unlimited shelf space. [link]

It’s a definition that is skewed to guarantee success for his model, and which is completely uninteresting (as I have posted about ad nauseam) but hey, it’s his definition. And the Netflix data has nothing to say about it.

So when Chris Anderson posts his favourite graph from the data and claims it’s a vindication of the long tail (“Netflix data shows shifting demand down the Long Tail”), it can only be because it looks like the schematic, unlabelled, number-free graphs in his book. It’s cherry picking the data for the most simplistic of reasons  because the two lines he’s comparing have no relation to what he talks about elsewhere, but hey, who cares?

The Long Tail 15 – Coda

This is the final part of my critical reader’s companion to The Long Tail, and it discusses the Coda. Part 0 is here. You can find a complete list of the Long Tail pieces here.

"Coda" is the very last section of the Long Tail, and this is the very last section of my critique of the book.

The book’s "Coda" is a two page piece that talks about 3D printers, which may enable all kinds of other goods to become digital – just as documents and music and photos and videos have all moved from being solid things to being digital – "materialized" where you download them.

And the lesson of 3D printing is that we’ll see "the explosion of variety we’ve seen in our culture thanks to digital efficiencies" [226] extended to other areas of our lives.

The coda summarizes some of the things I find so frustrating about this book, and why I’ve spent so much time on it. It’s not just that it’s a bad book – although I do believe it is – but that it is a bad book about some really important changes; changes with the potential to do great good and great harm. Reading Chris Kenny’s reflective commentary emphasized this for me. Anderson holds up a picture that is very attractive – greater diversity, a broadening of voices in public discussion, a chance for people without connections to have a say, and so on – and he says he’s all for it. And he’s all against stodgy old "institutions". So the book attracts people who are doing interesting things, and thinking along admirable lines.

But then he betrays us. Because when it comes down to it, he’s on the side of multi-millionaires and billionaires, and the "institutions" he feels so rebellious about are small publishers, small bookshops, and so on. Not that he’d put it that way, but that’s the effect of his arguments. He argues that we should celebrate Netflix, Amazon and a handful of others, and trust them to be the custodians of our culture because they’ll deliver variety. It’s a dangerous argument, predicated on the fact that these are somehow different companies – a kinder capitalism. And it’s wrong, of course.

To review, here’s what I see as the main flaws that run throughout the book:

Flimsy Foundations – Despite the talk of openness, the empirical core of the book is a set of numbers vouched for only by the CEO’s of companies who stand to benefit from their association with radical new ideas. Netflix, Amazon, iTunes and Rhapsody let him see their figures under strict conditions. There is, in the end, little to demonstrate that some of these companies are delivering on the promise of the Long Tail. The evidence that iTunes is a "Long Tail aggregator", for example, is non-existent.

Protean Perspectives – The Long Tail is sometimes a set of rules for how to build a profitable business, sometimes an assertion about economic and technological forces, and sometimes a claim about cultural change. The book tries to shove Wikipedia, blogs, Netflix, and more into a single tent – and it doesn’t hold. I’ve no problem with using a single name for multiple related ideas, but Anderson shifts from one meaning to another to another throughout the book, and the result is a form of misdirection as he invokes whichever is needed to make the point he wants to make. It makes criticism difficult, but in the end consistency matters, and the book lacks it. Instead of each part of the story strengthening the others, the whole edifice turns out to be built on nothing.

Failure to Follow the Money – As Bertoldt Brecht said "Amongst the highly placed it is considered low to talk about food. The fact is: they have already eaten." Of course the CEOs of new technology businesses aren’t interested in talking about something as mundane as money, but we must, and Anderson doesn’t. This matters for two reasons.

First, the book conflates non-commercial and commercial initiatives – Amazon’s recommendation engine and Wikipedia, for example – as if they are not different. But they are. There is much talk of community on the web, but corporate-sponsored "communities", while they do have their place, are not communities in any significant sense. On the other hand, an effort like Indymedia is a real community. These are different things. I have worried that by emphasizing how different the phenomena of the web are that I’m missing the big picture – but I’m pretty confident that’s not the case. The Long Tail big picture is a mirage: the closer you get to it, the less tangible it is.

Second, there is a political effect that we’ve seen with successful aggregators. A single iTunes, coupled with Wal-Mart, drives many independent businesses out of existence. The result is the opposite of the democratization Anderson claims to be promoting. The emergence of iTunes is a centralization of influence within the music industry, not a decentralization. Amazon is not a proletarian revolt against the tyranny of elitist bookshops, it’s the driving out of many small businesses by one big business. Money is flowing through these new organizations, and it is flowing towards fewer people than ever, not more. To ignore the impact of technology on inequality is to take a political stance, and it’s not a progressive one.

Selective Vision – We see this in the comparison of the "old world" to the "new world". By comparing Rhapsody music to Wal-Mart, Anderson is stacking the deck – something he does throughout the entire book. What’s more, he’s mistaking the dynamic that is at work in the world of business. While Anderson sees online commerce as challenging the Wal-Marts of the world, it too often complements them. If I had these posts to write over again I’d start off at the beginning by pointing out that technological forces are creating, not a Long Tail, but a technological vice. On one jaw is the big box store, stocking a few titles at cheap prices. On the other jaw is the online store, stocking everything (but not necessarily selling a whole lot of everything). This is not the way to produce a culture of variety. My prediction: as these enterprises realise how complementary they are, we’ll start to see more in the way of mergers between the two worlds.

Selective vision is also at work in his perception of the new companies. While the book celebrates the open sides of their business models, he completely ignores the other side. Google, Amazon, Netflix are all secretive when they want to be. They all pursue patents with vigour in order to close down the possibility of competition. Netflix even patented its "mailing and response envelope" – this is not "radical transparency" as Anderson has taken to calling it. We the consumers are let inside the walls to play, but in  a carefully controlled playroom. And we’re kept out away from the valuables.

Finally, in his enthusiasm to celebrate variety he bundles pseudo-variety (wall-of-toothpaste variety) with real variety. Is there no distinction? Of course there is, but Mr. Anderson is blind to it.

The end result of all this selection is a muddled and distorted picture. It sounds great at first reading, as Anderson runs through examples of new variety at breakneck speed, but stop a minute and you realise he’s only telling one half of the story – and half the story can never give the whole picture, no matter how many examples he finds. And even then he’s not telling it straight.

So what do I think? Do I think the Internet is a force for good or
bad? Yes. Is it a force for increased decentralization or increased
centralization? Absolutely. Is new technology a source of increased
variety or increased homogeneity? No doubt about it.

The Internet and related technologies are going to have a huge effect
on our society. Or rather, many huge effects. And which ones win out –
the good or the bad – will be determined by people actively struggling
to ensure that their vision of it prevails, not by trusting to the
market to solve it for us. Part of the appeal of The Long Tail is that
it talks of the "democratization of production". Innovative cultural
ideas (as opposed to technical ideas) will often be found at the
margins; in Jane Jacobs wonderful phrase "new ideas need old
buildings", and this means they need to be done on the cheap, often
subsidized through non-market routes, and nourished. While Internet
technologies are one more path that cultural innovators can follow, it
is a big mistake to trust commercial enterprises, be it Amazon or
Netflix, to act as custodians of the public space that is variety. With
his heart, I suspect, in the right place, Anderson is leading us down a
dangerous road, and that’s why I’ve spent so many hours showing what’s
wrong with his book.

For anyone who has made it to the end, let me finish by pointing you to a posting on the Long Tail blog, where Chris Anderson walks through the major objections to his book. Here are his "top five mistakes" with a one sentence answer from Anderson (there’s more on his blog):

X was a hit! See? Hits aren’t dead. – "I never said they were"
I’ve done an analysis of this dataset and, in percentage terms, it shows that sales are become more concentrated in the head, not less – "Hah! This is the percentage mistake."
I’m in the Long Tail and I’m not rich yet – the theory clearly doesn’t work. – "The big money in the Long Tail is in aggregation"
You said that 57% of Amazon sales are Long Tail. No way. – "I know. That part .. has been revised to 25%"
You call Blockbuster and Barnes & Noble the Short Head. But what about and They’ve got every bit as big an inventory as Netflix and Amazon. – "Sigh. Please understand the definitions. Short Head = inventory in the typical store of the largest bricks and mortar retailer in a market.

None of these objections is a significant part of what I’ve presented here, except for number 3 – and I still think it is true that a "theory" unaffected by a 100% change in a major piece of data is a theory that needs a more empirical basis and a little less enthusiasm. My objections are on other grounds entirely. I suspect they come too late to slow down the passage of "Long Tail" into the conventional wisdom of technological/business discussions but hey, you do what you can. Thanks for sticking with me.

The Long Tail 14 – Long Tail Rules

This is another part of my critical reader’s companion to The Long Tail, and it discusses Chapter 14 – Long Tail Rules. Part 0 is here. You can find a complete list of the Long Tail pieces here.

I’m getting tired, and need to get to the end of this book quickly. Then I can write a wrap-up post and be done. This final chapter (almost! there is a "coda") contains nine rules for building "a Consumer Paradise" [217], grouped under three headings. Here we go.

Lower Your Costs [217-219]
Rule 1: Move inventory to the edge – The advice is to transfer your costs to your suppliers: keep a virtual inventory. For example, Amazon Marketplace products are "held at the very edge of the network by thousands of small merchants. Cost to Amazon: zero" [218].
Rule 2: Let customers do the work – He calls this "crowdsourcing" [219]. Let customer reviews rank your books, write your content, and so on, because "collectively, customers have virtually unlimited time and energy" [219].

As I’ve said repeatedly, the benefits of being an aggregator are that you profit from being a natural monopoly, or at least part of a natural oligopoly. Once you can establish yourself as the place to be, vendors will want to – have little choice but to – sell their stuff on your site. Once you become the bookstore of choice, customers may add their reviews to your site. But of course there is one place where the Long Tail does not really eliminate scarcity – and that’s in the supply of aggregators. When inventory is stored at the edge someone is still paying the cost of stocking it – it’s just not Amazon. The Long Tail slides back and forth between talking about zero-cost (total) and zero-cost (someone-else’s cost) – but never says which one is which. These are different things.

One of the changes we’ve seen in both sides of the technological vice (online stores + big-box stores) is that power has shifted away from manufacturers and to retail outlets. Amazon can sell goods without paying for them first. Wal-Mart is trying to introduce systems that will pay suppliers only when someone actually buys a product, so that their own shelf space becomes free (to them). It’s a power shift leading to a transfer of costs, not a cutting of costs – and power matters.

Think Niche [219-221]
Rule 3 – One distribution method doesn’t fit all
Rule 4 – One product doesn’t fit all
Rule 5 – One price doesn’t fit all.
As with much of the book, this section contains unsubstantiated claims: Rhapsody is "experimenting with track prices from $0.79 to $0.49 and finding that cutting the price in half roughly triples sales" [221]. Really? How often? All of them? We need more than this. And if the experiment was so successful, then we may wonder why the current (April 2007) Rhapsody web site says this:

Can I download tracks with Rhapsody?
Yes. You can purchase music from Rhapsody for $0.99/track, or $0.89/track with a membership.

No mention of variable pricing beyond encouraging membership.

Lose Control [221-224]
Rule 6 – Share information. Well, up to a point. One of the most pervasive ironies of the whole book is that it keeps going on about sharing information, but the very facts that are at the core of the book are hidden behind some of the thickest walls around. Actual Netflix sales distributions? Actual sales of Amazon books? Actual sales of iTunes music? None of it is here. Quite why Anderson thinks we are in a new age of openness is beyond me.
Rule 7 – Think ‘And’, not ‘Or’
Rule 8 – Trust the market to do your job – His advice is to "throw everything out there and let the market sort it out", which is really a restatement of his Rule 2 – Let customers do the work. As I’ve said before, there is a big difference between what works for aggregators and what works for producing actual variety.

As just one example that I haven’t mentioned before, Anderson keeps on about how referrals allow customers to move from the head to the tail of the distribution. But what happens if you start at the tail? No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart is currently (April 6) ranked 381374. The recommended books that appear on the page have the following rankings: 475137, 18675, 201, DVD #569, and 90396. That is, if you start off in the tail, the recommendation system pushes you back up towards the head of the distribution. Hence Amazon can profit by stocking all books, even if it doesn’t sell much of them, because the reference system is a way of promoting other, better selling books. Now I don’t know what the net effect is, but neither does Mr. Anderson.
Rule 9 – Understand the power of free is an argument for combining premium pricing and a free version of what you provide (fair enough), and for an advertising-supported revenue model. Well if one thing is becoming ubiquitous, it’s advertising. Is this a move to a niche nation or a numb nation? I for one do not welcome our new advertising-sponsored overlords. Consumer paradise? I think not.

Radical Transparency? Not so much

In the middle of another fine piece from Nicholas Carr, here is Radical Transparency at work.

Asked how it uses water and electricity at its sites, Google executive Rhett Weiss said, "We’re in a highly competitive industry and, frankly, one or two little pieces of information like that in the hands of our competitors can do us considerable damage. So we can’t discuss it."

Link: Rough Type: Nicholas Carr’s Blog: The real Web 2.0.

The Long Tail 13 – Beyond Entertainment

This is another part of my critical reader’s companion to The Long Tail, and it discusses Chapter 13 – Beyond Entertainment. Part 0 is here. You can find a complete list of the Long Tail pieces here.

This penultimate chapter of the book describes "five examples of the Long Tail at work outside of media and entertainment" [201]. These examples are eBay, KitchenAid, Lego,, and Google. There is another side to each of these stories.

eBay [201-203] has been hugely successful at being a marketplace for all kinds of odds and ends. Is it a Long Tail success?

The other side of the story. Let’s remember that a Long Tail business is one that provides both the "head" and the "tail" of products. As Anderson writes, was a music aggregation site, but it failed. The "problem with was that it was only Long Tail" [149]. Meanwhile, iTunes focused more on the head, and makes all its money from it, then apparently builds on the familiarity it provides to use smart software to help people expand their tastes. Its growth came from being a marketplace for junk; Anderson’s story of its growth implicitly admits this by saying that it "now does far more than clear the nation’s attics" [202]. eBay is a broker ("facilitator" [202]) that matches buyers and sellers.

eBay breaks a second rule for Long Tail businesses. Because it does not stand between the buyers and sellers (unlike Alibris and Amazon Marketplace, as we saw in Chapter 6, who ensure that they are the hub of all transactions and so collect all the information from both buyer and seller), eBay "can’t offer many of the powerful filter technologies, such as recommendation engines, that drive demand so effectively at other Long Tail retailers" [203]. Putting aside yet again the question of how successful they are in reality as opposed to imagination, this "one size fits all" model he has in his head leads Anderson to suggest that eBay has a "vulnerability" [203] because of its reluctance to collect information about all the trades going on under its virtual roof.

What Anderson doesn’t point out is that the eBay model gives the small vendor who is selling through eBay a bigger say in the sale. I find the eBay model more "democratic" to use one of the book’s favourite words, in that it actually shares information with the vendors rather than hiding information from them as Alibris and, apparently, Amazon Marketplace do.

eBay is a huge success, an important story, but not a Long Tail one in all but the most crude sense. Yes, it sells a lot of many things, but as Anderson says when he wants to spin things in that direction, that’s not the force behind the Long Tail story.

KitchenAid [203-205] is a little anecdote about how the maker of small kitchen appliances sells lots of colours ("over 50") online, compared to only a handful in the stores it supplies.

The other side. Whoop-de-do: this is nothing that can’t be done in a catalogue. It’s a neat thing for KitchenAid to do, but there’s nothing fundamental here.

Lego [205-207] is building an online community of enthusiasts, who design and share their own constructions ("peer production" [206]) and can order the pieces to provide them. Is this the "Long Tail of plastic bricks" [207]?

The other side. Lego may like openness and they are trying some interesting things (Mindstorms for example), but there is another part to this story. Lego is as interested in fixed ownership as ever: it has been fighting the loss of its patents for years. With the effort to extend its patent on the blocks themselves failing, it is nevertheless continuing to extend their patents and prevent other companies from making inroads in the world of blocks. [207-210] is an innovative company that is succeeding in a big way. It provides "hosted software" to companies (mainly small companies) to carry out "customer relationship management" tasks (CRM). Now it wants to become a one-stop shop: an aggregator for business applications, in the same way that Amazon is an aggregator for books. Salesforce has set up a platform called AppExchange that would "allow hundreds of smaller developers, many of them in low-cost places such as India, to reach those same customers" [208].

AppExchange may succeed in its goal. It’s as close as Anderson comes to a legitimate Long Tail story here. In addition, has just hired Peter Coffee, an industry journalist who has long been one of the smartest technical commentators on software, to handle part of its platform.

The other side. This is a story in its early days. There are two sides to the move to aggregation and platforms: the owner of the winning platform in a particular area can win big, and Salesforce may become one of those winners unless Google or one of its other competitors beats it. It is less clear how much of its revenue will come from niche providers (no figures yet), and it is even less clear that the providers of goods for those platforms can win significantly. I suspect that many participants in AppExchange will share the opinions of Geoff Merrick, chief architect of Salesforce partner Okere, who says "his company views being on the AppExchange as a way of developing name recognition rather than as a source of revenue". The venture is new, and the verdict is not yet in. Let’s see.

Google [210-216] is included here on the basis of extending the advertising market into the Long Tail with its Adwords and AdSense programs. Traditional advertising, Anderson says, "is a classic, hit-centric industry where high costs enforce a focus on the biggest sellers and buyers" [210]. Now, with customizable search engines (maps, images, etc), and the fact that most search terms are different (no surprise there) Anderson claims that Google is "barreling down the Long Tail of everything" [206].

The other side: The portrayal of "traditional advertising" is a straw man, like so many of the setups for the stories in this book. Traditional advertising is not just car companies advertising on prime-time television, it includes classifieds, Yellow Pages ads, flyers inserted in local newpapers, and so on. And does the Google money come from nowhere, or is this a shift of advertising budgets for small players from these local-focused efforts onto the Internet? There is nothing here to tell us. If advertising is shifting from local papers to Google Adsense, you can’t just close one eye and say "I see a Long Tail". Well, you can, but it doesn’t mean much.

Even as a story of business success, there are no figures here. How much of Google’s revenue comes from its "Long Tail" of advertising? He doesn’t say. Somehow the vaunted openness that the book is so keen on always stops one step short of actual revenue breakdowns, whether its Netflix or Google. Anderson does admit that "Although most of its [Google’s] revenues come from the head of the curve, most of its customers are somewhere in the tail" [215], which makes you wonder what the revenue pattern is for Google. At the time of its $1B investment in AOL just over a year ago, the BBC reported that "AOL is currently Google’s biggest customer. During the first nine months of this year [2005], it accounted for about $429m, or 10% of Google’s revenue."

Sometimes I feel like I’m nipping round the edges of the ideas in this book, but the lack of substance and lack of solid figures continues to irritate. Big Picture thinking is one thing, but this hyper-optimistic selective vision is another.

Let’s just be clear here – I’m sure that there will be many success stories in the coming years of companies who build aggregation platforms for various kinds of content, and who make a LOT of money doing so. I’m just not convinced that most of their revenue will come from "the Tail" of their content. Despite the talk of "democracy" I’m not convinced that the residents of the Tail will benefit much; and I’m definitely not convinced the net effect on our culture is one of increased real variety and diversity.

The Long Tail 12 – The Infinite Screen

This is another part of my critical reader’s companion to The Long Tail, and it discusses Chapter 12 – The Infinite Screen. Part 0 is here. You can find a complete list of the Long Tail pieces here.

Should we give Chris Anderson a break when it comes to Google Video?

The second sentence of Chapter 12 is "On January 19, 2006, Google unveiled Google Video, the ultimate Long Tail marketplace of the moving image" [193]. Of course, Google Video has been what us pre-digital folks call a "total bust" and YouTube (which doesn’t get a mention in the book) is everywhere – so much so that Google bought it.

Well, in January 2007 Chris Anderson admitted that he got it wrong:

This is not to say that there aren’t many things I don’t cover in the book but should have, and a few things I did cover but shouldn’t have *cough* Google Video *cough*.

So yes, let’s give him a break. I mean, who knew? Not me. So let’s put it on record that I’m giving him a free pass on this one.

But back to the point. Chapter 12 argues that TV is facing a Long Tail challenge from Internet video, and it starts off by charting the rise of Internet video with a comparison:

MSNBC’s The Abrams Report, with a multimillion-dollar budget and a crew of dozens was at the time of this writing watched by an average of 215,000 homes per day. Rocketboom, a Jon Stewart-like comedy news program created online by exactly two people for the cost of some videotapes, two lights, and a cardboard map, was watched by 200,000 homes per day over the same period. Now it’s selling advertising and got $40,000 for the five thirty-second spots in its first week. Not quite as high as broadcast TV revenues, perhaps, but the networks would kill for those margins.
…A generation that grew up online and developed its media consumption habits in the bandwidth paradise of American university dorm rooms is now totally comfortable watching video on a computer screen. [193]

Rocketboom may be a comedy news program (5 minutes per day) but let’s just note it isn’t news. There is no investigation going on, just some messing around with a camera, and studio comedy is pretty cheap no matter how you do it (that’s why the cable channels had all those stand-ups on until they discovered reality TV – comedians come cheap). So the financial comparison is a bit apples and oranges.

But the big thing here is to ask where the Rocketboom numbers come from. We’ve seen that Chris Anderson is relentlessly optimistic in his view of internet technologies, and he lets that attitude get in the way of his objectivity here. Those first-week ads were something of a publicity stunt, bein auctioned on eBay according the the MIT Advertising Lab. A recent posting by the same MIT Advertising Lab shows that the story is different now:

Rocketboom is searching for a new way to put fuel in its tank. Advertising is not doing it. "It’s frustrating that we haven’t worked it out by now," said the daily video blog’s founder, Andrew Baron. "Even though we have a relatively large audience, advertisers are just not happy to do ‘small deals,’ he explained in an interview. Baron says there are 200,000 downloads of Rocketboom shows, seven days a week. ‘They say they want to blast their commercials to millions of people.’ So, Rocketboom is again toying with the idea of charging for content. (MarketWatch)

Andrew Baron last summer: "Or maybe in the future we will decide to take a hit and not run ads some days because we could afford to."

Wonder what happened to the Rocketboom being shown on TiVo.

The rule, which Mr. Anderson knows full well, is that you don’t believe what people say about themselves, especially when they’re trying to sell something. Let’s take a closer look at some claims about the commercials and the viewership.

In October 2006 "Baron said he’s just done a deal worth $80,000 for a week of commercials in his videoblog.  Claiming a daily audience of some 300,000 people, Baron could be getting more than a $55 CPM for his ads.    You could get a discount, though. He’ll sell you a week of spots for $60,000 – if he likes the commercial content." 

Another commentator, Ze Frank, has challenged the Rocketboom numbers, noting some inconsistency in the figures Baron has reported over time:

  "Rocketboom is watched by 350,000 people a day."
April 21, 2006: Rolling Stone magazine (link)

  "[Rocketboom’s] audience is up about 100,000 the last month, to about 400,000 a day."
August 10, 2006: Dow Jones MarketWatch (link) 

  Q: "Since Amanda left, have you seen any change in the audience?"
A: "It’s grown a bit."
October 11, 2006: Future of PR Conference (link) 

  "…over 300,000 downloads per day."
October 24, 2006 blog post (link)

Businessweek’s Heather Green has chimed in too, suggesting that the October figure of "over 300,000 downloads" was an overestimate by about 50%. And how downloads translates into viewers is another issue entirely – does everyone watch to the end of the show, or do they drop it when a friend signs on to MSN? The picture – presented so breezily by Chris Anderson – is complex and obscure, and probably not nearly as dramatic as he makes it look.

The same problem appears elsewhere in Internet advertising-driven sites. There has been controversy over Second Life’s claims, nicely summarized by The Register’s Shaun Rudolph. There have been complaints about how difficult it is to cancel accounts created on a speculative whim at numerous sites – those account numbers translate into potential advertising money. And the effectiveness of web advertising itself is open to debate, with some serious estimates of "click fraud" being around 15% of all clicks – which translates into about $1 billion over charged to advertisers.

So – don’t trust self-reported numbers, especially if they support your thesis. Now on with the rest of the chapter.

A Tail for the Taking [194-196] sets out the reason why Anderson sees TV as vulnerable to alternatives – there’s a lot of content, most of it not available to us for purely technological reasons, so "the ratio of produced content to available content is higher than in any other industry" [196]. It’s a good point, and to his credit he goes on to point out one of the problems – it’s not the technology, it’s the issue of rights, which is a rat’s nest. It’s easy to think that the Internet is doing away with old-fashioned laws – and it does challenge many – but let’s remember that Napster (the real Napster, that is) got beaten by the law. It’s not impotent yet.

TV Outside the Box [196-197] suggests that new material on the Internet could more effectively challenge TV because the rights issues associated with old content are not so problematic.  The section has a brief description of one such effort: Barrio305 – a web-only TV service for "urban Latin culture" [197] that each day "streams about 50,000 minutes of video to 5,000 unique users" [197] built on the Brightcove video distribution platform. It’s an interesting story, but just a hint of one of many possible futures. Nothing definitive yet, that’s for sure. And where do those figures come from? The book has no indication, in endnotes or anywhere else. In a recent interview the owners claim "about 10,000 viewers" daily. Who knows?

Shorter, Faster, Smaller [198-199] continues the argument in a small way. It points out that videos on the web are much smaller than TV shows" about 3 minutes instead of 30. Anderson thinks that the "arbitrary middle [of 30 minute shows] will not hold" [199]. So this is a nice setup for an argument. So now can we see some data…

Hollywood @ Home [199-200] No we can’t. The chapter switches to "The other form of video that will be transformed in a Long Tail world is movies". We’re done with TV apparently – like a 3 minute video the story was over before it got started. Is TV going to change? Sure. Will it go "Long Tail"? Who knows?

One other point about this chapter. Given that Internet video is a different beast from TV – as he says here – maybe the comparison of TV to Internet video is not quite the right one when it comes to describing a change in culture. They both come at us through a screen, but if they are different things then the behaviour trend is not simply TV -> Internet video. There is also Books -> Internet video, and TV -> video games (a "Short Head" form of entertainment), and so on.

In looking at the way things change we have to forget the screen. It’s natural to think of things that come through monitors as being kind of like things that come through TV screens, but there are other ways to think. MySpace and Facebook, for example, are more about conversation than media. And if we want to call these forms of activity "Long Tail" then let’s remember that the phone companies could be called the ultimate Long Tail business – capturing big company phone bills but making most of their money off those millions of little individual conversations ("verbal production?") and making money off them because there are so many. There’s nothing new about providing a service to many people and making money off them. Oil companies make a lot of money selling to hundreds of millions of individual car owners.

As for movies, as Anderson points out, the way we watch them has expanded from movie theatres to TV, rented DVDs, and now downloaded movies onto hard drives, which will surely become more common in the next two or three years. With each expansion, the nature of the business changes. For Anderson, the complex development is a simple story:

What the VCR and the video rental store hinted at was the rise of the age of infinite choice. Those stores increased the available selection of movies of any given Saturday night a hundredfold. Today, Netflix increases it a thousandfold. The Internet will increase it a gazillionfold.
Every time a new technology enables more choice, whether it’s the VCR or the Internet, consumers clamor for it. Choice is simply what we want and, apparently, what we’ve always wanted.


This big conclusion is speculation balanced on top of some very frail data in this chapter. As for whether choice is really "what we want and, apparently, what we’ve always wanted", well someone could write a book about that.

The Long Tail 11.2 – Living in a Niche Culture (2)

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

The Rise of Massively Parallel Culture [182-185] reveals yet another of Chris Anderson’s weaknesses: as Editor of Wired Magazine in San Francisco he is surrounded by "geek friends" [182].

The Long Tail worldview is digital-optimist-libertarian, is characteristic of Silicon Valley – a culture called Cyberselfish in the book of the same name by Wired contributor Pauline Borsook. As The New York Times summarizes:

Ms. Borsook contends that many of the favorite arguments of technolibertarians come from ”bionomics” — that is, they like to use metaphors drawn from biology to explain economic behavior and endorse a decentralized free-market system. Reduced to a bumper slogan, Ms. Borsook writes, bionomics states that ”the economy is a rain forest”; in other words, it suggests that ”no one can manage or engineer a rain forest, and rain forests are happiest when they are left alone to evolve, which will then benefit all the happy monkeys, pretty butterflies and funny tapirs that live in them.”

Cyberselfish is a few years old now (but a good read nonetheless), and bionomics is a bit last-generation these days, but judging from The Long Tail not much has changed.  The outlook is self-involved and, to be frank, self-important. Chris Anderson looks out from Silicon Valley at the rest of the world and doesn’t know a whole lot about it – and he doesn’t think it important to know about it. When he quotes Karl Marx [62] he doesn’t actually quote Marx, he quotes a report on digital technology by think tank Demos. The Long Tail is a book on culture with no reference to life outside the USA (except for anime videos). Chris Anderson sees no reason to pay attention to  economists or social scientists (not a single economist who deals in the economics of information apart from his Berkeley neighbour Hal Varian, for example – no Stiglitz or Akerlof here), but calls essayist Clay Shirky "a prominent thinker". He quotes his intellectual stablemates Richard Posner, Virginia Postrel, and George Gilder, and says James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds – a quick read, but not deep – "needs to be read". There’s nothing wrong with quoting these people, but the contrast between his references to a certain kind of thinker from a certain kind of place and his complete neglect of so many other strands of thought is stark, especially in a book that does not claim any distinct political outlook.

This narrowness of vision is surely why he calls his own work "research" even when he is discovering things well known by many others. He is an intellectual imperialist: Columbus "discovering" America all over again – thinkers from outside his own intellectual neighbourhood just don’t count. The people who endorse the book are of course, as already pointed out, a coterie of Silicon Valley digerati (and the aforementioned Mr. Surowiecki).

The outlook of the author and the audience for the book come through in the terminology he uses. "Massively parallel" is a computing term – elsewhere he’s all, like, "impedance mismatch" and "fractal" and "network economics" and "meme" – the buzzwords of computer engineers and the Santa Fe Institute.

Given this outlook, it is not surprising that it takes Mr. Anderson just a couple of pages of sketchy story telling – references to a bunch of Internet "viral memes" such as Dancing Babies and the truly disgusting "goatse" picture – before he can conclude that the online world – his world – is far more diverse than the world outside his valley. "In short, we’re seeing a shift from mass culture to massively parallel culture." [184] He claims that, while the diversity of humanity "has always been true, but it’s only now something that we can act on. The resulting rise of niche culture will reshape the social landscape. People are re-forming into thousands of cultural tribes of interest, connected less by geographic proximity and workplace chatter than by shared interests." [184] The narrowness of his own intellectual horizons, and the proportion of his influences that hail from California, suggest that this is less true than he would like to think.

Yochai Benkler is an interesting writer who Anderson pays attention to, although not in The Long Tail. Benkler has a much better picture of the way that the online shift is changing our culture, and what happens when "people shift their attention online" [181]. The picture he gives (Chapter 10 of The Wealth of Networks) documents that the online world is not one of "virtual communities" heralded by the optimists, and is not one of isolation and alienation feared by the pessimists. Instead, he argues that users "increase their connections with preexisting relations" [363] and leads to "weak ties" of networked individuals (rather than the stronger ties implied by the word "community") in the new relationships that we form. There is little indication of "tribes of interest", with the close ties that the phrase suggests, emerging online.

The section ends with a rare quote from an intellectual outside Anderson’s usual sphere of influence: "In 1958, Raymond williams, the Marxist sociologist, wrote in Culture and Society: ‘There are no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses.’ He was more right than he knew." [185] Now maybe he means something other than the way I read this, but the sentence strikes me as remarkably arrogant. To assert that Williams, a first-rank thinker and hugely influential in our understanding of the ways that culture and society influence each other, was "more right than he knew" is not only patronizing, but patronizing in an innapropriate, almost embarrassing way given the relative intellectual standing of the two.

If the New Fits [185-189] is about blogs – a truly interesting development (especially for us bloggers). He focuses on two influential blogs (from the short head?): Daily Kos and Instapundit and points out that they are influential. As I argued in the notes to Chapter 5, he will get no argument from me that the development of social software as a platform for both publishing and conversation, is an important development – but it ain’t Long Tail.

A Million Little Pieces [189-191] starts off by asking if a "fragmented culture [is]  better or worse culture"? [189], and raises the question of whether the digital world may be a place where "you need not come across topics and view that you have not sought out." [189] – creating a polarized world of insular thought where, as he quotes Christine Rosen, "we are, ironically, finding it increasingly difficult to appreciate genuine individuality" [190]. Anderson asks "Is Rosen right? I suspect not" [190] and then goes on a little idealistic detour that wanders between a paean to the openness and diversity of the online world. It is easy to agree with  the statement that "Fundamentally, a society that asks questions and has the power to answer them is a healthier society than one that simply accepts what it’s told from a narrow range of experts and institutions" [191], but less easy to see what it has to do with the Long Tail – a tale where our access to variety is channelled through a small number of aggregators whose recommendation systems are private and hidden – a narrow range of (machine-based) experts and institutions indeed.

His optimism is engaging: "I suspect that over time the power of human curiosity combined with near infinite access to information will tend to make most people more open-minded, not less" [191]. To dispute this seems Luddite in the colloquial sense – actual Luddites being admirable, or at lease understandable, and Scrooge-like. But one can see opportunities in the Internet – real innovation, of real novelty, and real social changes – without subscribing to The Long Tail’s particular muddled vision of commercial giants and social software platforms.