The Long Tail Strikes Back

Dsc00059 Chris Anderson submitted a comment on my Friday post.  He quotes the offending passage from my blog and then expresses his displeasure.

"I guess we should be grateful that Penn is not offering up Chris Anderson’s "long tail" fallacy, the odd idea that because we have ceased to be a mass culture we are now an utterly particulated universe of ones."

Huh? "Universe of ones"? Are you confusing my book with "Bowling Alone"?

Grant, either you’ve never read my book or you’re willfully misrepresenting it. Which is it?

Chris, thanks for writing.  To answer your question: neither one.  Your options are confining and, if I may say, perhaps a little prosecutorial.   

In The Long Tail, you refer to

[the web as an] uncategorizable sea of a million destinations (page 2)

an infinite number of niche markets (p. 5)

the shattering of the mainstream into a zillion different cultural shards (p. 5)

infinite slots (p. 8)

an unlimited number of niche demi-elites (p. 35)

a million niches (p. 52)

interests splinter[ing] into narrower and narrower communities of affinity, going deeper and deeper into their chosen subject matter (p. 57)

When mass culture breaks apart, it doesn’t reform into a different mass. Instead, it turns into millions of micro-cultures, which coexist and interact in a baffling array of ways.  (p. 183)

You can see where I might get the impression that you’re committed to a universe of ones, at least in the long term.  The terms infinite and unlimited keep cropping up.  An "infinite number of niche markets" is a universe of ones.  And if this universe is not there in the first place, we will get there eventually, as interests "splinter into narrower and narrower communities of affinity."  You have posited a disaggregating dynamic.  Interests that are ever narrower must necessarily become a niche per consumer…and a universe of ones.

You will complain that I am cherry picking phrases.  (This would be a more robust defense, if you hadn’t used these terms so often and enthusiastically.)  But even if we ignore "unlimited" and "infinite" as artifacts of the rhetorical heat of the moment, we still have a problem.  The word to which you return repeatedly is "millions," and this is, I think, much too high.  Millions of niches is many too many. Even if you are not headed for a "universe of ones," you are positing a very particulated marketplace.  Our spectacularly fecund culture/commerce of ours will never parse that finely.

Happily, it’s an empirical question.  The natural laboratory of contemporary culture will do it’s work.  One of us will be proven right, the other wrong.  Let’s call it a bet.  If you’re right, I’ll look forward to buying you a case of good Merlot and toasting your success. 

But there is a larger problem with The Long Tail.  I didn’t see it the first time through but it came charging off the page as I went looking for proof of Friday’s post. 

The Long Tail a thoroughly partial book.  As I read through a second time, I was struck by what is missing.  You give plenty of attention to aggregators like Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, eBay, and Google and pretty much ignore the rest of capitalism!  You have taken on one of the most explosive developments in contemporary capitalism…only to offer a partial view and a single solution.  It’s as if you declined the larger intellectual challenge. 

Readers who doubt this argument may wish to examine the index and see if they can find brand names that are not aggregator related.  What is missing in The Long Tail is the work horse of capitalism, the corporation, and the extraordinary challenges that now confronts its innovation, strategy and marketing functions.   As virtually everyone knows, the corporate world is scrambling to deal with the speed with which taste and preference now fragment and change.  In turns out, The Long Tail pipe has pretty much a single answer for exploding markets: big (or bigger) pipes.

There are two problems with this answer.  First, there can only be a few aggregators in the world, and this limits the usefulness of this book for the rest of the world.  Second, bigger pipes isn’t, in the larger order of things, really the most interesting, ambitious or canny solution. What the "aggregator answer" ignores are the real challenges that exist as a single corporation learns how to be many things to many people, how it makes the boundary of the corporation more porous, letting the world in and innovation out, how it escapes the inevitable gravitational field created by the corporate culture, how it accomplishes some kind of continuity in the face of its external and increasing internal discontinuity.  The scope of this book is smaller than I realized, in its ambition, in its  accomplishment, and in its usefulness.

A case in point: At the culture camp here today in Toronto, we were wondering if a corporation like say P&G or Kraft might ever solve the problem of dynamic culture and commerce by becoming more like a Hollywood studio, a pool of capital, intelligence and decision making that draws continually on an external world in order to create the stream of innovation that now appears to be necessary for a corporation to survive.  This is of the many things The Long Tail might have explored. 

Listen, I have to get ready for tomorrow, let me close with this.  It seems to be that The Long Tail treats an astonishing problem, with a narrow, partial, and one might even say provincial response.  I rest my case. 

10 thoughts on “The Long Tail Strikes Back”

  1. Grant – Me thinks you are taking Chris too literally (or I’m to generous in my interpretation of Chris’ thesis). You seem focused on the specific aggregator/filter tech examples Chris offers. I think those are just examples. My take away from Chris’s thesis is that it is increasingly viable to make money serving increasingly niches of decreasing size and increasing diversity. Yes, ultimately the niche of one is a logical end game. However, given the billions of individuals on this planet, the potential of identifying and serving niches w/n>2 is where the action is.

    As to culture and niches … culture is bigger than a niche. Culture informs a niche, yet a lucky niche may inform and shape culture. Ah, you’ve gotta love a complex adaptive system.

  2. I haven’t read the book in question, but I’ve always interpreted the “niche of one” as being a description of a unique or, at least, rare intersection of interests and proclivities that belong to an individual. Like lines that all cross at the same point. The effect of internet communication and commerce is allow to corporations to serve these lines and the points along them with greater precision and variations in service. The niche is then a single person who purchases from companies that serve various lines, and is not alone on any single line but is alone, or nearly, at the intersection. That seems like it partially reconciles the “niche of one,” as each consumer does have a unique set of services they desire, with the sense that there remain larger connections and populations in culture, along the lines.

  3. Grant,

    I’m responding from an iPhone in an airport, so pls forgive the brevity.

    1) Recall that we at Wired also coined the term “mega-niche”, which is the point. You can have a million niches globaly, and still have some of them with a million members. It’s a powerlaw, remember? Some very big, many quite small? Both head *and* tail? I know you understand this stuff, so I’m confused by why you’re pretending not to.

    2) The missing “corporations” in the book? You mean like the company I work for (Conde Nast), the ones I write about each week on my blog, and the many examples, from Lego to Salesforce.com, that actually are in the book? Not enough for you? Okay, you’ll be pleased to know that the 2.0 version of the book is coming out in spring, updated throughout and with two new chapters, including one on Long Tail marketing, which is full of stories of how corporations, from Microsoft to GM, are using Long Tail strategies to change the way they reach consumers.

    Grant, I’m a faithful reader of your blog, loved Plentitude and basically agree with you on almost everything. Why are you picking a fight here? We’re on the same side!

    Chris

  4. Grant —

    I am intrigued (again) by your ideas of corporations becoming more like Hollywood studios, choreographing the work of smaller independents. One group of corporations who have already headed in this direction are telcos — operators of public telecommunications networks. Partly driven by regulators who want to break up monopoliges, and partly driven by the wider cultural pressures you identify, many telcos now focus on offering only basic connectivity, and letting niche players offer the value-added and value-adding services which customers crave — voicemail, info-services, mobile, etc. The corporation ceases to be a behemoth, with every star under an exclusive contract, instead becoming an ecosystem, supporting the living of a wide variety of smaller companies. As you can imagine, much re-arranging of mental furniture is required for corporate executives to make this transition.

  5. Fascinating debate. I have to side with Chris on this one (mainly because it inspired my Masters thesis in book publishing and media consumption). But speaking of pipelines and as a former student of marketing and publicity in publishing, could their be ulterior motives to this sudden left-field attack? Grant, do you have a book in the pipeline (…speaking of)? Otherwise I am delighted on the clash of pop-economic titans. Keep those gloves up!

  6. I never interpreted the Long Tail as being limited to the aggregators. In fact, one area where the Long Tail has some significant potential is in the drug development business, where blockbusters rule, but business reality will force companies to start thinking about a “long tail” like approach, both in how they approach their portfolios the process of drug development (the entire eco-system as it were) and how they market their products.

  7. I agree with Tom Asacker – Grant and Chris are creating a new genre of diablogue to open up additional meanings not explicitly stated or hidden through overstating in books.

  8. It seems to me that there are two points in debate here. The aggregators and the universe of ones.

    I will be taking the universe of ones to discuss. Maffesoli in his book (Les temps des tribus: Le déclin de l’individualisme dans les sociétés postmodernes. La Petit Vermillon, 1988) talks about the decline of individualisme in the postmodern society. “Of course” that we can envision a fragmented self, the multiphrenic one from Firat (cant remember the reference) and Gergen (The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life), but this fragmented self doesnt mean that we are going to have a million of fragments, or a million of niches.

    I will stay with Maffesoli’s ideas of individualism x identification, which in postmodernity the latter will prevail. It means that while in modernity the central aspect was autonomous, or individual (through the social contract), a universe of one, in postmodernity the central aspect is heteronemous, and this means that community is in vogue. For community, Maffesoli coin another term, that is the neo-tribes.

    So, in my ideas (as in Maffesoli’s), it seems very unplausible that we are heading for a time which we search for universes of ones, “products or services” designed for each one (INDIVIDUAL).

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