Arguing About The Long Tail

Lee Gomes took a swipe at Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail in the WSJ (of course) yesterday. He said:

Wired Magazine editor Chris Anderson’s hot, new best seller, "The Long Tail," is causing a sensation with its eye-opening claims about the way the Web is rewriting the rules of commerce. But I’ve looked at some of the same data, and some more of my own, and I don’t think things are changing as much as he does.

Chris quickly reacted with this post where he said:

I’m actually quite an admirer of Gomes’ work and he certainly did do a lot of research for this piece. But he started off with the wrong end of the stick (looking at the market in percentage terms, which doesn’t work because the definition of "head" keeps changing) and sadly wouldn’t let it go.

Unfortunately their debate is being held over math, specifically how to measure whether consumption is moving “down the tail”. And they are using data from places like Amazon and Netflix to bolster their arguments.

I have always felt The Long Tail discussion should be focused on goods where there is no manufacturing cost, ie digital goods. Because that’s where you are getting the explosion of available items to consume.

And in that world, it’s very clear to me that consumers are moving down down the tail, simply because they can. Take Rhapsody. Les Gomes writes:

March data for the 1.1 million songs of Rhapsody, another streamer, shows a 22% no-play rate; another 19% got just one or two plays.

But those 200 thousand songs that got played on Rhapsody wouldn’t have been bought at all on iTunes. Because they are free to play on Rhapsody. That’s where The Long Tail comes into play.

I wouldn’t even focus on Amazon and Netflix and iTunes. They are traditional businesses for the most part.  Sure Amazon, Netfix, and iTunes stock more than a traditional retail store, but they are still limited in terms of how much they stock and how much content is available for consumption.

I would focus the long tail discussion on blogs, YouTube, Flickr, Rhapsody, Google, and places where consumers are free to consume whatever they want. That’s where you’ll see The Long Tail flourish.

Les Gomes does mention some blog data in his WSJ piece.  He said:

Bloglines, the widely used blog-reading tool, lists 1.2 million blogs; real ones, not computer-generated "spam blogs." The top 10% of feeds grab 88% of all subscriptions. And 35% have no current subscribers at all.

Subscriptions are the wrong thing to measure in the blog world. I have 11,500 subscribers to this blog and about 50,000 unique visitors a month. My subscribers are my most loyal readers, but I have a much larger audience.

I would bet all of those 1.2 million blogs are read by someone each month. And I bet that the top 10% most popular blogs only grab about 50-60% of total page views of the 1.2 million blogs.

And because of ad networks like Adsense, YPN, FeedBurner, and others, every one of those page views can be monetized and the dollars will get distributed on a curve that has a long tail.

Compare that to the traditional media world. There is no tail, long or short, in that world.

So Lee Gomes can have his traditional media world. I prefer the one I live in. The one with The Long Tail.