The Long Tail theory believes that the Web marks the end of the blockbuster era and rise of the niche. Perhaps true. But there may be some significant unexpected consequences.First off, I love the Long Tail. I'm a big music fan, and my tastes are definitely Long Tail rather than mega hits. I also read a lot of books and it's great to be able to get such a range of choices from Amazon.
"The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of "hits" (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail," according to Chris Anderson, a leader in Long Tail thinking.
"As the costs of production and distribution fall, especially online, there is now less need to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers. In an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, narrowly-target goods and services can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare."
I don't disagree with the basic thrust of this theory but I have some reservations based mainly on what I believe to be a misinterpretation of the theory. Over the years, I have constantly come across people involved in managing websites who use this theory to promote the idea that websites do not need management.
Producers should be given the tools to create and let go, such advocates espouse. Consumers should be given the tools to search and let go. No need for editorial or any sort of quality control. Ultimate freedom of choice. Of course, what happens is that you get awful websites full of rubbish. (This is particularly the case among intranets.)
A tail implies a body and a head. Without a Fat Head, the Long Tail will soon suffer. Amazon and Apple may have long tails but they also have very well managed heads where you are presented with the hits and blockbusters.
If the Long Tail was spreading sales and revenue more evenly within an industry, then you would expect that the smaller producers within the Tail would be increasing their revenue. This is not always the case.
It is true that there has been a decline in sales among the major record companies over the last five years. However, this has not resulted in an increase in sales by the Long Tail independent companies. Their sales have also declined, though, admittedly, not at the same pace as the decline of major labels.
Because there are fewer blockbuster films today does not automatically mean independent film-makers are making a better living. (Foreign films, for example, have rarely done worse in the U.S. market than at present.) Certainly, from talking to many within the book industry, the advent of the Web probably negatively impacts the Long Tail author.
I've been told that minor authors are selling less today. One reason is that there are more of them. Another is that physical bookstores are focusing more and more on the hit books, where they can compete with Amazon.
Ironic, that as consumers become richer in choice on the Web, Long Tail authors, musicians and film-makers become poorer. (Unless, of course, for the chosen few who every year climb into the Fat Head.)
Gerry McGovern, a content management author and consultant
, has spoken, written and consulted extensively on writing for the web and web content management issues since 1994.