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The Long Tail Review — Part 3

Anderson’s Long Tail is a revolutionary new economy or nothing new–depending on which chapter you read.
August 22, 2006

This is the third part of my review of Chris Anderson’s book, The Long Tail. In the first part, I confessed to having avoided, until now, reading this much-ballyhooed tome on the digital economy. In the second part, I discussed Anderson’s “discovery” of The Long Tail.

When Anderson isn’t too proud about being Anderson (which doesn’t happen very often) he spins an interesting yarn about the history of commerce in the United States, connecting the modern era of digital commerce with 200 years of history. Chapter 5 is Anderson at his best: a journalist telling an interesting and untold (at least to me) story in an understandable way.

Those fleeting moments in the chapter where he connects the modern, digital economy with the Sears mail-order catalogue from the 1800s, Ford’s assembly line, and even AT&T are a pure joy to read. It’s a great gateway to understanding current trends – and to examining where they might go. I don’t want to understate the importance of that: anyone who has spent time migrating businesses from atoms to bits can tell you it’s not an easy argument to make.

That Anderson continues to call the digital economy revolutionary – when pages before he described it as the outgrowth of a long history of commerce – is laughable, but forgivable. Unfortunately, Anderson is so enamored with the idea that he has somehow uncovered “the Long Tail” that he spends the better part of chapters 2 through 4 trying to convince the readers of its import.

And despite the clarity of Chapter 5, I still didn’t buy into his thesis that we are no longer a hit-driven economy, because the Long Tail provides niche markets that will eventually outstrip hit sales. (Actually, he seems to contradict his thesis several times.) His argument that technology has driven down the cost of competition, since anyone can become a distributor is true – but also fails in two areas:

1. He claims that emerging technologies and distribution allow anyone to compete with major media companies. On the surface, that’s true; however, he fails to note that a few noteworthy “hits” – whether on YouTube or NBC.com – still make up a large percentage what we view on the Web. If Anderson argued that we are no longer simply a culture driven by media conglomerates, he would almost have me onboard.

2. His argument that these new niche markets will erode the media-conglomerate hit economy is effectively made; however, he doesn’t explain how this noncorporate market will be monetized by noncorporate entities. In other words, as an economic argument, at least through Chapter 5, the premise appears a bit flimsy.

This review will continue over the next few weeks, as I continue to read, ponder, and discuss with others the digital media industry.

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