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The Long Fail: Web 2.0's faith meets the facts

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The Long Tail has just had another run-in with large amounts of real-world data, and again come out the worse for wear. Tens of millions of music transactions were analyzed by economists and the shape of the sales distribution shows no resemblance to the Pareto (or Power) Curve, 1/x^n of the Long Tail, but a near perfect fit with a log normal, exp(-x^2). So can the Long Tail survive?

I think it can, because there are actually two long tails. One is the Inspirational Tail, rolled out with winning enthusiasm and brio. The other is the the disingenuously Modest Tail that shows itself mainly in response to the critics. So far, the Modest Tail has come to the rescue of the Inspirational Tale, but now the pattern is reversing.

In Chris Anderson's original essay these two tails seemed to be one and the same. That essay was full of eye-opening facts, which seemed to support the inspirational language:

"The average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles. Yet more than half of Amazon's book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles." But even before the book of the essay hit the shelves the two started to diverge. Amazon's tail turned out to hold not over 50 per cent of the market, but less than 30 per cent. No matter. Chris Anderson rephrased his inspirational claim that the market for niches is bigger than that for hits as a rhetorical question ("What if the non-hits, from healthy niche product to outright misses, all together added up to a market as big as, if not bigger than, the hits themselves?") and when challenged, coyly pointed out that it is "in the future conditional tense".

Another inspirational eye-catcher was "the 98 per cent rule" - that 98 per cent of everything sells if you can just find a way to stock it. Anderson wrote:

The 98 per cent rule turned out to be nearly universal. Apple said that every one of the then one million tracks in iTunes had sold at least once (now its inventory is twice that). Netflix reckoned that 95 percent of its 25,000 DVDs (that’s now 55,000) rented at least once a quarter... And so it went, from company to company.

In response to challenges by Lee Gomes in the Wall Street Journal, Chris Anderson modestly responded that he didn't really mean it: "He only mentioned the 98 per cent rule to show how he first got interested in the book's overall subject".

Oh.

The pattern continued. The Inspirational Tail says that "we are turning from a mass market back into a niche nation", that "technology is turning mass markets into millions of niches" and asks: "Who killed the hit album?" But the Modest Tail demurs: "I never said hits are dead", and "Mass culture will not fall, it will simply get less mass".

The Inspirational Tail contains "products you can't find anywhere but online". But when a Harvard Business School Professor, Anita Elberse, showed that online stores are as hit-driven as brick-and-mortar ones, the Modest Tail cautioned:

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Next page: Faith over reason

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