The Long Tail Book Review By Rubi Romero

July 14, 2008 at 3:39 pm 3 comments

The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. Chris Anderson. New York: Hyperion, 2006. 226 pp.

During my first visit as a tourist from Mexico to the City of Seattle back in 1991, I noticed that there were no Latino products nor Spanish channels, newspapers, books or radio stations.  Eventually as the Latino population increased over the years in the city, Latino products became available.  And thanks to the internet, Spanish media content and other Latino products were even more accessible for Latinos living in Seattle, but only to those who had access to internet and knew how to use it (not to mention the lack of having a credit card or the fear of using a credit card due to identity theft or credit card fraud). I think that being part of the Latino community in United States, I have been benefited from the growth of the Long Tail as a result of the demand for Latino products in this city.

This experience very much relates to The Long Tail book, in which, the author presents the reader with an overview of the Long Tail framework throughout the years and the benefits that technology has provided for its growth. First, the author introduces the reader to space limitations that the bricks and mortar industry has to face due to limited shelf space. Then, the author switches the attention of the reader to the on-line industry. He mentions that thanks to the new technology and the digitalization of media content, physical space is no longer a problem. He also makes references to the importance of web based companies like Amazon, Google, e-Bay, Craigslist, Wikipedia and social networks as a way to facilitate this new on-line business model for consumers. However, the author neglects to mention that this new technology is not available to everyone, including those with non-mainstream taste. Therefore if the growth of the Long Tail in the on-line business depends on this new technology, then it is important to mention that the lack of internet accessibility for everyone is also a constraint in the growth of the Long Tail.

According to the author this technology has changed the way of doing business and he quotes “The Web simply unified the elements of a supply-chain revolution that had been brewing for decades” (41).  Furthermore, in chapter three, the author provides a brief overview that shows how this Long Tail has been fed throughout the years. First, with the creation of the Sears-Roebuck and Company’s catalogue, this allowed the rural community to purchase their products without having to travel long distances.  Then the arrival of a food chain “supermarket” model that offered more choices, more products and low prices for the consumer.  After that, the toll free 800 number came into the picture facilitating the catalogue purchasing industry to a new level.  Finally, the internet era was born creating the on-line business industry with an ultimate and unlimited on-line catalogue that opened the door to more choices for consumers.

In chapter four, the author states “The true shape of demand is revealed only when consumers are offered infinite choice” (52). Then he continues by adding that more stuff lengthens the tail by democratizing the tools of production like personal computers, cutting the cost of consumption by democratizing distribution, and connecting supply and demand.  Making everyone a producer or publisher and everyone a distributor (thanks to the internet) facilitates the creation of more niches.  This allows the tail not to only grow longer, but thicker as well. Moreover, throughout the rest of the book the author supports his theory by providing examples that apply to the different industries: music (iTunes, Rhapsody), books (BookQuest, Amazon, Wikipedia), broadcasting (YouTube, Podcasting), Marketing (Google, My Space), movies (Nextflix), news (Bloggs) and non-media content products (e-Bay, Craiglist).  He also adds that with all these industries using this on-line model a new era of unlimited products has been born, but that in order to make it easier for consumers to find what they’re looking for, the use of filters through search engines and recommendations through social networks are essential.

There is no doubt that the evidence provided by the author is valid; however, the books argument is based on the on-line market business which requires accessibility to internet. As Anita Elberse states on her “Should you invest in the long-tail?” article, there is more money to be made through the niche offerings than in blockbusters, but only in the digitized world. This means only on business made on-line and not on the bricks and mortar industry. Therefore, the tail’s growth is limited to the on-line industry, which creates constraints based on technology accessibility for everyone.  According to Internet World Stats, the internet users on-line around the world are 1,401,724,920 against 6,676,120,288 billions of people around the world. This means that only about 21% of the world population has access to internet.  In addition, the United States has 246,402,574 internet users versus a population of 337,167,248, this means that only 73% of the US population are internet users. As a side note this doesn’t mean that every internet user make purchases on-line.  Therefore the growth of the Long Tail on-line is limited by the accessibility of internet to everyone.

In conclusion, the author did an amazing job in introducing the Long Tail subject to the reader followed by extraordinary examples that make it very easy for the reader to understand what the author is talking about. However, he neglected to provide vital information in regards to internet accessibility in order for the reader to fully understand the Long Tail framework and constraints. Clearly, the author only focuses on the physical space constraint and how the internet has served as a medium to overcome this factor, but he forgot to mention that not everyone has access to internet.  This limits the growth of the tail, based on limited access to technology for everyone to be able to access the on-line business.  

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Book Reviews - TLT « Net-Centric Economics  |  July 14, 2008 at 9:08 pm

    […] Rubi […]

  • 2. Terry Short  |  July 16, 2008 at 3:37 pm

    You have a very strong opening with your example of how the Long Tail solved your personal supply and demand problem of not being able to find Latino products in brick-and-mortar Seattle in 1991 and subsequently finding them online. This nicely sums up the promise of the Long Tail to both the purveyors of niche products (being able to reach a geographically dispersed market that would not be practical through a brick-and-mortar outlet outside of places that host a sizable Latino population), and to the consumers of niche products (being able to easily find a wide variety of Latino products online and filter down to specific items of interest.)

    Your general summary of the Anderson’s main arguments is succinct and would provide someone who hasn’t read the book with a clear idea of the premise and the content.

    Your primary criticism of the Long Tail — that Anderson fails to mention that the Long Tail is only relevant to the 21 percent of us earthlings who are fortunate enough to have Internet access — is valid. This seems to be a necessary conceit for Internet trend spotters. Framing arguments like The Long Tail against the reality of the global (or U.S.) digital divide would only diminish their significance. I think there’s a quiet conspiracy of optimism among those of us on right side of the divide that the Internet will eventually be available in the darkest corners of the third world, like polio vaccines. Most of Africa may not yet have a Pay Pal account, we assure our prosperous, guilt-free selves, but it’s just a matter of time. Rationalizations like this are even necessary to enable people to convince themselves that getting a Masters in Digital Media is a worthwhile pursuit.

    But technology always benefits the privileged early adopters first before achieving mass distribution, so I don’t think an assessment of The Long Tail can stop at the digital divide. I would like to have seen you challenge at least one other major premise of the book.

  • 3. TWoN - Part One « Net-Centric Economics  |  July 21, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    […] Terry on Rubi (review) […]

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