Why is the “Long Tail” a bad thing?


One of the affects of the Internet is its enabling of millions to challenge the status quo, the establish, the man, in a number of fields.  The term Long Tail was coined by Chris Anderson in his article for Wired magazine.  (I’ll spare you the description of the Long Tail, I suggest you read the Wired article and the Wikipedia entry before proceeding.)

I do not believe that new media will overthrow the beast, nor do I believe that traditional media will completely co-opt the nascent medium and either create the illusion that people have control or remove that possibility outright.  Both viewpoints to me are completely defeatist and really pushes people to give up on life as any form of control is an illusion.  My stance is that new media can in fact make a change, not overnight, and not in a Super Bowl advertisement kind of way.  The change will be organic and slow to grow, but the momentum it gains will be true and not easily lost.

In a world of enablement thanks to Internet does the media landscape actually change?  The part of the theory of the Tail that is hard to swallow is the concept of “hits”.  So if all these millions of people are enabled then they will discard the shackles of “old boys” in large numbers, let the revolutions begin!  Not quite.  The theory says that out of those millions there will be lots of failures and a ton of rubbish, however, a few stars will emerge that will challenge traditional players and that is the key.  The fact that some “hits” occur is all the tail is saying, the majority of the enabled people will sit unknown in different parts of their Internet world.

So the real question is more like an old one “if a tree falls in a forest with nobody around, does it make a sound?”  Well of course it does, but nobody was there to hear it, so maybe the better question is, does the sound matter?  Some may say no, it doesn’t matter or exist if someone is not there to witness it.  So let us ask an Internet version of that question.  If somebody writes a blog that is never read, does it matter, is there any value?

Indeed there is, in today’s world the fact that the blog was even created has intrinsic value, and in essence a butterfly affect of sorts.  That blog is indexed, search engines know that this blog is at the absolute bottom of the pile, and isn’t that worth something?  A ranking?  Statistics?

Let’s put it another way, the NFL is the premier American football league in the world, and college football counts as well, maybe even some developmental leage teams.  Hell, lets even throw in the CFL just for fun.  What about all those amateur leagues? Do they count?  Well, if you don’t believe in the Long Tail, then the answer is no, they don’t.  Doug Flutie was co-opted by the NFL and is only an illusion of the ability for upwards mobility.

Now what if these amateur leagues put up videos on the Internet?  What if you didn’t have to be a Doug Flutie in the first place and you were just some “dude”? You think that guy that dunked on Lebron James didn’t get a few phone calls?  I am gonna guess he did, and lets be clear, he was not NBA material before the infamous “amateur” game.  He has been enabled by new media, to the detriment of King James.

Another example would be the Flotilla incident of Summer 2010 and Twitter.  There is a real possibility that had the people on board not been tweeting their GPS location and uploading live videos that we in American would never have heard of it.  Granted Al-Jazeera had a reporter on one of the boats, but do you get Al-Jazeera at home in the States?  No, you don’t.  Twitter and the backlash from the masses forced traditional media to cover the story, in one way or another.

These are small examples, the unknown artist on iTunes, the flotilla survivors, the completely cloud computing based business like HotSpotVPN could not have existed just 5-7  years ago.  I totally understand pessimism, and usually lean that way, but to totally discredit the Internet powered new media is a dark path with way to turn back.

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3 responses to “Why is the “Long Tail” a bad thing?

  1. If a bird tweets in the woods and doesn’t have any followers, does it make a sound/impact? I think so too. However, I would argue that there are definitely degrees to how much of an impact that sound can make. I think it really depends on whether that bird is an influential part of a larger system or organization (like a player being a part of the NFL). I also think that if that tweet has the potential to connect to millions of people, that impact can be multiplied.

    I completely agree with you on the fact that regardless of the sound something may or may not have in the initial crack of a tree to the ground or the warble of an insensitive tweet, our technology’s knack for archiving data makes just about everything relevant, even if it’s minute. People have been fired for much less than poor productivity in the office.

    • That is a great example of the amplification of something minute like a tweet. Isnt this really the argument benkler made in the wealth of networks? Well one of his core arguments anyways.

      So unless we are talking about “the matrix” scenario, where all reality has no real basis, it works out… In my mind anyways 🙂

  2. Basil S. Daniel

    Trust us. The world doesn’t care if / when you beat Wake Forest (with no apologies to #TheRivalry).

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