Why Chris Anderson's "Long Tail" theory might be all wrong.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
July 14 2008 7:25 AM

Long Tails and Big Heads

Why Chris Anderson's theory of the digital world might be all wrong.

The Long Tail

Nearly four years ago, first in a widely cited article and later in a best-selling book, Chris Anderson posited that the Internet, with its vast inventories of books, albums, and movies, would liberate the world from blockbuster schlock. Anderson, the editor of Wired, labeled his concept "the Long Tail," after the shape our digital desires leave on a graph: When we buy stuff online, we can reach beyond big hits and into the "tail" of the demand curve, where we're free to indulge our most obscure passions. Anderson argued that serving our niche interests could also make for booming Web businesses. This was the thrill of the Long Tail—it seemed to offer a way for art and commerce to thrive side-by-side.

Now, just in time for The Long Tail's paperback release, the book has fallen under critical scrutiny. Anita Elberse, a marketing professor at the Harvard Business School, recently examined several years' worth of American movie- and music-sales data. The entertainment business has indeed seen its inventory shifting toward a Long Tail curve, Elberse writes in the Harvard Business Review. The shift is slight, however, and Anderson's Long Tail is also "extremely flat."

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It's true that we're now buying more obscure movies and music than ever before. But we're merely nibbling on these niches, Elberse reports, while we continue to gorge on a small selection of hits. In 2007, 24 percent of the nearly 4 million digital songs available for sale through stores like iTunes sold only one copy each, and 91 percent of available tracks sold fewer than 100 copies each. The story is the same for the movie business, where, between 2000 and 2005, the number of titles that were purchased only a few times "almost quadrupled." The Internet offers us a buffet of everything—and yet we're mainly settling for the likes of The Love Guruand You Don't Mess With the Zohan.

Elberse's findings are more than a little surprising. The Long Tail wasn't just a pet theory; as Anderson sketched it, the phenomenon arose out of actual innovations in commerce. Take Anderson's signal example of Long Tail success, British mountain climber Joe Simpson's Andean-survival story Touching the Void. When it was released in 1988, the book saw only modest success and then essentially disappeared from stores. But a decade later, after Jon Krakauer published Into Thin Air, a mountaineering-survival hit, Simpson's book enjoyed a sudden boom. The cause was online word of mouth—recommendations for Touching the Void on Amazon's Into Thin Air page pushed people to purchase a book they'd never heard of. After it was reissued as a paperback and made into a documentary, Touching the Void's sales eclipsed those of Into Thin Air. Before the Internet, such out-of-the-blue success for a deep-in-the-tail book could never have occurred.

But according to Elberse, that sort of anecdote is the exception. The reason? We're not very adventurous. Elberse examined the rental habits of customers at Quickflix, a Netflix-like service in Australia. She found that no group of customers exhibited "a particular taste for the obscure." Sure, a small number of customers regularly rented films from deep in the catalog—but they tended to be people who watched a lot of movies generally and so had much more "capacity" for venturing into the Long Tail. And still they chose a lot of hits: The most widely traveling Quickflix customers picked only 8 percent of their rentals from the least popular of available titles and 34 percent from among blockbusters.

In the 1960s, sociologist William McPhee argued that obscure cultural fare faced a further hardship in attracting an audience. McPhee said that for any product category—books, movies, songs—there are generally two kinds of customers: those who buy a lot and those who buy a little. Or, if you prefer, there are buffs, and there are boors. Boors flock to the popular stuff. The buffs, too, like what's popular, but they're more willing to try obscure fare. It would be a mistake, however, to consider buffs open-minded; if you've ever audited an undergrad film class, you understand that such people are often insufferably critical. Here's the hitch, then: The customers who are most likely to try an obscure book, movie, or song are also the most likely to pan it.

Elberse saw evidence of this phenomenon at Quickflix, where obscure titles received, on average, lower ratings than popular ones. Success stories like that of Touching the Void depend on positive online ratings, but the propensity of buffs to rate down titles in the Long Tail limits such possibilities. Maybe Touching the Void just got lucky—more often, what's in the Tail stays in the Tail.

Anderson, who has worked with Elberse before, told me he's happy that his theory is receiving serious academic attention. But he dismisses most of her findings. In particular, he contends, she's picturing a much bigger "head" of the demand curve than he is. Anderson says, for example, that every song that's not available at a Wal-Mart store should qualify as a Long Tail title. Everyone agrees that sales of tracks not available at Wal-Mart account for a significant part of the music business.

There is no winning this technical debate. (Elberse calls Anderson's definitions "arbitrary.") But even if Anderson is right and Elberse is wrong, the shift from hits to niches is obviously slight—we are not entering an era devoid of blockbusters. Anderson readily concedes this and points out that he's never predicted the end of big hits. Often, though, his fans have.

It's also clear that even in this supposed age of the Long Tail, companies that favor a slow, meticulous approach and a small catalog see enormous rewards. Look at Pixar's many blockbusters (or those of its cousin Apple). Or witness the rise of Twelve, the book imprint founded by editor Jonathan Karp that's given rise to a string of best-sellers during the past year. Twelve publishes one book every month, far fewer than others in the industry; this devotion to a few titles, Karp believes, not only produces better books but also books that strike a broad chord and books that everyone wants. "It's been a truism among my colleagues that generally people want to be reading what other people are reading," Karp told me.

Considering that Anderson popularized his theory by coining a catchy phrase, there ought to be a name for Karp's model of working slowly to produce big hits.Let's call it the Big Head theory of entertainment.

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