Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

The upside of being laid low with some hideous stomach bug this week (if such a thing can be said to have an upside) has been having the time to read Chris Anderson's The Long Tail, which arrived from Amazon yesterday. I was actually hoping to meet the man in person last week, as he came in to do a turn at work, but I ironically found myself in the long tail of invitees which couldn't be accommodated by the limitations of a bricks-and-mortar meeting room. Hopefully the next event will be virtual and they'll be able to fit me in ;-)

For the uninitiated, the whole Long Tail phenomenon kicked off almost two years ago with a Wired magazine article written by Anderson (who edits said publication) which posited that the potentially unlimited choice of online retailers such as Amazon and NetFlix was exposing a latent demand for niche content which bricks-and-mortar retailers were used to ignoring due to the economic imperatives of shelf-space. He suggested that there was a Long Tail of niche content which became economically viable in the online space, threatening the hegemony of the blockbuster. The idea struck a chord and quickly acquired a momentum of its own.

Many conferences and blog posts informed the writing of the book and helped preempt my concern that it would simply rehash the original article. Instead, Anderson takes the initial premise and expands it out it a number of interesting directions, not only lateral (i.e. how the Long Tail can be applied to other industries) but also temporal (i.e. the historical evolution of the Long Tail). He also makes an interesting detour into the politics of choice, concluding that consumers do want more choice but they need greater help in navigating that increased choice. The only limitation is the relative scarcity of data, although Anderson makes good use of what figures he has acquired, producing some compelling charts to back up his thesis.

Cogently argued throughout, Anderson succeeds in getting the reader (well, this reader anyway) to think about how the Long Tail might apply to them; not only in their fields of professional expertise but also in their personal consumption habits and in the world around them. How interesting that my local Blockbuster has increased its selection of back-catalogue DVDs (shelved in plastic sleeves rather than bulky boxes) and introduced a three DVDs for seven nights offer...

Perhaps Anderson's biggest achievement with The Long Tail, is in creating such an readible, yet thorough, analysis of some potentially complex economic theory, striking that difficult balance between academic and accessible. Whilst the label on the back reads 'Business and Management', I would argue this book defies easy classification and agree with Rob Glaser's assessment that "anyone who cares about media - indeed, anyone who cares about society and where it's going - must read this book".

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