The “long tail” is social

Chris Anderson writes a refreshing rant about the misuse of the Long Tail. But he’s partly wrong.
Anderson writes:

There are many distortions of the term, but the most common one is to use it as a newly-positive synonym for “fringe”. Invoking the Long Tail is not a magic wand to explain away the apparent lack of demand for what you’ve got. The Long Tail is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for poor-selling product. Or weak sectors. Or bad ideas.

Anderson goes on to say that business models that focus only on fringe content are doomed to fail. Effective “long tail business models”, like Amazon, combine popular content with niche content, and use the popular content to draw people in.
Anderson’s right — Indy-only online music services draw much less business than providers like Amazon that can use popular content as a draw. A customer might check out a Britney Spears album, and then use the recommendation engine to traverse to related and much less well-known music.
But Anderson is partly wrong. LiveJournal and Flickr disprove his theory. LiveJournal is an online journal community that has historically had a large population of young people. They congregate in social groups, often starting with people who are friends offline. The software gives users tools to control the level of privacy. A user can define which friends can see private content, what content to share with intimate friends, and what to share with the wider world. Similarly, Flicker is an online photo sharing community, where users can share photos with their friends and the world.
Cultural preferences are social. When people like strange music, unusual fashions, or minority religious practices, they most often do so with a subculture of like-minded folk.
This is hard to see in the mainstream commercial economy because of the history of technology. Until now, mainstream marketing has had two main kinds of choices.
* Mass media is used to reach wide audiences. Coarse-grained targeting is used to reach market segments — viewers of the Cooking Channel, or readers of Parenting Magazine. The audiences for these niches is still quite large, many thousands of people.
* Direct marketing is used to reach individuals. Direct postal mail, telemarketing, and legitimate targeted email is used to reach individuals who are selected by personal history (e.g. bought the product before), or by membership in a targeted demographic group.
Until now, the smaller social networks in which people share culture have been largely private and noncommercial, with a small number of exceptions, like Tupperware parties and Amway.
What’s worse, the content industry has done its best to make sure that social content-sharing is illegal. Rather than seeing opportunities in tools that let people share content, the industry sees all sharing as piracy, and tries to stamp it out.
So, the successful examples of social content-sharing are based on non-commercial content, like LiveJournal and Flickr. There are also grassroots networks of cross-linked music blogs where people review and recommend music. And there are networks of cross-linked knitting blogs where people review and recommend patterns. Classic long-tail stuff.
So, Chris Anderson is right that catalog retailers like Netflix and Amazon need to have hits, which help draw users to the niche. Their recommendation engines serve as an automated proxy for the natural social recommendations that people make every day.
But that’s true only when you start with the content. When you start with groups of people, then opportunities for “long tail” are abundant, and don’t depend quite so much on mainstream content.

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