Living on the Long Tail

One of the interesting concepts I’ve read about is The Long Tail. It’s a phenomonon I’d noticed and had kinda thought about but had never really heard it explained in such an obvious way. The term was coined by Chris Anderson from Wired magazine.

One of the interpretations of the Long Tail basically refers to the notion that if lots of people are able to publish content to a small specialised audience that is so niche and so targeted then the collective sum of all these small publications will start to eat into the audience share of the mainstream media publications.

If you map this phenomenon as a graph of the popularity of various publications versus the number of actual publications, then the graph looks like the diagram here… a chart that has a small number of publications with relatively high levels of popularity on the left, and a large number of publications with low levels of popularity as you move to the left… giving the shape of the “long tail”.

It’s occurred to me lately just how much I’ve been living on this “long tail”. I hardly watch mainstream TV or listen to mainstream radio anymore… I listen to lots more podcasts now than live radio, because I get to listen to what I want to listen to, when I want to listen to it, and don’t have to rely on the mass media who really has no idea about what I’m interested in. Same with blogs… I read blogs regularly and rarely read mainstream newspapers, so I’m really feeling the effect of the long tail. Every minute I spend watching YouTube, listening to podcasts, reading blogs, is one more minute that I’m not giving to the major networks. And as more and more people move away from the mainstream media for the information that interests and entertains them, this notion of the long tail is having a huge influence on the economics of the way we have traditionally consumed media.

Take this snippet from the New York TV website for example…

For years, networks have trembled at the idea of selling individual episodes because it fundamentally undermines the way TV works—or used to work. But after the success of ABC’s bold toe-in-the-pool partnership with iTunes, NBC and CBS last week announced plans to sell their own shows through video-on-demand services for 99 cents an episode. And suddenly it’s not so hard to envision a future (by which I mean two years, not twenty) in which you buy most of your TV shows the way you do, say, magazines – subscribing to some, picking and choosing others. At which point there’s no more need to stick to the half-hour/hour-long model on TV than there is for magazines to publish each issue at precisely 100 or 200 pages.

There are plenty of other implications of the Long Tail. It’s a classic example of the way the web has democratised the world we once knew, changing many of the old rules forever. There are now millions of people sharing their ideas, having a voice, expressing opinions and putting their thoughts “out there” for anyone to pick up on.

The thing that many folk find somewhat hard to understand is that there are people out there who do pick up on this stuff. It seems that no matter how specialised or offbeat your interests are, the web is enabling people with similar interests to get together. It’s creating a whole new breed of media publishers – bloggers, podcasters, videobloggers, Flickr sharers, etc – who can now have a voice, no matter how small, and are still finding an audience that is interested to hear what they have to say. The vast majority of this “publishing” would be totally economically unviable under the old mass media model, but are now totally feasible thanks to the web.

It’s no wonder the big media networks are getting nervous about losing their audience. They ought to be. The long tail is only going to get longer.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Living on the Long Tail by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.