The Internet was supposed to have turned us all into niche market consumers instead of the herd-driven bestseller fanatics we've always been. In 2006, Wired editor Chris Anderson published The Long Tail, a book which argued that because commercial sites like Amazon and Netflix weren't constrained by the same brick-and-mortar inventories as Borders and Blockbuster, people who shopped online would do so in less concentrated packs at the "head" of the demand curve; instead they'd spread the wealth around the "tail" end of it. As Anderson wrote, "narrowly-targeted goods and services can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare," or George Romero can compete with Steven Spielberg. Well, now a Harvard Business School professor says the Long Tail theory is bunkum. Even online, we're as bovine and conformist as we've always been offline.
Anita Elberse, who helped Anderson with a portion of the research for his book, writes in Harvard Business Review:
Although no one disputes the lengthening of the tail (clearly more obscure products are being made available for purchase every day), the tail is likely to be extremely flat and populated by titles that are mostly a diversion for consumers whose appetite for true blockbusters continues to grow.
For his part, Anderson's been gracious in responding to the piece. On his Long Tail blog, he writes: "Let me start by saying that the paper looks rock solid and I'm sure her analysis is accurate. But there is a subtle difference in the way we define the Long Tail, especially in the definitions of "head" and "tail", that leads to very different results."
Elberse's focus is on "concentration" of sales, and her data, Anderson says, loses sight of the fact that an online retailer has a stock far exceeding that of an offline retailer. So even if the top 1% of titles gets 32% of all plays on a music site like Rhapsody, that only accounts for about 10,000 titles out of a possible million. But 10,000 titles constitutes the entire inventory of an offline store like Wal-Mart.
A fair counter-criticism, or a likely story? As Lee Gomes of the Wall Street Journal points out, Anderson's got a lot riding on the legitimacy of his theory:
Since appearing two years ago, the book has been something of a sacred text in Silicon Valley. Business plans that foresaw only modest commercial prospects for their products cited the Long Tail to justify themselves, as it had apparently proved that the Web allows a market for items besides super-hits. If you demurred, you were met with a look of pity and contempt, as though you had just admitted to still using a Kaypro.
Which rather puts The Long Tail at the head of the very demand curve Anderson claims is no longer relevant.