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The romantic appeal of the "long tail hypothesis"

Tom Slee, the author of No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart (highly recommended), complains about The Long Tail in this post, noting all the effort wasted in debunking an idea that was, in his opinion, never much more than a hypothesis.

Face it. Chris Anderson now has people at Harvard Business School of all places spending their valuable time following up his idle speculations. He comes up with a half-baked idea, has basically no data to support it, and yet here are academics - smart people, with tenure, real jobs and things to do - actually spending their time following up these idle daydreams; acting as his research assistants. What a waste.

Slee links to this Harvard Business Review essay by Anita Elberse that examines Anderson's notions and finds that serving the long tail won't make much money for any businesses, and that the economics of superstars still reigns supreme. No one is going to start a winning business selling obscure goods to the handful of people who are interested in them. More likely, I would think, those interested people will find a way get the obscure goods free from one another, if they are digitally distributable -- especially since difficulties in securing rights clearances can inhibit many of these goods' distribution for sale.

But despite the data, it's hard for me to give up on the long-tail idea. It has a certain romantic appeal, as Elberse notes:

How much enjoyment is derived from obscure versus blockbuster products? We can all easily imagine the extreme delight that comes from discovering a rare gem, perfectly tailored to our interests and ours to bestow on likeminded friends. This is perhaps the most romanticized aspect of long-tail thinking. Many of us have experienced just such moments; they are what give Chris Anderson’s claims such resonance. The problem is that for every industrial designer who blissfully stumbles across the films of Charles and Ray Eames, untold numbers of families are subjecting themselves to the likes of Sherlock: Undercover Dog. Ratings posted by Quickflix customers show that obscure titles, on average, are appreciated less than popular titles.

It may be that we're allured by the notion that deeply individual tastes will be nurtured by the entertainment economy of the future, that the dream of having perfectly idiosyncratic taste will be fulfilled for everyone. And there will be a perfect marketing plan individually tailored for us all that will be so suited to us that it won't even seem like advertising. It will just seem like our wants being anticipated, the desired goods brought to us right on time. Such is the fantasy of individualism for its own sake, in the field of consumerism. With our identity riding on what we consume, we come to believe that there's something valuable about having unique tastes, but we don't actually pursue such a course in practice. When it comes to pop culture, for better or worse, its popularity alone is part of what makes it enjoyable, consumable. When the obscure good is consumed, it is usually an equally shallow effort to enjoy obscurity for its own sake, to use it as a badge, rather than because there is something compelling about the obscure thing itself. (This explains probably 75 percent of my record collection. That Terry Knight and the Pack record is not something I enjoy for the music.) Most of the time, what we want to consume in pop culture is the potentiality of participation in a public sphere that consists to a large degree in recognizing the same set of entertainment touchstones.

The niche products that retailers can stock (but rarely sell) may have nothing but an alibi function -- they make us feel bnetter about consuming mainstream junk because we also know that we could buy something weird and idiosyncratic. As Elberse notes, "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." Consuming niche goods every once and a while serves as a palate cleanser for the popular stuff we have truly integrated into our social lives. A Godard of Fassbinder film now and then licenses a lot of Indiana Jones and Lost episodes.

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