Ah, the good old Long Tail. Chris Anderson‘s concept of the Long Tail will be having it’s fourth birthday this fall and, like many four-year-olds, the more time you spend with it the less you like it.
Or at least that’s what Harvard Business School associate professor Anita Elberse seems to conclude. Her story in the Harvard Business Review gained a lot of popularity this week when it was picked up by TechCrunch and even garnered a response from Anderson himself (summary: “your Long Tail is different from my Long Tail”).
What I got most out of Elberse’s article was that social behavior is much more likely to move people up the long tail than down it. Consumers, as general rule, are not wholly independent bodies who gravitate towards the most narrow niche that will accommodate them.
Just look at the success of Facebook or Twitter as media properties. There is no shortage of choice when it comes to either platform but consumers – even highly sophisticated consumers – are driven up the Long Tail due to social reinforcement.
Of course, Anderson is also right about this being a very fluid concept that is as easy to support as it is to dismantle. It could be said that the constantly evolving taxonomies of top tier media are actually making their properties more Long Tail-friendly. You no longer have to enter the New York Times through the front page and increasingly complex aggregators like TechMeme are, in a sense, democratizing a segment of the media and helping to level the playing field for Long Tail publishers.
The more I look at the Long Tail, the less sense it makes as a universal theory but I still find it to be a valuable way to show the importance of low impression media. However, I think the trend worth noting is more likely related to how the peaks are moving into the tail than how the tail can equal or exceed the peak.