The “long tail” is digerati shorthand for the the increasing profitability of companies’ backlists–the formerly neglected niche products that used to be kept in stock just in case one of them suddenly turned into a breakout hit, or because they were simply necessary to have a fully-stocked store. Now, thanks to easy searchability, it’s easier than ever for customers to find these products, and some of them are becoming much more profitable than ever before. Think books, music, blogs … in each case, the traffic/sales going to niche products overwhelms (or will soon overwhelm) that going to the “hits.”
The “long tail” implies that the Internet is ushering in an age when micro-niches will dominate, at the expense of mass-culture monoliths. Sure, the Net makes it easier for us all to find the bizarre fetishes and tiny cliques that we are longing for. But one thing has always bugged me about this theory: How do you make a business out of that, unless you’re a big aggregator?
John Cassidy put it very well in a recent New Yorker article, pointing out that Amazon, Google, and eBay — all big companies — pop up again and again in discussions of the subject:
Has the New Economy really moved past the familiar “winner take all” dynamic? That depends on whether you’re looking at the long tail—or at who’s wagging it.
In other words, sure, there’s a huge proliferation of blogs on every imaginable subject under the sun. Most of those bloggers, if they’re making anything at all, are making about $2.93 a month for their efforts. Chump change. The only way to make that into a business is to aggregate a million of these bloggers and take 50% of their revenues. But who can manage that trick? Hello, big companies: AOL (Weblogs, Inc.), Yahoo (Yahoo Groups), and Google (Blogger).
Suddenly the brand-new blogosphere is looking a lot more like old Big Media.