So if all movies ever made in all languages are available 24/7 will it really make you a better person, or just give you more stuff to kill time with?
From a business POV, get ready for the endless garage sale.
‘The Long Tail’ Foresees a Marketplace of Pixel-Size Niches
In May 1985 two British mountain climbers set off to become the first people to climb the west face of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. But on the descent, one of the men, Joe Simpson, slipped down an ice cliff on the nearly 21,000-foot mountain, shattering his knee joint on impact; another mishap left him stranded in a crevasse, bereft of food, water and a partner.
Mr. Simpson’s account of his crawl to safety appeared three years later as a book called “Touching the Void.” Well reviewed, it sold only modestly in the United States before suffering the fate of so many books: being pulled from the shelves and relegated into publishing limbo. There it remained for nearly a decade until, as Chris Anderson recounts in “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More,” a new force called Amazon.com intervened.
As another book about a mountain-climbing disaster, “Into Thin Air,” by Jon Krakauer, scaled the best-seller lists, some readers wrote reviews noting the similarities of the two books and urging others to pick up “Touching the Void.” Once they did, Amazon’s software took over, noting the buying patterns and suggesting the same thing.
As more customers took Amazon up on its recommendation, the cycle kept repeating and intensifying, leading to more sales. A docudrama of Mr. Simpson’s ordeal was released in the United States in 2004 to appeal to this rekindled interest, HarperCollins printed a revised paperback, and “Touching the Void” moved on to the best-seller lists.
More than an illustration of the benefits online booksellers and a movie tie-in can provide a book, the “Touching the Void” example demonstrates for Mr. Anderson how a new technology-fueled explosion of choice, guided by human and algorithm-driven filters, is upending the rules that have underpinned the entertainment industries for decades.
“Unlimited selection is revealing truths about what consumers want and how they want to get it in service after service — from DVD’s at the rental-by-mail firm Netflix to songs in the iTunes Music Store and Rhapsody,” he writes. “People are going deep into the catalog, down the long, long list of available titles, far past what’s available at Blockbuster Video and Tower Records. And the more they find, the more they like.” For Mr. Anderson, the editor in chief of Wired, blockbusters will matter less in the 21st century as supply blooms. “Increasingly, the mass market is turning into a mass of niches,” he writes. And that, he says, is a good thing.
Mr. Anderson’s publishers at Hyperion are using their Disney-honed promotional prowess to market “The Long Tail” as “the most important business book since Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘‘Tipping Point,’ ” though it is not quite as felicitously written as that blend of science and sociology. At heart “The Long Tail” is a book about economics and carries the PowerPoint trappings of the genre, with its charts and graphs, lapses into business jargon and easily digested rules for success. And Mr. Anderson’s thesis suffers at times from overextending itself; a chapter near the end, with sections about KitchenAid and Lego, feels like a perfunctory attempt to give a more general-interest veneer to a book about entertainment and the news media.
But like “The Tipping Point,” Mr. Anderson’s book does an excellent job of spotting trends and fitting them into an easily accessible theoretical framework that helps explain the changing culture around us.
“The Long Tail” began life in 2004 as an article for Wired after Mr. Anderson found himself blowing a pop quiz in the offices of a digital jukebox company called Ecast. He had badly underestimated what percentage of the 10,000 albums available on the company’s Internet-connected jukeboxes had a track chosen at least once each quarter. The Ecast chief executive said that the figure was 98 percent. The average Wal-Mart, by contrast, carries 4,500 different CD’s and the top 20 albums account for 90 percent of its music revenue.
Mr. Anderson had hit on something. Remove the limitations of bricks-and-mortar retailers — like scarce shelf space, which leads companies to concentrate on the most popular products — and the infrequent sellers or undistributed merchandise suddenly start to acquire more value.
Mr. Anderson cites figures from Rhapsody for December 2005, when the biggest hits were downloaded in droves, but even as the demand fell off for less popular songs, interest was never completely extinguished. In statistics the resulting demand curve is called a “long-tailed distribution,” because the curve’s tail is much longer in relation to the head, which shows the performance of the best-selling products. Nomenclature notwithstanding, companies like Amazon and Netflix saw an opportunity. “The onesies and twosies were still only selling in small numbers,” Mr. Anderson writes, “but there were so, so many of them that in aggregate they added up to a big business.”
Mr. Anderson is not arguing that blockbusters are slumping toward extinction. “Mass culture will not fall, it will simply get less mass,” he writes. “And niche culture will get less obscure.”
This is not a new thought. The atomization of culture has been going on for years. The creation of hundreds of cable television networks has whittled away the dominance of the broadcast networks. Yet the average household watches more television than ever, keeping the profits in the coffers of the entertainment conglomerates. But as Mr. Andersen persuasively argues, continued advances in technology, and the Internet in particular, are beginning to supersize this phenomenon and frighten media moguls to an unprecedented degree. The rise of YouTube, MySpace and the like give a taste of the power amateurs are beginning to wield in the creation of content, out of the control of the current titans.
These upheavals also concern some cultural commentators, who fret that the cracking of the social glue will lead to to a society in which people gravitate only to sources that reinforce their existing biases.
Mr. Anderson is not one of them. “Although the decline of mainstream cultural institutions may result in some people turning to echo chambers of like-minded views,” he writes, “I suspect that over time the power of human curiosity combined with near-infinite access to information will tend to make most people more open-minded, not less.”