Dispatches From Blogistan

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the book
Dispatches From Blogistan
by suzanne stefanac
peachpit/new riders
voices that matter series
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> amazon
> barnes & noble
from the book
> table of contents
> chapter 2 history of open discourse
> chapter 6 history of journalism
> 10 blog design tips
> what is this long tail?
> trackback demystified
> blog ethics primer
> glossary
> resource hotlinks


> cory doctorow

> farai chideya

> bruce sterling

> denise caruso

> craig newmark

> jamais cascio

> laura lemay

> christian crumlish

> jon lebkowsky

what is this Long Tail anyway?

05.24.06 @ 02:14:43 pacific

/feed/Dcap.gifiscussions about “long tail” distribution patterns among blogs are popping up everywhere. The concept, sometimes referred to as “power law distribution,” grew out of research in economics and linguistics. The economist Vilfredo Paredo showed that wealth in most populations follows an 80/20 rule in which 20 percent of the population controls 80 percent of the wealth. Similarly, linguist George Zipf showed that word frequency follows a similar Power Law curve with a few words like “the” and “a” occurring with enormous frequency, while instances of other words occur with decreasing frequency. Graphing a Power Law distribution results in an L-shaped curve with the few, high-volume instances forming the “head” of the curve and the many, lower-volume instances trailing off along a “long tail.” (See diagram below, “The Long Tail of Blog Search Results”)

Clay Shirky, a professor of new media at NYU, first applied the concept to blogging in an early 2003 post to the “Network, Economics, and Culture” mailing list. At the time, bloggers were beginning to voice disgruntlement because a few “A-list” blogs consistently dominated any listing of popular blogs. Shirky pointed out that the phenomenon fit Power Law distribution patterns and that the concentration of links and resulting popularity wasn’t a case of ill will or collusion, but rather an consequence of scale. He wrote, “What matters is this: Diversity plus freedom of choice creates inequality, and the greater the diversity, the more extreme the inequality.”

Chris Anderson, Wired magazine’s editor-in-chief, took the concept a step further. First in a magazine article titled “The Long Tail,” and then in a book of the same name and a website (longtail.com), he began by applying Power Law theory to the distribution of cultural artifacts like books and movies. Traditionally, book sales were limited to the number of titles the largest bookstores could fit on their shelves. Similarly, movie rental options were constrained by the shelf space available to brick-and-mortar outlets. This dynamic forced a hit-driven economy that essentially limited distribution to products populating the head of the curve.

The introduction of services like Amazon and Netflix altered the dynamic dramatically. Because they take advantage of centralized warehouses and online ordering, they require no physical outlets and can afford to carry more niche products. The surprising result, as reported by Anderson, is that Amazon now cumulatively sells more niche products along the tail than the more popular books and movies still populating the head of the curve. Sales for any individual item along the tail may be low, but the overall dynamics of the system now justify distribution. “When consumers are offered infinite choice,” Anderson writes, “the true shape of demand is revealed.”



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