Tails Have It


Another commentary on the Long Tail (Or Not) question.

I hesitate to argue with anyone who so insouciantly tosses around concepts like McPhee's theory of exposure, but I did feel that the critique overthinks things and misses at least part of the point, namely, that the Long Tail is not about making hits out of obscurities, but rather about making obscurities available to consumers in ways that add up to real money for the distributor.

For example, last night my wife wanted to go out to a movie, and so we saw Hancock. Why Hancock? Supply was constrained by physical space and time (the screening of Mongol was too late for us), and Hancock looked like the least-bad option at the local multiplex (it was sufficiently diverting for a summer night, if a bit thin).

Now, sometimes my wife likes to watch movies at home, and she often chooses foreign films with subtitles and (to my taste, and that of the hit-movie audience) a woeful dearth of explosions. No amount of positive feedback from Netflix customers is going to turn a sensitive Farsi-language coming-of-age-in-Tehran movie into a mainstream smash, but if enough smart women stay home to order the little movies of their choosing each week, then Netflix will make a lot of money.

Another example. Last week I introduced my son to Goodfellas, which we got at Blockbuster. No matter how many times his friends rent it at Blockbuster on his recommendation, it's not coming back to the multiplex. Next, I want my son to see some more obscure gangster flicks that aren't stocked at Blockbuster; we'll find them online. No matter how much he raves about them, there won't be room for them at the video store, but the cumulative market for all those obscure movies that now can be distributed at very low cost adds up to a real business.

The Long Tail doesn't argue that hits will go away, or that obscurities will become hits. It's not a zero sum game, it's about aggregating small demand for a lot of different things in a cost-effective way.