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Misunderstanding the long tail

December 1, 2009

The Economist blows it!  (I don’t get to say that very often.) On page 79 of the Nov 28 – Dec 4 2009 issue, there is an article (a world of hits) that misrepresents and misunderstands the ideas behind Anderson’s Long tail and proceeds for 2 more pages to build a story on the misunderstanding.  This is not just useless reporting, writing and thinking, it is damaging and a sad illustration of mathematical and analytic carelessness.

I am sure Anderson and others will jump on the many errors here.  I just posted this rant in the comments section of the online version of the article…feel much better now 🙂


The mistake seems to be not understanding that long tail statistics come from underlying dynamics. In particular, books and movies are small hits before they are big hits. The difference between the long tail and the big hits (possibly call it “tall head”) is how fast a book or movie becomes a hit and how big of a hit it becomes. It is difficult to propose a dynamic in which the bottom and middle of the distribution grow where the big hits don’t get bigger as well. Anderson never proposes such a fundamental shift in underlying dynamics.

There seems to be a complete disconnect between the statistics and the market dynamics producing the statistics in this article.

To say that the long tail ideas predict the demise of the hit is sloppy (or ignorant?). In fact, as technologies that enable access to the long tail become more efficient and capable, there may be an argument that the outcome will be that big hits get bigger. The tall head may grow taller since all tall head items start out with no following at all and grow from long tail-dom–the place where broad cheap access is changing our access most.

Hits will always be big (seems like I wouldn’t need to write a sentence that dumb on purpose!) and big hits will always make big money. The point of the long tail is that there are now opportunities to make significant money on less popular items (e.g. books and movies in the long tail.)


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