From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

November 24, 2016*: The tailless wooly internet behemoth.

Way back in the almost ancient history of the web, in 2004 to be precise, Wired magazine published Chris Anderson’s now classic article The Long Tail. Two years later his book, an expansion of that original article, was published with the subtitle "Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More". As that subtitle suggests, Anderson's focus was clearly on business and selling, but the concept of that Long Tail went considerably beyond the world of marketing. It hinted at an idea which at least at the time was central to the ethos of the web – with shelf space no longer a limiting factor, almost any idea, no matter how outside the mainstream or fringe, could have its day in the sun, or could at least find a bit of a market somewhere in the vast expanses of cyberspace, and perhaps with a bit of luck even become, at least fleetingly, popular.

Some of us, probably belonging to a category of web dinosaurs who for some reason saw the asteroid colliding with us but didn’t realize that it was making us extinct, adopted that Long Tail ethos as a defining factor of our web presence. I readily admit that the pride I take in having my proverbial eight readers is an attempt to milk it - probably for much more than it’s really worth. But it seems that the Long Tail has become passé, and's brick and mortar stores would seem to be (pardon the mixed metaphor) the culminating nail in the-internet-as-we-knew-its coffin.

This month, in Technology Review, Nicholas Carr wrote about his visit to the Amazon store and of the store experience. The article is interesting, and makes a number of significant points, but to me what was most interesting was the conspicuous absence of any reference to the Long Tail. In Carr's description any reminder of less than highly popular books, or those sure to make a good sale, are clearly missing from the store:

All the books are displayed with their covers facing outward, a visual echo of the thumbnail images that crowd the Web store. Beneath each volume is a small placard that displays the book’s Amazon star rating—only books that have earned at least four stars from Web buyers are stocked—and that also includes a brief excerpt from a customer review.
The main drawback to access that the digital Long Tail promised to overcome was the limitation of physical space. Well before the Kindle book reader and the massive emergence of digital books, the overcoming of this limitation was what made Amazon so attractive to many of us. As much as we loved our community book stores, we knew that they couldn’t possibly hold all the great books someone had suggested we get ahold of. If these stores had even an outside chance of turning a profit (a totally legitimate desire) they had to fill at least part of their shelf space with the bestsellers that might not fit their self-image, but at least brought in additional clientele. But digital "space" was different. All you needed was a link. With a bit of luck someone who found that link and appreciated what he or she got to then created another link, and in not too much time your product was eminently findable, and on the road to being semi-widely appreciated. Indie rock bands were able to record and distribute their music outside of the established music business. Maybe only one or two might become stars, but many others at least received at least a bit of recognition which was certainly better than being totally invisible.

By definition Amazon’s physical bookstore can't offer us much in the way of Long Tail titles. The reality of brick and mortar spaces precludes that. But it appears that Amazon isn’t even trying to offer those titles. It seems indifferent to the possibility of doing so. Perhaps it may even be actively attempting to do the opposite. When it stocks only four star and above rated books the sleeper titles that someone just might discover while browsing the shelves not only don’t stand a chance – they’re totally out of the running. If at one point in its history Amazon represented the possibility of an enough-room-for-all internet, its physical store conclusively shows us that inclusion isn't necessary for making a profit. And that seems to have become the true, and perhaps only, reason for the internet. After a generation of lip-service to inclusiveness the Long Tail can comfortably be left behind as unnecessary baggage while business continues to thrive.

The dominant interpretation of the Long Tail as a web phenomenon relates to it primarily through the lens of the advantages of digital "space" over physical space. But actually it's a substantially more all-encompassing metaphor. From a slightly wider perspective it can help us focus on a number of other early promises the web made, and on the ways in which today's web has distanced itself from what seemed like the promise of that early web. The same basic idea, for instance, can explain why twenty years ago the web witnessed a flowering of voices while today it's almost fully dominated by only a few of these. And to a certain extent this was to be expected since at its essence the Long Tail is basically an expression of the Power Law. And while there are probably numerous sociological explanations both for why the Long Tail loses out and why eyeballs tend to concentrate on only a few web sites, original source notwithstanding, Billie Holiday's classic statement seems to explain things simply and succinctly.

Even if cyberspace allows us to overcome the problem of shelf space, there's still the issue of attention, and how we distribute the limited amount we have. Once someone/something succeeds in establishing itself in a prominent position, getting it off the top spot becomes exceedingly difficult. And again, the overcoming of this limitation was part of the promise of the Long Tail. Network television offered us very limited choice, and in comparison YouTube was the wild west where almost anything was possible. But experience seems to show that that promise is long gone. Where it once was new and unexplored territory, a place where pioneers were able to establish almost any sort of homestead, today the internet and digitality have fallen into the hands of the villains of just about every western - those easterners, or established land owners, intent on grabbing as much land as they can and making it into a copy of what they had back east. When a short commercial on a network television station invites viewers to click into YouTube to watch the entire commercial, clearly not only as something changed, but something has been lost. Someone apparently thinks that this is what the internet is for. Of course among other things the web has always been a platform for advertising. But in the past we complained about how difficult it was to avoid those ads (or grudgingly accepted them because we understood that they were a part of "free") and continued on with whatever we were doing. Today it's still possible to avert our eyes and focus them on the "content" rather than on the ads, but doing this is becoming more and more difficult. With "sponsored content" instead of the intrusive banner ads we'd become accustomed to we're hardly aware that the "content" we're reading is actually an advertisement. Finding untainted content is almost a chore, and as those ads dominate more and more of the pages we view, content that once might have been easily accessible gets pushed to the end of the Long Tail. As this process continues we find ourselves missing the days of the relatively benign 80-20 ratio. At least it offered some hope for non-mainstream content. It seems that today the internet no longer needs a tail.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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