Sat, Jul 15, 2006 - Page 9 News List

`Wired' editor hails the dawn of an Internet `tribal culture'

As the dominance of blockbusters gives way to the power of niche media, meet the US magazine editor who got to grips with the most important feature of the digital age

By Owen Gibson  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Heads or tails? The editor-in-chief of the Silicon Valley bible Wired, and the man who has written the clearest explanation yet of the shift from the one-size-fits-all, mass-media world to a diverse, complex world of millions of niches, is keeping both options covered.

Fresh from appearing on a very much mass-market radio program, Chris Anderson is also blogging on his progress towards publication of his book, The Long Tail, which expands on a seminal article he wrote in Wired two years ago. "One of the challenges is to blog and do a book tour at the same time. It may involve no sleep," he says.

That essay, which coined the phrase that is now the title of his book, has become required reading for every executive struggling to understand the way the media world is changing from one where the means of production and distribution rested in the control of the few, to one where anyone with a Mac and a broadband connection is a mini media mogul.

The Long Tail is an eloquent exposition of a simple idea, but one that has huge ramifications for our media and culture if followed to its logical conclusions. Essentially it describes the elegant line of the demand curve that shows the "short head," the big hits that have traditionally sustained record companies, Hollywood studios, broadcasters and publishers, petering out into the long tail, the never-ending cornucopia of a million niche products that will all appeal to someone, somewhere.

In music that could mean rare 1960s psychedelia, in film, Russian cinema of the 1930s, in publishing, the anarchic explosion of blogs, or in broadcasting, a video of a duck skateboarding.

Niches

"Broadly, the long tail describes the shift from mass markets to millions of niches, the low sellers that we traditionally haven't had room for on our shelves, screens and channels, but which we now do have room for thanks to the Internet and abundant distribution systems," Anderson says.

When you can offer anything at marginal cost, the collective demand for those niche products approaches or even overtakes the traditional demand for the heavily marketed hits, he demonstrates.

Anderson's first eureka moment occurred when he was talking to the head of Ecast, a service that provides digital jukeboxes with a huge catalogue of songs, who told him that 98 percent of all its 10,000 tracks were bought at least once in a three-month period. With marginal cost of storage and distribution, all those single tracks started to add up.

Before long, he was seeing the long tail in action everywhere -- in the success of Netflix, an online DVD rental service, in the popularity of amateur video aggregators such as YouTube and Digg, and in the success of Amazon, eBay and Google AdWords.

"While we were thinking about the potential of the Internet, we hadn't noticed this dramatic shift in demand. The long tail started in 1994, I suppose, with Amazon. But it wasn't until the rise of iTunes and the iPod that you were able to measure the size of the tail," he says.

Good long-tail businesses have effective filters to help you navigate a broad catalogue of both hits and the most specialist niches, he argues.

MySpace, for example, has succeeded where MP3.com failed because the big bands are on board and because the community aspect turns the former into a voyage of discovery, while the latter was a jumble of unknown bands.

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