Social beats ‘The Long Tail’ by more than a short head

October 26th, 2011


I have it on good authority that Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired, recently prepared to present a ‘TV is Dead’ presentation at a major international conference, only to be given a last minute jolt when he was told that many of the assumptions he had made in his speech – such as a major decline in TV ratings and revenues – were completely at odds with the accepted data. From what I understand, he made the speech anyway!

Of course, Chris is well known for his book ‘The Long Tail’, which foresaw a major shift from the mass market towards more personalised, niche content, aided in large part by the distribution economics of the web. It was powerfully argued and, to an extent, true; it is much easier nowadays to access long tail content and I know of several friends d’un certain age who have re-discovered niche interests (music, fashion, hobbies) from their youth and have the internet to thank for their continued ability to indulge them.

Although a shift towards more niche content has been a feature of the past couple of decades, we need to be clear about two things;

1.    The long tail is not a new phenomenon; people have engaged with niche content or experiences for ever. My teenage obsessions included Northern Soul, obscure Subutteo team kits, the works of Charles Bukowski and learning to read Tarot cards; all very long tail and yet also easily accessible, if one was passionate enough.

2.    Although there has been a shift in the economics of manufacture and distribution of long tail product, it has not so far been the revolution that had been predicted. Long tail does not trump the hits in any of the major digital markets I can name, with the possible exception of music (which has always had a sturdy long tail anyways).

I think online has transformed access to the long tail, making it quicker, easier and cheaper, but we’re not necessarily using all of that saved time and money to widen our consumption of other long tail ‘stuff’. My theory is that we only have so much time and resource to indulge our niche interests and personal passions. In fact, our inner, personal lives appear to have only limited influence on the lives we live. This is why I believe sometimes the benefits of personalisation can be over-hyped (especially amongst the media and technology communities).

Meanwhile, there is a counter pressure coming from our outer, social selves which can be far more forceful in influencing our behaviours and use of time and money.

I’ve always been convinced about the power of social in our lives, and Web 2.0 has both turbo-charged it and made it more transparent. I read an excellent article by Mark Earls and Alex Bentley in ADMAP this month, entitled “I’ll have what she’s having”, in which they point out the numerous ways that our families, friends, peers and the people around us (in real life and on screen) shape our decisions, especially the 90-95% of decisions we make implicitly and/or sub-consciously. They point out that very few decisions are taken using cold, rational analysis whereas the people around us can influence us both directly (word of mouth) and indirectly (“I’ll have what she’s having”) in numerous ways.

And, guess what? These influences appear to be moving us back to the hits. We’ve seen it with television over and over; whether it be catch-up TV, Facebook chatter or Twitter trends, it is the big shows that seem to benefit most. We’ve seen it with cinema, where the blockbusters are more dominant than ever before and the room for the niche and independent movies appears to become ever smaller. We’re seeing it with gaming, with the top titles becoming more ‘must have’ when all your friends are playing it online together. Many of our more socially-based activities appear to be consolidating exactly around the big hits that were expected to whither on the vine.

I see no contradiction between a rise in consumption of the long tail together with a corresponding move towards big, shared, socially-driven experiences. Some of the middle ground may suffer, but I think the power of social to shape our lives will help most existing media channels (TV, cinema, radio, magazines, and even newspapers) to survive and carve out their own destinies in the digital future. Their survival will not depend on them covering more and more niche, long tail content, but in providing coverage of the stuff that everybody is talking about. In other words, the hits.

Sometimes we are individuals, sometimes we are social animals (in one sense or another) and most of the time we are both.  It’s not that they are in conflict, but on the whole personal – social dimension within our lives, I would argue social has the most influence, even in our individualistic western societies. That is why it is not long tail vs. big hits; there is room for both, but the power of social is in consolidating our experiences around the big, mass market content that we simply know other people will want to talk about. In fact, as they used to say at Tamla Motown, the hits keep rolling on!


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