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i-Conference 2006:
Chris Anderson and a Long Tail Problem

[8:56 am] Is there "A Problem with the Long Tail"? If you'd like to hear Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail, talk about this problem, the session is available via video streaming. The session starts in a few minutes.

[11:05 am] The wireless connection disappeared for the entire length of Anderson's talk. Photos and commentary will be posted later. I'm now at another session...

[2:20 pm] Photos of the slides below are posted with Anderson's permission. If you'd like to understand the not-so-clear text, come back in a few hours. I'll probably have the commentary up by then. On my way to another session...

Create Your Own!

[10:16 pm] Anderson began with a summary of his book. Things that stuck out? He mentioned that the Church used to be very powerful with a very small catalog—the Bible. And then he highlighted N'Sync's "No Strings Attached" album in 2000, which he said set the record for most number of units sold, and added that it will never be beaten.

But what's a "long tail"? This refers to the part of a graph that people don't usually pay attention to. In monetary terms, the long tail refers to the sales generated from products that only a few people buy. So what's the fuss all about? Well, lately, sales from the long tail add up to quite a lot, even beating sales of heavily-advertised blockbusters.

Examples: online businesses like Rhapsody, Netflix, Amazon, which make more money on the total sales of many slow-selling titles vs here-today, gone-tomorrow blockbusters; and non-traditional media like blogs, where the likes of BoingBoing are beginning to get more hits than the more traditional CBS News. Natural occurrences like earthquakes also have a long tail, i.e., very destructive earthquakes are very few, while lots of smaller, non-destructive earthquakes take place every day.

The problem he identified was rather technical and had to do with power laws vs lognormal distributions. If this weren't so long already and I weren't too tired, I might think of a way to simplify, so I'll just move on to the last part =)

It appears that there are actually two long tails: the one based on appeal (those with broad appeal make the headlines, but there are more of those with narrow appeal limited to niche markets), and the one that involves age (there tends to be a higher demand for newer titles, but the aggregate sales for older titles brings in more money).

Then he talked about rights, which he called the "elephant in the room." He cited the movie Tarnation, which was made for $218, but could not be shown until the rights to the songs used in the movie were cleared—at a cost of $450,000. The point? More could benefit from the long tail, and not just financially, if the process of obtaining copyright clearances were simpler.

I'm probably getting some of this wrong already, so I should probably just encourage you—if you got this far—to just wait for the audio. And maybe reflecting on his closing words will help: "Small is the new big. Many is the new few."

For more information about Chris Anderson and the long tail, check out his blog.

Category: i-Conference 2006

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