The Idea Dude


Friday, June 16, 2006

Riding the long tail

I spoke of the long tail a while continues to haunt me wherever I look. Whether it is business, entertainment, sports and now the Internet, there seems to always be an elite few who are disproportionately more successful and richer than the rest. In the late 90s, we lauded the reach of the Internet and how it would level the playing field and remove the middlemen, the term disintermediation was the catch phrase of the day. Yet, if we look at any particular paradigm, we see the long tail. The eBay affiliates that make millions, the top Adsense drivers earning in excess of $100k per month, the bloggers who get 1 million views a day, the MySpace members who have 300,000 friends, so what is the reality? The long tail is here to stay and we all aspire to be the next Robert Scoble, or Tom Cruise or PlentyOfFish.

Is it impossible to beat the long tail? No, but it takes a long time and a lot of hard work. None of the elite came by their success overnight (discount the millionaires that were spawned by the dotcom in the 90...that, like YouTube, is more an anomaly than the norm). The bad news is that most of us will always reside in the long tail and every so often one of us will rise beyond that and climb that steep curve to fame. Yes, there is always the infamous, using grey techniques and black hat approaches that temporarily get there faster. That is a matter of choice.

The epiphany today is that disintermediation is not necessarily a good thing. It leaves the long tail largely helpless and inert. The only way to beat the long tail is through collaboration. Through a network of people with similar interests, we can convert small islands into archipelagos which in turn form federations. That is one of the lessons political history has been able to teach us. If we are weak, we need to find allies to battle a much larger enemy. Open source is a prime example of how collaboration and unselfish contribution can test giants like Microsoft and Oracle. Is one blog with a million readers so much more than 1000 bloggers each with 1000 readers? I would argue diversity is the what helps us mutate and ascend to new levels of technological advancement, not through indoctrination or specialization.

The problem is the long tail demands large scale automation, it thrives on economies of scale. Moreover, we need to convince a lot of people before the flywheel gains momentum and every now and then, one success story will break rank and either inspires or depresses us. We can never eradicate the long tail, it is probably a characteristic of existence as we know it. In the past few months, we have stumbled upon technologies that can be harnessed to help us empower the long tail. Hopefully, future blog entries will prove me right. But to those who know and see what we are doing, it is merely a skin, an examplar, a proof point...the best is yet to come...soon. Perhaps it is apt to take a quote from Dickens...It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done.

If you're a Jim Carey fan, you will remember the classic segment where his character is trying to get a date.

“Not good.”
“You mean, not good like one out of a hundred?”
“I’d say more like one out of a million.”
“So … you’re telling me there’s a chance!”

To all my fellow long tailers, you do have a chance...yes, it may seem like we are either Dumb or Dumber! but hope, like the long tail, is the other characteristic only our species seem to possess in the animal kingdom.


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