Chris Anderson's blog, The Long Tail , is a "public diary on the way to a book" about the economic impact of mass customization.
As the graph shows, the phenomenon is familiar to anyone who blogs, and the challenge is to find a way to profit from it.
Stuff on the left side of the curve has business models. Stuff in the middle is struggling for a business model. Stuff on the right has no business model.
As you can see by looking at the endorsements on the left side of Anderson's blog, the Digirati are reacting like Anderson just discovered fire. And the Long Tail is no less obvious.
What's non-trivial is finding a way to profit from these atomized markets.
Google does it. TiVo does it (sometimes). But must those who profit from the "market of one" all be scaled? What about the creators? And what are the consequences of that?
What we've seen in the market, since the rise of the Internet, is an increasingly-shorter tail. Middle market books don't sell. Independent movies are having more trouble getting produced, not less. Musicians who used to live decent lives on record company contracts find today they can't get a sniff.
We've found the short tail in every new medium pioneered by the Internet. In blogging, for instance, First Mover Advantage has proven very difficult to dislodge. Newcomers to the Technorati Top 100 over the last few months have, on the whole, not been new voices but new collections of voices, new communities. Equity for the individual voice has practically disappeared.
I have commented on this a lot lately regarding magazines. The computer press is dead. If you're not giving your stuff away for "exposure," by and large, you're not working. Readers and advertisers don't seem to notice much difference.
The challenge remains, to keep the long tail from becoming a mere race-to-the-bottom, thereby in fact shortening the tail, reducing the number of people who can make a living producing for the market.
I've proposed a solution. Deep, intimate content on the one hand must be matched by deep, intimate commerce on the other hand. That is, in order for content producers in the Long Tail to profit, they can't be relying on advertising, or even admissions, but on commissions.
The problems of the Long Tail for consumers and producers of content are, in fact, matched on the commercial side. As consumers have moved toward mass customization more-and-more of our dollars are going to a smaller-and-smaller number of Big Box retailers.
We eat our meals in what Anthony Bourdain calls T.G.I. McFunsters. We get our electronics at Best Buy, our hardware from Home Depot, our books from Barnes & Noble, and most everything from Wal-Mart. The people who work in these places need no more brains than a McDonald's cashier. They're not paid well, the benefits are meager, and if it's a stepping-stone to something that something is disappearing fast. Smaller retailers, and smaller producers, who should represent the commercial end of the Long Tail are being systematically destroyed.
The point is that merchants need deeper, more intimate connections with their customers as badly as producers of content need to produce deeper, more intimate commercial connections in order to make a living.
What's happening reminds me of Duchess, a toy fox terrier I had as a kid. She easily won the Shortest Tail contest at the pet show, because it had been chopped off when she was a puppy. (This toy fox terrier is named Winston, and he works as a Therapy Dog.)
I don't know what her tail would have been, had she been able to keep it. But I do know that while the Digirati are all going ga-ga over The Long Tail, that's just what is happening in our commercial lives. Our tails are shortening to nubs.
And without commerce, most content will perish.