Chris Anderson popularized the idea that internet will fundamentally change the way media works: while the mass media and retail create a small number of big hits, the internet will “flatten” the field in the sense that there will be a large number of smaller hits. There are particular reasons for short-tailed world:
- limited shelf space – smaller choice, the ubiquity of the “popular”
- mass media broadcasts – coverage of the universally (“lowest common denominator”) popular at the expense of the niche interests
The delivery model of internet retail obliterates the shelf space restrictions. The distributed media, such as blogs, can cater to more specific interests. The consequence is that people can find something closer to their needs, but at the same time the amount of investment into those works is smaller.
Ilya Grigorik used the Netflix data (I have written about his analysis already) to examine the shifts in the taste across years on Netflix. He finds that with years from 2000 to 2005, the head has grown bigger, but the tail thinner:
The blockbusters have increased, while the tail has become thinner, especially among the hits. On the first sight, this would appear to indicate that the long-tailed vision is wrong. I disagree: the reasons lie in marketing. There is a distinct difference between early adopters and late adopters. Early adopters are more experimental in their tastes, which is the fundamental reason why they would go bother with novelty services. Moreover, they cannot find their favorite niche movie in the local Blockbuster, driving them towards mail distribution.
As the early adopters spread the word, as Netflix polishes up their service and reduces the cost, more and more of the late adopters join the ranks of Netflix customers, but these late adopters 1) do not have the itch for the rare 2) are not experimental 3) are still largely governed by the mass media. My guess is that the thinning of the tail is temporary.