ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

The Very, Very, Very Long Tail —

Like a lot of people on the web since 1993, I have a semi-static defunct webpage about myself located on my website. (I think the fact I own the domain COW.NET also indicates how long I’ve been around.)

On the COW.NET page about myself, I welcome people who are browsing, and invite them to “buy the T-shirt”. This was just a throwaway statement, a little joke. Sometime later, I heard about this new company called Cafepress, which takes your images and allows yourself or others to purchase items with those images on them. Since I thought this was pretty funny, I created a “Storefront” with a Jason Scott image.

And then promptly forgot about it.

Almost seven years later, I got mail from Cafepress, saying “You really need to clear up your mailing address and some other account information before we can pay you.” I went and checked, and I guess I was owed money for all those sales! So I filled out the crap and then forgot about it again.

This week, this showed up in my mail:

Drinks on me!

Vaguely avid readers might note that I do my best to avoid fad jargon, those phrases that weblogs like to use to seem hip or at least cynically superior to others by keeping track of whatever twisted refashioning of language is hot this week. I sometimes fail, of course, but I really do my best.

However, I can only imagine that a certain percentage of people would look at my mad sack of cash and say “That’s the Long Tail at work.”

If you’ve not heard the phrase “Long Tail”, therefore, let me summarize it as best I can: A guy from Wired is making a living selling people a fucked-up bell curve. Or, if you prefer, we’ve acquired a new messiah who says, in book, weblog, magazine and audio form, that Given Enough Time, You Will Eventually Sell All Your Stock.

The “long tail” is the slow, steady trickle of people wandering into your virtual (or real) storefront weeks or months or years after you set up shop, and finding that they still want your product. If you make a graph of sales, this drawn-out plateau/line resembles a very long “tail” attached to that sweet, sweet lump of sales at the beginning of the graph.

If reading about it makes no sense, don’t worry; there’s a website, article, book and walrus all explaining the concept in intricate detail. OK, fine, the last link doesn’t give you anything but a walrus.

I mostly ignore this whole fad because it has the same attributes of a lot of classification fads, that is, a lot of obvious statement followed by a branding which is then used by person or persons capitalist-minded to cash in on the resulting rush of interest. This is how downloadable recordings became “podcasts”, adding a comments section became “peer-to-peer collaboration”, and how, way back in 1998, removing the “(y/n)?” from downloads became Push Technology.

Unfortunately, I’m now seeing it leak into an area I care about, namely, moviemaking. Long Tail Wired Dude made this entry about making a “Long Tail Movie”. As far as I can tell, his brilliant idea is to make shitty movies cheaply and make back the meager budgets by never throwing away the stock.

Because what we need are more people whipping out lame, fastly-produced shit and demanding twenty bucks.

The best part about “The Long Tail” as a “movement” is that, like Humpty Dumpty, you can make the word mean whatever you want it to mean. Anything where something takes a long time to run out can be a “long tail”. Any case you have trouble with sales after the initial curious rush of people is really a case of you exploiting the “long tail”. If you sleep with someone a lot and now not quite so much, your not getting some tail is part of the “long tail”.

I’m not saying the concept doesn’t have merit or isn’t in some way true; I’m just saying it’s another case of rebranding being used to grab concepts and then market them into the ground. If you recognize that this isn’t a revolutionary bit of thinking and is what it is, then have a great and fantastic time using the hot new fad jargon.

There, a blog fight. Where’s my posse? I gotta spend this mad Cafepress cash, and I’m all about the Washingtons.

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  1. Sounds to me like a positive rebranding of a negative — kind of like those guys at the high school reunion who were “environmental sculpters” instead of “guys who mow lawns”. “The long tail” sounds like a nicer way of saying, “unsold stock that would cost us more to dispose of than it’s worth.”

    Unlike television and radio ads, the web is, so far, permanent. I do see the guy’s point — stick a website up and your advertising is timeless. I’m not sure it’s the greatest marketing plan of all time, but I get what he’s saying. Mine’s gone in spurts. I sold a bunch of books the first week, then a lull. The review on Slashdot sold me a bunch of books, and then another lull. A recent podcast interview I did sold some books — and yeah, another lull. Instead of a long tail, mine looks like … butt beads. Is that taken? Butt Bead Marketing? Fuck yeah, I’m off to trademark that right now. Expect a book next week.

  2. tyger says:

    I think Cafe Press is just cleaning up their records, we got a check for like $7 😛

  3. Kim Rollins says:

    I read The Long Tail in a state of constant discombobulation because every chapter seemed exactly like the chapter before it. “Wait… didn’t we already establish this? Does someone keep moving my bookmark to the left?” After the first 50 pages the reader’s time would be better spent contemplating the walrus.

  4. Dezro says:

    Wait, that’s the Long Tail? I thought it was just a crappy way of saying that Amazon makes billions because they’ve got such a huge selection – half their sales would be less popular or ultra-niche items. The tail doesn’t make money, the walrus does – in this case, Cafe Press. So you want to be the walrus.


  5. Nick says:

    I haven’t read the book. The interpretation that I’ve developed from reading various e-people is that The Long Tail is a formalization for situations like this:

    You’re a local band, and you sell CDs online. You’re not especially famous, so you don’t make a lot of money, just enough to cover some of your expenses and keep doing what you like doing. You thereby live in the “long tail” of the music industry’s income distribution, where people making big bucks are at the “head” of this distribution.

    Or, to put it another way, say you were making documentaries about relatively obscure subjects..

  6. Lazlo Nibble says:

    Everyone seems to have a different definition of the term, which makes it perfect Wired fodder (fuzzy, amorphous, hard to pin down, therefore easy to pontificate about).

    But I took it to describe the way “instant access to anything” makes niche products and communities viable in a way they wouldn’t have been before. E.g., Amazon makes a lot more money from the hundreds of thousands of CDs outside the Top 100 than they do from the stuff IN the Top 100, whereas in the Olden Days (think “mall record store”/Wal-Mart) if it wasn’t in the Top 100, it didn’t even exist.

    Or how everyone who thought they were a skunk in a human’s body also used to think they were the only one in the world who felt that way.