Has “The Long Tail” been refuted?

Prof. [Anita] Elberse looked at data for online video rentals and song
purchases, and discovered that the patterns by which people shop online
are essentially the same as the ones from offline. Not only do hits and
blockbusters remain every bit as important online, but the evidence
suggests that the Web is actually causing their role to grow, not

Here is the summary article.  Here is the Elberse paper.  Here is Chris Anderson’s response.  Overall I cannot call this one for Elberse.  If you take a genre as given, the web looks less revolutionary but part of the long tail is the creation of new genres.  We have blogs now, for instance, and we didn’t fifteen years ago, even though blog readership is quite concentrated among the top sites.  Or maybe the "Quickflix rental distribution" isn’t so skewed to the left (the least-rented titles aren’t so popular) but where were Quickflix, Netflix, and other such services fifteen years ago? 

Static estimation by deciles and related measures is often misleading since in part the "long tail" effect is to make the top deciles thicker than before, not necessarily to raise the status of the bottom decile relative to the top.  In his response, Chris Anderson nails this point:

The best example of this is in what she describes as a growing
"concentration" of sales around a relatively small number of
blockbuster titles. In the Rhapsody data, she finds, the top 10% of
titles (out of more than a million in that data sample) accounted for
78% of all plays, and the top 1% account for 32% of all plays. That
sounds pretty concentrated around the head, until you reflect, as she
notes, that "one percent of a million is still 10,000–[…]equal to
the entire music inventory of a typical Wal-Mart store."

Nor does showing that most of the sales are in the top of the distribution refute the claim.  Arguably it is the middle tail which is suffering and the long tail, and the best sellers, are growing in import.  That seems compatible with Anderson’s core thesis.  The long tail hypothesis may be oversold but the data in the Elberse piece don’t really dent it.

Elberse wants to define the Long Tail hypothesis as claiming there is
more money to be made in the niches than in the blockbusters; while I believe you might find a quotation to that effect from Chris Anderson the more
general idea is simply how important the niches are
becoming.  Elberse concedes a lot at one point:

It is undeniable that online commerce has significantly broadened
customers’ access to products of all varieties, including the most
obscure. However, my findings suggest that it would be imprudent for
companies to upend traditional practice and focus on the demand for
obscure products.

You could have rewritten that as "The Long Tail hypothesis is basically true, just don’t sell to the Long Tail alone."  On that we should all be able to agree.


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