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The Long Fail: Web 2.0's faith meets the facts

Hope is all you need

"'Head' is the selection available in the largest bricks-and-mortar retailer in the market (that would be Wal-Mart in this case). 'Tail' is everything else." Or, there are more niche products online than in bricks-and-mortar stores - as long as you ignore bricks-and-mortar stores that carry niche items.

But with Will Page's latest numbers even the Modest Tail is looking dodgy. The sales distribution, Tens of millions of retail sales, doesn't fit the iconic power-law curve. So what now?

Faith over reason

Fear not, for True Believers, the Inspirational Tail is at hand! Grubby numbers can never disprove the big picture. Chris Anderson believes there must be some peculiar reason why this particular set of numbers doesn't behave: "I'd need to look at the data to see why it didn't follow the powerlaw shape." And then moves us along quickly to the world of search, where the Long Tail is reassuringly "huge". He approvingly quotes Dustin Woodward: "if you had a monopoly over the top 1,000 search terms across all search engines (which is impossible), you'd still be missing out on 89.4 per cent of all search traffic."

Yet search queries are not a market. By the same logic, the old-fashioned paper-based Yellow Pages would qualify as a long-tail business just because the top 1,000 phone numbers would miss almost all the numbers people look for. And there's nothing new about the Yellow Pages.

As the real world proves frustratingly hit-bound, the Inspirational Tail is heading into the future where it is safe from grubby numbers.

Benoit Felten, an analyst at the Yankee Group, claims that the Long Tail is really about "a potential evolution in content distribution". GigaOm's Matthew Ingram writes that:

"Whatever its flaws, it is still a powerful way of expressing the changes the web has wrought... Whether content producers, distributors and creators want to adapt or not is a different question."

And "media futurist" Gerd Leonhart says that the numbers themselves are irrelevant "because reason usually tries to remove us from our dream, saying that the time is not yet right".

The Long Tail turned out to be attached to a Cheshire cat. It has vanished, leaving nothing but a hopeful smile. But the smile is enough for some. ®

Tom Slee is a computer software professional and author of No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart. His blog at Whimsley includes a page-by-page critical reader's companion to the Long Tail.

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