The Long Tail and Web 2.0

Ever since his excellent Long Tail article was published in Wired last November, I’ve been following Chris Anderson’s writing over at the Long Tail blog. It’s becoming an invaluable resource for understanding today’s economics. The Long Tail is about focusing on the less popular content that previously couldn’t be accessed because of some physical limitation: […]

Ever since his excellent Long Tail article was published in Wired last November, I’ve been following Chris Anderson’s writing over at the Long Tail blog. It’s becoming an invaluable resource for understanding today’s economics.

The Long Tail is about focusing on the less popular content that previously couldn’t be accessed because of some physical limitation: most often shelf space. The classic examples that Anderson uses are music and books. Book and CD stores can only hold so many albums and books, so the constraint of shelf space hinders their ability to provide an exhaustive selection.

Online, there is no physical constraint like shelf space, so amazon.com can offer a much wider selection than can a physical Barnes & Noble store. Anderson points out: “The average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles. Yet more than half of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles.”

Similarly, Web 2.0 is about enabling access to previously unavailable digital content. The constraint involved is political or psychological, or something akin to that.

The way that Web 2.0 enables access is by the creation of APIs on top of databases that were previously siloed for private use only. In other words, companies and organizations have databases in which they keep information. By default, that information is for their use only, as it resides on their network and their computers and they have firewalls protecting it. Some however, put valuable information on a web server and offer it up via a web site, but they only offer their interface for accessing it. However, by putting it on a web server and creating an API so that others can access it, the potential uses of the data, and its value, increase tremendously.

In most cases, Web 2.0 APIs will provide access to all content on one type. So, if a company provides access to mp3 music files, you’ll probably be able to access all of the music (even the disco genre). This is because physical storage is cheap as dirt: hard drives cost nothing nowadays.

I see lots of similarities between the Long Tail and Web 2.0. Both ideas are about improved access to previously unavailable content, both are about showing the whole catalog, and both are ultimately great at enabling user choice. They seem to overlap a lot. If I had to make a marked distinction between them I would say that Web 2.0 is about the access to information while the Long Tail is about the economics of it all.

The end result is that we now have unprecendented access to tons of great content. Drink deep.

Published: September 2nd, 2005

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