Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Long Tail and Emily Dickinson

Librarians (and all information professionals) need to understand what the Long Tail is in order to fully comprehend the impact of Web 2.0 and the manner in which communication and publishing have changed. The Long Tail was first coined by Chris Anderson in Wired in 2004 which proposed that Amazon and similar Internet companies had changed certain business and economic models. While there are cultural, political, social, and business implications, I think using an analogy might be more appropriate for fleshing out these ideas.

Think of Emily Dickinson. Although she had lived during the 19th century, it wasn't until a century later that her works were "re-discovered," and appreciated by readers. True, the shift from the Victorian to Modernist had helped, but one can imagine what would've happened if Dickinson's ingenuity occurred during our times. According to the Long Tail, things would've been different. Her works wouldn't be hidden in her drawers, but perhaps would be published online or print-on-demand. With services such as Amazon and Netflix, the playing field has been leveled. (Think Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat).

Because physical geography and scale are no longer important, artists no longer need sales to occupy spaces on bookshelves and video stores. Even the most obscure of artists can have their work published online (be it on Youtube,, or Blogger). In many ways, the "steroids" of wireleness, as Friedman had put it, has merely intensified Dickinson's rise to fame in a matter of months (or days), up from from years and decades. This is the power - or perhaps - inevitability of Web 2.0.

For libraries to move into the "next" level, they must consider how to integrate Web 2.0 concepts such as the Long Tail into their operations. It's not difficult; in fact, it's likely inexpensive and likely not very time-consuming at all. It requires only creativity and an open mind. Here is what Anderson proposes for maximizing the power of the Long Tail:

(1) Make Everything Available - Unlike bookstores, which shelves books based on sales figures, Web 2.0 services make everything available. Without the need to worry about physical space, all you need is a database or catalogue, and some marketing, and voila, you let the patron decide for himself what title(s) he wants. It doesn't matter if it the item gets used only once, what matters is that it's there at all.

(2) Cut the Prices in Half. Now Lower It - When you lower the price, consumers tend to buy more. If lots consumers buy bits and pieces of something, that adds up and in the end, everyone is a winner. (Think iTunes).

(3) Help Me Find It - You can't select what you can't find. Amazon is one service that cleverly employs its users' recommendations, social tagging, and uses encourages an element of social networking for patrons to browse its huge selection of merchandise. It must be the smartest marketing ploy since Coke's secret formula. If libraries can maximize on such creativity, the sky's really the limit. Especially since gate counts are decreasing...

No comments: