LONG TAIL: “The long tail is the large number of occurrences far from the “head” or central part of a distribution of popularities, probabilities or such. In statistics, a probability distribution is said to have a long tail if a larger share of population rests within its tail than would under a normal distribution.” – from the Wikipedia entry for long tail.
I know a man who drives a tow truck. He is a happy man. He makes a decent living and takes pride in his family. But that’s not why he’s happy. He’s happy because he is secure. When he encounters a long or obscure word, he shakes his head and says in a folksy way, “I have no idea what you’re saying.” He will probably live until he’s 100, blissfully enjoying his beer on the porch whilst looking up at the stars.
I know many people who are not like this man. They are very insecure, and when they encounter an impressive word, their first reaction is typically the same as Mr. Tow Truck Driver: “I have no idea what he’s saying!” This is followed by much hand-wringing and fretting they will be found wanting. Of course, the definition of said word will be Googled, and these insecures will then utter, email or memorialize this word as much as possible. By doing this, they: 1. prove they are smart; 2. embarrass others who don’t know what this obscure or misused jargon means. And so the cycle repeats.
And that is how long tail entered the common lexicon. The phrase hadn’t existed long before Chris Anderson wrote his groundbreaking article in Wired magazine explaining how Amazon had changed commerce by enabling retailers to sell less popular items to smaller, niche markets. On a statistical distribution graph, these markets are in the skinny “tail” of the curve, falling off to the left:
Long tail theory became everyone’s favorite buzzword because – I don’t know, it was in Wired or it was the hot thing. Most likely because marketers and retailers figured they had just overheard some secret formula to success (forgetting that Wired has a circulation of more than 800,000 slackjawed lemmings just like them). So everyone jumped on long tail retailing – except everyone didn’t. Yeah, see, it sounds cool and hip, but in the end, big business wants big business. They don’t want to sell a few Tuvan throat singing MP3s when they can sell a gazillion Miley Cyrus CDs. Still, long tail sounds cool, so it’s off to the races. Now we have long tail marketing, long tail SEO, long tail video production, long tail bread bakeries… I’m kidding on that last one (for now).
And we also have headlines like these:
The Long Tail of a Hurricane
The Long Tail of the LIBOR Scandal
Neither of these news stories have anything to do with long tail theory or statistics. Nope. They’re just about the long-lasting fallout of hurricanes and financial malfeasance. Would they have used the words long tail were it not for the Chris Anderson article and the fawning lip-service it spawned? Does a bear short in the exchange?
Now, I close this lengthy article with my typical entreaty to write smarter. But I know most of you reading this are too insecure to not use a juicy, trendy phrase like long tail if you can get away with it. (“We need to facilitate a postmortem on our long tail strategy to stakeholders!”) Fine, don’t listen to me. But the next time you need a tow, just remember the guy hauling your Beemer out of the ditch is a happier person than you.
– Otto E. Mezzo