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Long Tail comment elsewhere...

  • Might the Long Tail actually reduce choice?
    Nick Carr notes a NYT column that suggests that if all content is "unbundled" and forced to fend for itself, the cultural products subsidized by commercial junk may go away. Carr writes: "It's not a sure thing, in other words, that an a la carte menu will end up giving us the widest possible array of choices. Rather than promoting the creation of a "long tail" of diverse products, unbundling may end up pushing even more economic rewards to the "hits," squeezing out a lot of the good stuff." My take: unless he's referring to the number of mediocre album tracks that piggyback on the singles, I think Carr is overestimating the amount of subsidization that actually takes place.
  • Long Tail software development mailing list
    There's a mailing list for people who want to discuss the Long Tail of software development, something I've talked about here and here.
  • Railroads: the Long Tail of 1869
    Nathanial Talbott, in a long meditation on software that goes from rails (iron variety) to Rails (the programming language), makes an interesting analogy: "The transcontinental railroad was to the real estate of inland America as iTunes is to the music marketplace of today. It enabled people to move away from the “hits” of the coasts to the “long tail” of the interior, and many jumped at the opportunity. The middle of the country exploded with growth, which while far from being painless still allowed many who never could have imagined owning land or being a business owner to do just that."
  • New ideas in indie film financing and distribution
    Scott Kirsner reports at length on a recent meeting of the Institute for International Film Financing. Lots of good ideas, from compressed released windows and video iPod strategies to indie film "house parties." Says Scott: "The event felt especially energetic, since there were so many new ideas about distributing movies and connecting with audiences - and lots of folks eager to hear those ideas. "
  • Another example from the LT of time
    A Boston Globe story on Steve Hines, who finds out-of-copyright books and stories with modern appeal and republishes them. Excerpt: "Hines found a forgotten Louisa May Alcott story titled "Patty's Place" while looking through a 1920 copy of St. Nicholas magazine for children in the Nashville library. He published that story as "The Quiet Little Woman," along with another story he found, "Kate's Choice," and sold about 350,000 copies."
  • Another sign of the ending broadcast era
    Thomas Hawk notes another glitch in the matrix as we move from the broadcast to the on-demand era. The results of reality TV shows are considered "news" and show up in the headlines of the major portals (so too for sports scores). But many who watch via a DVR haven't seen it yet and it ruins the surprise. "I decided that the only way to prevent Yahoo! from spoiling sports and other shows was to never go to their homepage -- hence, no more Yahoo! search for me."
  • Why Hollywood is resisting LT distribution
    A good report from i2 Partners, with solid data and analysis. Summary: "Hollywood believes large-scale broadband video distribution would only destroy proven value, fail to provide alternative value, and alter a business model that is still far from being in decline. With near-total control of the most valuable program libraries and the business models governing their distribution, a shift towards broadband media will come largely on Hollywood’s terms and at an incremental pace."
  • The dark side of the Long Tail
    ZDnet finds a racist website sponsored by Zango, which is adware from 180solutions, whose sites says this: "Although 180solutions has come to realize that third-party distribution can be hard to police, we believe it is possible to properly balance who we do business with while providing monetization methods for the long-tail of web publishers and content developers." As I've said before, the Long Tail is messy and has a large dynamic range of quality. That means bad comes along with the good. Fortunately we've got better and better filters to screen it out.
  • More on the Google loophole
    Tom Elvsin extends my experiment in getting free impressions from Google AdWords and applies it AdSense, text ads running on third-party sites: "The advertisers benefit by repeat display of the name of their products. Google benefits because it does gets paid for the occasional click. The cost is my inventory of space, not Google’s. So every click is gravy to Google and every exposure is value to the advertiser. In effect, Google is GIVING AWAY exposures on my blog so that they can sell a few clicks which they will dutifully pay me for."
  • Good news: the LT isn't overexposed (yet)
    Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Watch talks about the Long Tail of Search in his talks around the country. But he still has to explain it. "When I came to this slide during my presentation in San Jose, I asked the audience how many were familiar with the long tail concept. Practically no one was. Yesterday, the same thing happened with my Chicago audience. Of about 300 people, maybe 10 percent of the hands went up when I asked how many knew about the long tail."
  • Gartner/Harvard report on recommendations and the LT
    A good 12-page report on what sort of recommendation techniques work best to drive demand down the tail. Excerpt: "As the data indicates, recommendation tools can provide important stimuli for increasing the diversity of music, from genres to artists, to which consumers are exposed. Recommendation tools can be a crucial component in driving demand for back catalogs as a source of high-margin revenue for rights holders, as well as toward niche artists and music that they otherwise would." not encounter.
  • "Google Analytics Wags the Long Tail"
    Summary of a Forrester Report (it's $49 to read the whole thing: "On November 13, 2005, Google announced Google Analytics, a free Web analytics service targeted at the long tail of small and medium-size businesses that lack a Web analytics solution. While "free" is a powerful word, the Urchin product on which Google Analytics is built is less than a Web analytics powerhouse. The offering will succeed at the lower end of the market, but won't completely ruin the party for high-end vendors."
  • The economics of downloading video
    Edward Jay Epstein writes in Slate on the economics of shifting movies TV and movies from broadcast and theatrical distribution to downloading: "The real issue for the studios is how they can dig into this potential gold mine without undermining their existing revenue streams. Since the 1980s, the studios have managed their revenue by employing a system of "windows" to release their products to different markets.... With the possibility of costlessly providing millions of downloads to consumers of both their older and new films, the studio heads, including Disney's Robert Iger, are openly discussing radically revamping the window system. "
  • LA Times on the end of the mass moviegoing era
    A fine rant that touches on many of the themes here, particularily on how the new technologies of distribution scatter audiences to the winds. Excerpt: "The era of moviegoing as a mass audience ritual is slowly but inexorably drawing to a close, eroded by many of the same forces that have eviscerated the music industry, decimated network TV and, yes, are clobbering the newspaper business. Put simply, an explosion of new technology — the Internet, DVDs, video games, downloading, cellphones and iPods — now offers more compelling diversion than 90% of the movies in theaters."
  • "Bootstrapping the Long Tail in Peer to Peer"
    Bernardo Huberman and Fang Wu from HP labs have just released a paper describing a way to help P2P networks deal well with niche content. "It is difficult to satisfy the diversity of demand without having to resort to client server architectures and specialized network protocols... We solve this by creating an incentive mechanism that ensures the existence of a diverse set of offerings regardless of content and size. While the system delivers favorite mainstream content, it can also provide files that constitute small niche markets which only in the aggregate can generate large revenues."
  • The second Long Tail IPO
    Paid Content points us to the AIM IPO filing for Opus Media, a London-based online movie company that runs the Indian movie portal The $85 million IPO is being planned for early next year. Says Rafat: " says it has the Internet rights to more than 730 Indian films, though at any one time on its site, I have not seen more than 100 movies." (The first Long Tail IPO filing was the Digital Music Group.)
  • A short head of Internet advertising?
    PR titan Richard Edleman has a great post of media trends and their implications for PR. Two stats in particular caught my eye: "1) Every dollar coming out of print advertising revenue for newspapers is replaced by only 33 cents online. 2) The largest 50 Web companies are attracting 96% of the ad spending on line, according to Pricewaterhouse Coopers, with the majority going to AOL, Google, MSN and Yahoo." That second stat sounds like a very short head indeed, until you realize that half of the ad revenues for Google and its ilk are actually redistributed to thousands of smaller sites, via such affliate models as AdSense. It's actually a quite good long tail example.
  • The folly of zero-sum thinking
    Rich Karlgaard, one of my favorite writers, now has a blog. Here he explains why zero-sum thinking is the "world's worst disease". Excerpt: "Meanwhile, the most energetic, original and positive writing has been migrating to the Web and to blogs. No surprise here. Anybody who creates a blog is: (a) an entrepreneur and thus probably NOT a zero-sum thinker; (b) a producer first and a consumer second. These two attributes alone guarantee that the blogger probably has a more accurate view of the world, and how it really works, than does the zero-sum thinker toiling away at his Mainstream Media position."
  • Netflix KOs Blockbuster in the Long Tail round
    Thomas Hawk quotes Netflix's CFO from their investor presentation: "Historically Blockbuster has reported that about 90% of the movies they rent are new theatrical releases. They do a great job of fulfilling demand, created by the studios who spend $4 billion per year marketing new theatrical releases . . . Now they have a slightly different mix online. A couple of quarters ago they said that about 70% of what they rent online is new releases and about 30% is back catalog. That's not true in our business and it's never been true in our business. The day we came public and in the most recent quarter about 30% of what we rent is new releases and about 70% is back catalog and it's not because we have a different subscriber. It's because we create demand for content and we help you find great movies that you'll really like, we do it algorithmically and we do it with recommendations and ratings."
  • On Google, the link-rich don't necessarily get richer.
    Physicists examine the argument that Google's PageRank is a self-reinforcing hit machine (popular sites get linked to more and become more popular yet) and find it wanting. They ran the data and concluded that because search is incredibly targeted, it can find more obscure pages when they happen to be very relevent to the search term. "Search engines have the effect of counteracting the skewed distribution of links in the Web, directing some traffic toward sites that users would never visit otherwise." Phew. The Long Tail is safe from Google.
  • The new economics of TV
    A good piece on post-broadcast TV from, of all places, New York Magazine. Excerpt: "Let’s say that Joss Whedon, creator of Firefly, wanted to bring the series back to air. (Though “back to air” is a TV phrase now as anachronistically quaint as “switching the dial.”) Let’s say he found a million Firefly fans online—and, trust me, they’re not hiding—who were willing to pay, say, $39.99 each for a sixteen-episode season of Firefly. (Not an unreasonable price, given how many people pay about that amount for full seasons on DVD.) Suddenly, Joss Whedon’s got roughly $40 million to play with—and he doesn’t need a network. Or a time slot. Or advertisers. He can beam the damn shows right to your computer if he wants to."
  • The Long Tail of consulting
    Sightlines explains how the future of services is in making lots of small engagements pay, rather than shooting only for the big ones: "The big companies have mostly finished their ERP and CRM implementations, which is why Oracle has been on a buying binge. The action today is in small and medium sized businesses (SMBs). From a service producers point of view, how can we service SMBs profitably on fairly short engagements with 1 or a few consultants? And from the SMB's point of view, how can they add the IT talent that they don't have in house in the short, small doses when they need it?"
  • Midlist books: worst of times, best of times
    Five years ago, the Authors Guild issued a report about the crisis of the squeezed-out "midlist" book. More recently, things have started to pick up a bit as long tail forces kick in, but it still makes for sobering reading: "The best explanation for the leveling off of midlist book sales in the 1990s is in the rise of the superstores and other large chain booksellers. Chain-store merchandising policies help turn consumers’ attention away from midlist titles and toward an elite of books that are backed by heavy marketing budgets. Independent bookstores hand-sell favorite books to their customers, whereas chain retailers often charge publishers for favorable placement in stores, inclusion in ads, and other support. Publishers’ marketing budgets for midlist titles usually include less than $5,000 to cover the total cost of advertising, book tours and other promotions---but just to get a book put on a table at the front of the store in one of the chains can cost $10,000."
  • The incredible importance of the opening weekend.
    Adan Liepzig has a fascinating piece in the NYT about the disproportionate influence of the opening weekend (which is driven mostly by marketing) on a film's sucess. "In most cases, nearly half of a movie's total audience turns out in the first week of release, which means there has been very little or no word of mouth motivating most of the audience. In other words, many people go to a movie without any real information about it - without even reading a review. Or, put most cynically: Most of the time, there is no relationship between how good a film is, and how many people turn out to see it."
  • Tough economics makes for better indie films
    Edward Jay Epstein chronicle the lopsided hit-driven economics of movie distribution, but finds a silver lining: "Indie films are typically made before they have U.S. distribution and with independent financing. Therefore, the producer does not know when, if ever, the film will be released in theaters. So, unlike studio films, independent films cannot be conceptually geared to a marketing campaign, or used to recruit merchandising tie-ins. Independent producers therefore have only a singular product: the movie itself. To find a distributor, they often have to show their movies at film festival after film festival. At that point, if the film is to succeed, it must create its own audience through reviews, awards, and word of mouth. So, while studio films are rushed through postproduction editing to meet their release schedule, an independent producer must keep re-editing a film, no matter how long it takes, until the film works perfectly. As a result, independent films win much of the glory and awards—and studio films win most of the gold, taking in well over 80 percent of the box-office proceeds."
  • The NYT profiles IndieFlix
    "At a time when audiences are ebbing, piracy is threatening profits and at-home downloading takes gas mileage out of the movie-going equation, a company that helps filmmakers and audiences find each other on the Internet may be as natural a step in the evolution of cinema as portable DVD players or reserved seats. It may also be as close to a no-risk deal as filmmakers are likely to find: all they need provide is proof that the rights to their film have been cleared, and a master to be copied. And unlike traditional or even online distribution deals, the filmmakers retain all the rights."
  • Why Amazon should be scared of Google Print
    My favourite network economics geek, Umair Haque, explains why Google Print is more disruptive than those nice Google people are letting on: "Google Print is a killer example of an edge competence based strategy. Like core competences in the 80s and 90s, edge competences are going to dominate the post-network economy of the 21st century. By making info about books more liquid and plastic, Google atomizes upstream and downstream segments in the value chains. For example, it dilutes Amazon’s market power directly, by massively reducing switching costs – and, in general, the market power of anyone on either side of it’s value chain segment. Value shifts away from the core, and towards the edges."
  • Do authors want control or exposure?
    Tim Wu has a great piece in Slate about Google vs. the Publishers. Excerpt: "Google has become the new ground zero for the "other" culture war. Not the one between Ralph Reed and Timothy Leary, but the war between Silicon Valley and Hollywood; California's cultural civil war. At stake are two different visions of what might best promote authorship in this country. One side trumpets the culture of authorial exposure, the other urges the culture of authorial control. The relevant questions, respectively, are: Do we think the law should help authors maximize their control over their work? Or are authors best served by exposure—making it easier to find their work? Authors and their advocates have long favored maximal control—but we undergoing a sea-change in our understanding of the author's interests in both exposure and control."
  • Keyword search revenues from the Tail
    The AskJeeves blog posts some data. "The majority of revenue in search is still made in popular searches rather than the Tail. In fact, over 70% of search revenue is made on just 30% of the searches. This shows both the stiff competition that exists for popular keywords and the upside that still exists for paid search as that competition spreads to the tail." Given that there are literally tens of thousands of search terms a 70-30 Rule seems quite Long Tail-ey to me.
  • They came from MySpace!
    The Guardian UK on the rise of Internet-famous bands, such as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and these guys: "Three weeks ago, Sheffield's Arctic Monkeys entered the UK charts at number one with their second single, I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor. They had just played their second London gig, before an audience of 3,000. Even by the hyper-speed standards of modern rock and pop, this was a remarkable rise, apparently made possible only because the band had posted their songs on their website and thus built up a vast virtual fanbase before even securing a record deal."
  • Warner and AOL offer Long Tail TV
    Older shows free for the downloading--as long you watch 15-second ads. Seems like a good model. From the WSJ: "In the latest sign that the rules of television are being turned on their head, the two divisions of Time Warner Inc. have formed a partnership to offer "vintage" shows, including "Kotter," "Wonder Woman" and "Kung Fu," free online. The venture is believed to be the first time a major TV studio has made prime-time entertainment programs available over the Internet at no charge."
  • Jakob Nielsen on microstars and fractal tails
    An oldie, but a goodie. Back in 2003, Jakob Nielsen was noticing the importance of microstars and minihits. In this post he observes that a niche site might not rank high in the overall Web popularity stakes, "but within their niche they dominate. A site that ranks as number 100,000 in the overall Web universe would still be the fifth largest within its niche: big enough to throw some weight around. Furthermore, niches have their own niches. Focusing on a highly targeted subtopic can make even a tiny site with a few hundred thousand page views stand out." Excellent point, but while I'm on the subject of Jakob, why is it that this supersmart guy and famed useability expert has one the worst-looking sites on the net? Please, Jakob, it's 2005--redesign!
  • Fragmenting Hollywood
    From a piece (reg req'd) in today's NYT business section on why Warner Brothers Entertainment, which is the best-performing of the studios, is laying off employees and building up a digital arm in anticipation of tougher days ahead: "The business is made much more complex by windows and audiences that are fragmenting," CEO Barry Meyer said. "The story for the next 10 years is how content is going to adapt. You won't find your audience in any one place anymore."
  • Extending the book tail, one page at a time
    Yellowhandman rightly notes that the efforts of Google and Amazon to sell book content by the chapter and even page will likely extend the tail of the demand curve. "Allow people to buy stuff the way they want to, so that you can wring every last cent out of your content, by earning $1 from someone who isn't willing to spend $10 for the entire book. Perhaps someone will shortly suggest a subscription model for online books : sign up for a membership plan and get to read as many books as you want (or a specified monthly quota) on your computer, but without being able to download or print the books. Probably too easily hackable, but much more appealing to me, because it means having a potentially huge number of books available for actual reading on your desktop, without even having to trudge down to the library."
  • A second look at the "first Long Tail IPO"
    I called the Digital Music Group's S1 filing the "first Long Tail IPO" in this post. Now people are looking at it more closely and finding some worrying aspects. At the Kevin Kelleher (disclosure: he writes for Wired, too) notes this: "The executives at DMG still seem to be in the process of choosing a business model. Last year, the company said it planned to beef up hiring so it could sign, promote and market undiscovered artists. In May, it abruptly shifted gears, laying off seven of its 15 workers, and decided to focus on buying the rights of golden oldies. Also in the second quarter, the company took a $75,000 writedown for a non-recoverable advance it made to an unnamed recording artist."
  • Peer production = "punk publishing"
    Piers Fawkes makes the inevitable comparison between today's democratization of the tools of production and yesterday's: "In 1976 punk broke onto the music scene and changed the rules of music. Music was democratized - you didn't even need to be able to sing or know how to play music--you just needed a guitar. Now blogging is having the same impact on publishing. Of course, a lot of rubbish gets produced but some great gems get created too that wouldn't have normally been produced under the old system. This is the era of punk publishing! Look around the blogosphere - can you spot the Sex Pistols? Or the Clash? Can you see a great entrepreneur like the one we got from that era: Richard Branson?"
  • The LT of Wikipedia
    Wikipedia is yet another powerlaw: a small number of contributors account for most of the edits, while a large number have just a few each. But don't confuse edits with entries. The ocassional contributors tend to write most of the zillions of more obscure articles, which is part of what makes Wikipedia unique. Are those articles better or worse than the heavily-edited ones at the head? David Weinberg elicits some useful comments, including this one: "The [obscure articles] edited by a few authors that know about the subject are honestly some of the best in wikipedia I think, as long as they are not about anything controversial. Usually they aren't though, or they would have more editors."
  • Satellite Radio = the LT of classical music
    James DeLong has fallen in love with satellite radio, which is driving his CD demand down Amazon's tail. The news for me: MP3 players don't display classical metadata right. There's an opportunity there... Excerpt: "I am wallowing in composers and works that I had never heard of: Svendsen, Vieuxtemps, Pitfield, Grieg (other than the great Piano Concerto). And Amazon is now awash in CD orders; I would not buy Mozart, usually, since I am sure of hearing lots of that, but lesser-known works of Gerald Finzi? They may never cross my path. (Downloading is not a good option for classical; no player that I know of can handle the information, and I spent several hundred $ to learn this.)"
  • Nintendo's Long Tail strategy?
    If you're interested in the dynamics of the game industry, Lost Garden has an interesting perspective on Nintendo's place in it. Stuck in third place, it has survived with a strategy of gameplay innovation and low-cost economics. Here's a factoid I didn't know: "The Xbox, which focuses on highly mature genres catering to hardcore gamers has production costs of $1.82 million a title. The Gamecube costs half as much at $822,000 a title. The real kicker is that the Nintendo DS only costs $338, 286 a title to develop for, even less than the Gameboy. Some of these costs have to do with the hardware and development kits, but for the most part they are derived from the scope of the projects. Being able to develop successful titles at 1/5th the cost of your competitors is a major boost to your bottom line."
  • Google book search favors the little guy
    Max Kalehoff considers the impact of Google's book scanning project on publishers, and predicts a tectonic power shift (free reg req'd): "A great analogy to describe the potential impact of the long tail in book search is to consider the rapid rise of consumer-created content online--including blogs, message boards, ratings sites and other forms of social media. These platforms are becoming incredibly influential, not just because of their sheer popularity, and compelling content, but because they represent a massively growing share of online content relative to all other--such as corporate, commercial, editorial and government content. These more niche social media tend to place very prominently in search engines, and therefore can achieve otherwise disproportionate exposure. Anyone responsible for the reputation of a big corporate brand is often kept up at night by that fact--the little guy's voice is being heard like never before, loud and clear."
  • Powerlaws as an indicator of website useability
    An interesting application of Zipf's Law to measure how well a website is designed. Slicecast plots the popularity of pages within a site on a log-log scale. Well-designed sites show a graceful powerlaw decline in rank. But in poorly-designed sites page rank drops off much more quickly, as visitors get frustrated and leave.
  • A fourth Long Tail force?
    NextSmallThings suggests a new Long Tail force to go with the three I've described-- 1) Democratizing the tools of production (e.g. the PC) 2) Lowering the transaction costs of consumption (e.g. the Internet) 3) Connecting consumers to drive demand to niches (e.g. Google): "I’d like to suggest that there’s a 4th ascendant force: 4) Increasing opportunities to reuse content/product/service in new and more convenient contexts." My own take: that's part of Force 1.
  • Blog archives as a Long Tail over time
    Raj Kumar Dash has a smart observation on the value of leaving your blog archives open, gradually accumulating search-driven advertising in a Long Tail of readership over time: "If your posts have contextual advertising, just because they don't earn any ad revenue right away does not mean that they will not give you a healthy return over several years. Make regular but relevant references to your older posts to help the long tail phenomenon on its way."
  • The forces democratizing moviemaking
    The makers of an "open source movie about blogs and bloggers" describe the factors that are making Long Tail moviemaking possible: "a) new low-cost hardware and software; b) cost-effective services providing next to unlimited hosting space and bandwidth costs for independent producers. c) new ways, modes and devices to access, store, retrieve and play back video content on personal, home and portable media devices; d) online content clearinghouses, search engines and human ratings and recommendations; e) P2P distribution technologies; f) powerful technology-based innovations slashing marketing and distribution costs."
  • The Purse Blog
    For those who make the mistake of thinking that niches are a cultural subclass, consider the $1,200 handbag and the women who love them: "You don’t need an Oxbridge degree, a million-dollar trust fund or a Nobel Peace Prize to earn the respect of women these days. Just head out to the shops and buy yourself a designer bag. Better yet, make it the It bag of the season." How do you know what the It bag of the season is? By reading the Purse Blog, of course.
  • The Onion as Long Tail ad network
    Kevin Burton notices that the ads in the free copy of The Onion he picked up in SF are not just for local businesses, but hyperlocal ones: "For example, I was at a popular geek hangout iin my neighborhood named Crepes on Cole and noticed that The Onion had an ad for Magnolia (a beer pub). They're just 5 blocks away from where I was having my coffee. Brilliant!" Is The Onion really mass customizing its product, or is this just a coincidence?
  • The virtues of a permanent work-in-progress
    Nellie Lide connects the dots on the air-your-unfinished-laundry phenomena (including this blog): "One notion in particular might help mainstream companies--the meme about `The perpetual beta.' We're so used to not releasing a product, a service, an idea, until it's fully baked. But with the Web 2.0, you have permission to play around with things, to work on them as people are watching, with the help of people."
  • Why a 200-year-old statistics book is racing up the charts on Amazon
    Robin Good tells the story of how the attentions of infographics guru Edward Tufte got a statistics atlas from 1796 republished--and why it's now at 5,000 (and rising) on Amazon. The author of the original book, William Playfair, "made little impression in his native land, and his impact was only slightly greater in England and France. Yet he is responsible for inventions familiar and useful to us all: he was the first to devise and publish all of the common statistical graphs - the pie chart, the bar chart, and the statistical line graph."
  • The Long Tail of programming languages
    Charles Simonyi's (ex Microsoft executive) and his team at Intentional Software collect some data on the Long Tail of programming languages and then consider the implications. "Why is there such a long tail of programming languages in the community? And is there an efficient way to satisfy the obvious need for more niche languages and promote the language innovation that happens in the long tail? The first question is pretty easy to answer. There is a long tail because the more specialized a language is to a domain, the better it fits to solve problems for that domain. These niche languages trade off generality for efficiency in a domain and they are simply better and more efficient tools for that domain. The second question is a bit harder..." Follow the link for more; it's worth it.
  • Jonathan Schwartz on open standards and the LT of citizenry
    Sun Microsystem's president blogs about how open Internet standards can help connect the Long Tail of the population: "Bridging the Digital Divide is all about serving the longest tail - by driving down price, and driving up access and interoperability. What is happening in Massachusetts is the beginning of a global realization that governments have a productive obligation to serve the longest tail - their citizenry. By deploying open, accessible standards - not the technology of a single company."
  • Cover songs and other coattailing as a LT marketing strategy
    Nick Carr notes an emergent Long Tail strategy of coattailing. Obscure bands, for instance, get free marketing by recording cover version of famous songs, which show up in iTunes searchs for the hit. "This sort of practice - let's call it "head-faking" (or maybe "head-phaking" would be hipper) - has broad applications as a sales strategy for long-tail markets. You simply give your product (whether it's a song, a book, a DVD, a software program, or whatever) some tie-in to a hit product. You might, say, incorporate the hit's title into your own product's title. Through the magic of search technology, your product then becomes a barnacle that the hit carries along with it as it cruises through the limelight."
  • Hacking the Long Tail of Google Adwords
    How search engine optimizers (SEOs) automatically create thousands of fake sites designed to rank highly in search on obscure keywords: "Just one of a Search Engine Spammer’s spam sites could have 30,000 pages. This site might receives just one unique visitor on less than 10% of the pages per day. Of those 3,000 visitors if only 2% (60) click on a 10 cent Adsense word, this site would generate $6.00 per day or $180 per month. So does the smart search engine spammer stop at 1 or 5 site? Of course not. A true SEO Black Hat has hundreds (and in many cases thousands) of these sites operating at once. "
  • The "Airport Effect" in book publishing
    An interesting history of how a drive for effeciency in the mid-90s made the book industry as hit-driven ("short head") as Hollywood: "A key result of the shift in distribution patterns was the streamlining of the way retailers ordered books from publishers. Why pick and choose among thousands of titles that might sell only a handful of copies? Wasn’t it better to follow the formula that worked so well at airports, ordering only the top fifteen or twenty bestselling books by branded authors like Nora Roberts, Robert Ludlum, John Grisham and Stephen King? As paperback publishers awoke to the new buying patterns, they were forced to choose between star authors and those whose sales performance fell below a minimum level. At first the triaging was restricted to marginal genres like westerns, but as the last decade of the twentieth century progressed the definition of “marginal” broadened to embrace every category of book that fell below an ever-stricter definition of commerciality."
  • The LT of Internet Traffic
    For those who are really into the nuts and bolts of Long Tailed distributions, an invitation from Art Zaifman: "I'm working on an R&D; project at AT&T; Labs that employs an in-house sampling algorithm that has been proven optimal in its ability to reduce yet retain accuracy of data that follows a heavy/long tailed distribution. We're currently using this algorithm in a product that measures IP (internet protocol) traffic volumes (which happen to follow the LT-distribution) in enormous networks. I'm very interested in applying this technology to other LT-distributions that can potentially benefit (i.e., environments that produce LT-distribution data in large volumes)." You can reach him at zaifman [at]
  • Podcast-friendly music
    IODA, who famously have the "obligatory Long Tail slide" as part of their investor presentation, have released a library of music with pre-cleared rights for podcasts, blogging, Internet radio and the like. From the press release: "In exchange for access to the thousands of PromoTracks available in the system, qualified podcasters and bloggers must comply with a few simple rules designed to raise awareness of the artists and labels and drive sales of their music. PromoTracks must be properly identified and the sites using them in their programming must include links to the artists’ sites as well as “buy” links to at least one digital and one physical retail site for each release. IODA will provide all necessary information and assets via the Promonet site. "
  • The LT Japanese!
    I was delighted to discover that Takashi Oguma has been translating this blog into Japanese (thanks to the Creative Commons license). He has a question about the role of language in the LT: "Japanese has a tradition of being insular--most of us don't have tendency to be passionate to niche foreign culture mostly because of language barrier. I think the language bottleneck is huge to us and thus being a counter force against driving someone to a Long Tail content . For instance, only a few people read your blog while discussing about The Long Tail in Japan. I suspect that we have "translation culture" and thus, even more hit driven for English contents. This applies to mainstream media such as books, films and games. I'd be happy to hear some discussions about bottlenecks of languages towards driving demand down the tail." You can email him at
  • "How RSS thickened my LT"
    Alex Barnett does some analysis on his blog traffic and discovers that the RSS feed flattens the curve. Because the feed "pushes" all the posts to readers, more of them get read. So there's less inequity between the popular and unpopular ones. Also: "at least 80% of the traffic I get to posts after 3 months are via the search engines that match niche content with niche interests - the Filters of the web. The rest of the traffic comes after 3 months, from referrers from other blogs and online resources (articles, guides, lists of useful links on a subject, etc.)"
  • The connections between the LT and Web 2.0
    Joshua Porter explains the connections between the LT and Web 2.0, the umbrella meme of open technologies and empowered consumers: "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 Future of Entertainment
    A huge package in The Holywood Reporter about how technology is changing the entertainment industry. Interviews with a score of luminaries, from George Lucas and James Cameron to Syd Mead and Judith Regan (and Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly, who discusses the LT). Nothing hugely surprising, but worth dipping into to see how the Hollywood establishment views disruptive technologies.
  • "Ambient Findability"
    A new O'Reilly book by Peter Morville, author of the seminal Information Architecture for the Web. It seems relevent to my work on filters and quotes liberally from the LT. No idea what he means by "ambient", however. Chapter one is free for online reading. From the description: "How can you filter streams of complex information to pull out only what you want? Why does it matter how information is structured when Google seems to magically bring up the right answer to your questions? What does it mean to be "findable" in this day and age? This he book defines our current age as a state of unlimited findability. In other words, anyone can find anything at any time. Complete navigability. "
  • Churchill Club speech
    A nice edit of a speech I gave at the Churchill Club a couple months ago. It was my first without Powerpoint, which was a little disorienting--I ended up drawing tails on the wall with my finger. But the feedback was that some people preferred it in words alone, and it certainly makes for a better transcript. Part 1: The origins of Long Tail. Part 2. A book tale: Writing the Long Tail story in public. Part 3. Tyranny of choice? Doesn't exist on the Long Tail. Part 4. Amplified word of mouth on the Long Tail. Part 5. The long reach of the Long Tail.
  • The LT of Linux kernel developers
    Greg Borenstein describes a Long Tail of people, in this case open source programmers: "New communication technologies and the lowered cost of participation they created allowed the Linux movement to effectively harness a large and diverse wealth of programming power that would otherwise have been unavailable to it. Further, the effectiveness of the ad-hoc Linux programming team as a whole was a product of the fact that so many of its members occupied niches. This fact ensured a diversity of talent and interest which meant that the right person would be there to take on each of the "thousand tiny projects" which Morton describes as making up the larger project of building an operating system."
  • A niche of one
    In an post that I missed at the time, Technorati's Kevin Marks argues that even I have been focused too high on the curve. There's lots of room at the very bottom: "A true long tail business is one that copes with the ultimate niches - where there are just one, or even zero customers. You need to be sure that your submission model can cope with these limiting cases and not choke, especially as you do not know a priori which ones are going to garner customers. So, what businesses fit this model? The obvious one is eBay. Omidyar's model of a perfect marketplace is tuned so that it is stable if you don't find a buyer (eBay takes a small listing fee), but works better if you do (eBay takes a percentage). Another example is cafepress. They don't even set a listing fee, working on the assumption that the effort to build a product list is enough of a hurdle, and have prices set so that a production run of one item is cost effective for them (they aggregate sales and pay monthly)."
  • Field Hockey TV
    Quite a few people have noted that sports is a classic LT TV opportunity, with lots more games played (from high school football to professional sports abroad) than there are broadcast channels to carry them to the potential niche viewerships around the world. One example is field hockey, which is big outside the US. Enter FieldHockey.TV: "Since inception, in October 2003, more than 1.5 million viewers have tuned in to FieldHockeyTV. Currently, Spring 2005, between 20- and 30,000 viewers connect weekly to the World’s Global Hockey Channel. During events, such as the Hockey Champions Trophy, our viewing numbers show a dramatic increase to 50-70,000 viewers per week."
  • Long Tail counter-insurgency
    John Robb applies the theory to the US military operations in the Middle East, and (in the earlier post linked from this post) to the insurgents themselves: " The complexity of the threat posed by open source warfare in Iraq has accelerated the US military's use of outsourcing. Traditionally, the long tail has been used to describe the number of support personnel (the tail) required to support combat troops (the tooth). Tooth-to-tail ratios have grown over the years as the complexity and resource intensity of modern combat has increased. In essence, modern warfare requires a loooong tail of support troops. The US military's tooth-to-tail ratio is approximately 1 to 10 (or more)."
  • The LT of drugs
    One the key drivers of the Long Tail is the democratizing of the tools of production. John Hagel here brings that perspective to a Peter Schwartz article on the increasing micro-production of drugs such as meth: "As in other domains, this move towards distributed creation and production is being driven by more affordable and accessible tools of production.... The backwoods meth producer is a direct descendant of the backwoods hootch producer during the Prohibition. We may not like what they are producing, but history has shown they will be quite creative in finding ways to produce it themselves. The MIT fab lab participant, the remix DJ at the local hip nightclub, the extreme sports enthusiast and the backwoods meth producer all share a common passion – producing goods and experiences on their own terms."
  • James Fallows
    Fallows has an interesting column in the the NY Times about the power of that other low-cost P2P distribution network, the US Mail. He focuses mostly on the Netflix example (mentioning Long Tail implications) and then brings in others: "Consider Postal Service fulfillment of transactions made on the Internet. About two million prescriptions a day - roughly one-fifth of the total - are delivered by first-class mail. EBay's vendors list five million new items daily, and those that are sold ship mainly by mail. One Pitney Bowes study found that online retailers were increasingly using paper catalogs sent through the mail to steer people to their sites."
  • Digital Music News
    As I was posting my case for variable pricing in the online music stores, HMV in the UK was preparing to roll out just that in its new online service. From this news report: "Some tracks will dip as low at 39 pence (72 cents), halving iTunes and Virgin price points. As part of the HMV plan, developing artist tracks and deeper catalog will carry the lower price points, while premium songs will carry higher tags. In the end, HMV will buck the uniform pricing approach popularized by iTunes, a result that major labels have been pushing for."
  • PayPal
    Lowering the economic costs of niches is key to the Long Tail, especially for small purchases such as a single track. I mentioned in the post on variable pricing that below $0.49/track the transaction costs of processing the payment can start to get in the way. So the news that PayPal is changing its policies to encourage smaller transaction is good to hear. From the report: "PayPal’s transaction fee is typically volume-based, and ranges from 1.9 to 2.9 percent in addition to a charge of $0.30 per transaction. In the case of [the new model for] micro payments, which PayPal describes as payments of less than $2, the fee is 5 percent plus $0.05 per transaction."
  • TrivialTV
    Extending on my post on a better way to find music, here's a good essay on how to find better TV, offering meaningful filter categories such as: "*by genre (gameshows, sitcoms, dramas, news, talk, animation, self-help, etc.) *by decade ('80s, '90s, etc) *by delivery time (morning, daytime, fringe, primetime, late night) *by delivery outlet (broadcast, cable, syndicated, mobile phone) *by network...and so on."
  • Media Influencer
    Classical music enthusiasts are programming software to play previously unplayable compositions, bringing them to a broader audience. Adriana puts this in LT context: "To me, this shows another crack in the traditional producer-distribution-audience models. It is obvious that scholars and professionals were not the audience. The two Beethoven enthusiasts were first doing what they wanted to enjoy and couldn't find and now they are hoping to reach the mainstream in a way academicians and virtuosos can't. As Doc Searls points out, this is the demand side supplying itself."
  • Steven Johnson
    Steven links to his Discover column, which applies the Long Tail theory to cites with fascinating result: "Urban theorist Jane Jacobs observed many years ago that, paradoxically, huge cities create environments where small niches can flourish. A store selling nothing but buttons most likely won’t be able to find a market in a town of 50,000 people, but in New York City, there’s an entire button-store district. Subcultures thrive in big cities for this reason as well: If you have idiosyncratic tastes, you’re much more likely to find someone who shares those tastes in a city of 9 million people."
  • Warner Music
    "Edgar Bronfman Jr., Warner Music's chairman and CEO, announced a download-only "e-label," in which artists will release music in clusters of three songs every few months rather than a CD every few years....The e-label will permit recording artists to enjoy a "supportive, lower-risk environment" without as much pressure for huge commercial hits, Bronfman said. In addition, artists signed to the e-label will retain copyright and ownership of their master recordings." Note that Universal has also created a digital-only label, called UME.
  • Matt McAlister
    Matt analyzes the incentives of that explain user participation in things like Wikipedia, Amazon review and Netflix rating, and why it's so smart for the services to encourage that: "Netflix makes it harder and harder for a customer to consider leaving the system for a competitor. The more the user sees benefit from participation, the more they give. The more they give, the less likely they are to leave. Even if there was a way to take your data to another service, the system builds loyalty to the brand and the user experience that they’ve spent time and energy learning."
  • New York Times
    More on the woeful economics of the new-release DVD business in a fact-filled piece on Blockbuster and Movie Gallery: "Knowing that it would be difficult to match Wal-Mart and Best Buy's prices on the sale of new DVD's without wreaking havoc on its margins, Blockbuster has instead decided to concentrate on the sales of used videos. Next year, the company plans to make selling and trading used DVDs and its video game operation priorities."
  • Arnold Kling
    A really excellent mapping of the Long Tail to politics. If today's Democrats and Republicans are the Head, everyone unsatisfied by this bipolar choice is the Tail. "The Long Tail is not the political center. It is not a third party waiting to form. It is not a coalition. It is not a "silent majority" of either the right or left. It is simply every variety of political belief, from Greens to Libertarians, that does not fit within the two major parties.... The key point is that the size of the Long Tail, and its rapid growth, represents the most significant political phenomenon of our time. What you will start to notice is the tendency for politics to reflect tension between the Long Tail and the major political parties."
  • Hollywood Reporter
    An important column on the LT forces disrupting TV. Read it all. Excerpt: "In a world in which consumers can increasingly access precisely what they want, on the device and in the location they chose, for the price they want to pay, the ability to use, repackage and market content to meet users' higher customization, personalization and functionality standards gets you a lucrative seat at the big table. But playing that game means changing relationships at every level of the media and entertainment supply and demand food chain -- from content distributors, providers and producers, as well as advertisers and marketers."
  • Jeff Jarvis
    Jeff rightly complains about the nonsense of "A lists". The point is not to be the most popluar blog on the web (about 12,999,999 blogs will lose that test); it's to be well-respected within your niche. Comparing one niche against another is pointless. "In this new world of choice and control at the edges, it’s the niches, and those who can pull them together, who win. Besides, a universal top n00 list is even a bad execution of big-media think. When Ad Age gives you lists of magazine revenue, it separates women’s and entertainment and business publications; in big-media, those pass as niches and they are far more valuable comparisons. When talking about newspapers, you don’t lump in metro papers with town papers with trade papers; it’s a meaningless lump. When somebody can tell me who the queen of the knitting bloggers is, then I’ll listen…. and so will knitting advertisers."
  • Microsoft
    If you can read past the press-release jargon, Microsoft is saying that it sees online distribution as a way to access the Long Tail of videogames: ""By making our titles available through Games-on-Demand services, we can broaden our reach to new audiences and monetize additional release windows," said Ed Ventura....Exent's distribution channels help us to extend the lifecycle of our game catalog"
  • AP (via CNN)
    Another inspirational story of finding your audience in the LT: "One by one, the big houses in New York looked at "Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter and Miracles," but eventually said no, suggesting his theory that signals outside cells control genes was too radical for mainstream readers. "I wasted a whole year with them," Lipton fumed. Then he signed on with an independent press that relies heavily on Inc. Since then, he and his publisher say, more than 42,000 copies have sold in six months."
  • The New Yorker
    Jim Surowiecki on the rise of the DVD as a Long Tail market that favors smaller and independent films: "The new DVD audience is so diverse that companies can target niche markets and still sell millions of disks. Because specialized markets are more predictable, the risk of failure is much lower, and so small-to-mid-budget movies can be very profitable indeed. In the U.S., a big-budget epic like “Troy” may have earned nearly twice as much money at the box office as “Ray” did, but, once DVD sales are included, that ratio drops to just 1.2 to 1. And, once you take into account the difference in production and marketing costs, “Ray,” a far cheaper film to make, starts to look like a truly excellent investment."
  • Technology Review
    Another story on books that were blogged in progress. It begins as a review of John Battelle's "The Search" and then segues into the connection between search and the LT: "Battelle is interested in the application of search to untapped markets, or "long tails". In the context of e-commerce, long tails have three implications. First, via the Internet, products with little demand can, collectively, create a market exceeding that of the few bestsellers. Second, in the same way that it enables a proliferation of markets, the Internet enables a proliferation of vendors. Finally, thanks to search, a shift from mass to niche markets is likely." The author notes that "the blog-powered process that [the two writers] are using may be an effective way to refine ideas and ensure their survival" but warns that it may lead to the ideas feeling a bit stale when they finally emerge in print.
  • PR Squared
    A PR strategy for a LT world: "The PR industry is notoriously bad at “scaling;” it seems each new account creates the need for a new Account Exec. How the heck can we afford to keep tabs (much less influence) a 24x7 conversation with multiple millions of individual consumers? My guess is that we’ll adopt a hybrid approach, in which account teams continue to try to influence “old world” media and “strategic” blogs, as well as those growing numbers of niche-oriented blog aggregator sites. Meanwhile, we’ll develop “contextual strike teams” … The members of this class of “conversationistas” will be culled from across the agency, tasked with participating in ongoing dialogues in blogs, wikis, vlogs, et cetera, ad infinitum, not as PR people so much as “genuinely interested consumers.”
  • Blogarithms
    A thoughtful essay on the future of Public Radio in a LT world: "Radio and TV are going to have to adjust to a new economy: the economy in which the long tail plays a major role. The music industry is painfully making this transformation now. The movie business is fighting the change in classic innovators-dilemma style. TV doesn’t know what to do. Its viewers are leaving in droves, and the three major networks’ reaction so far is to reduce not only the cost but also the quality of programs through the reality-TV and tabloid formulas....Public radio is [in the same bind]. The real problem is coming from the fact that listeners want long-tail time-shifted content. They want to hear programs that are more meaningful to them, and they want to listen at their convenience. The entire broadcast-radio system, with its distribution, simply can’t provide what the customers want. "
  • Seth Godin
    On the appeal of free content, not just for the consumer but also the producer: "Now you have paid online radio and free online radio. Paid online video and free online video. At first, the paid stuff is good and the free stuff is less good. But soon, producers seeking an audience start to make their stuff free. Because when they do, the audience goes up 100x. And then, in order to compete, others do the same thing. Wouldn't you if you had a touring band? Wouldn't you if you had already exhausted your DVD sales and wanted a big enough audience for your sequel?"
  • OnoTech
    The LT of events, beyond the big ones: "What about implicit events, like the opening hours of the local go-kart race track? Is that an event? What about the daily classes at 6pm at Hot Yoga 101 or Fred's Karate Studio? They are scheduled for a certain time, or available any time; they are activities "to do" - the public can walk in and pay a fee - are they events? And then let's look at that 49ers game. Maybe 50,000 people get tickets. Maybe a million watch it on one of several local Bay Area TV stations. So one physical event generates multiple virtual events. 150 local bars have "49ers game Sunday" special events. When one adds all of these up -- and throws in the Meetups, the radio-controlled airplane club meetings, the church services, the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, the extension courses at local universities, the City Council of Sunnyvale public forum for comment on the new library... I consistently get numbers like 50,000 events a week in the Bay Area. Can you say Long Tail?"
  • Searchline
    LT search-engine marketing: "The Long Tail approach to keywords advocates the use of "tail terms" - relatively low volume, low-cost phrases composed of two or more keywords. For example, in a search campaign where the term "sheets" may be too broad and expensive to compete effectively, tail terms such as "linen sheets" and "Egyptian cotton sheets" may yield a better performance. Why? Because tail terms contain more information about the query, and thus are more apt to directly meet the needs of the user. This equals more conversions and better brand stickiness."
  • Barry Ritholtz
    One of the open economics questions of the Long Tail is whether prices should go or down as you down the tail. Obviously it depends on the market and product, but Barry looks at the example of music. "The movie studios, to their credit, use a form of dynamic pricing -- they intelligently recognize that a content item's value is highest when first released, and then subsequently fades. The music labels have mostly avoided this strategy -- but perhaps that's changing. I just noticed this little tidbit on Amazon: a long list of interesting CDs for sale on Amazon for between $6 and $10."
  • P.S.
    For folksonomy junkies, an article about what happens when you display "tag clouds" as powerlaws. "We can study a culture by studying the differences in the power law approximated by the tag clouds used by people of that culture. We could even measure cultural eartquakes by measuring the difference between the tag cloud being generated before and after a certain event." [That seems like a very academic way of looking at a conventional buzz index, but it uses the Long Tail as an example so I can't resist linking to it.]
  • Pandora
    The music recommendation service formerly known as Savage Beast is rolling out a new consumer service that builds custom radio stations built around music similar to the music you like. What fascinating about the service (I visited them a few weeks ago) is that they determine similarity not by what other people listen to but what their small army of musicologists identify as related traits in the music itself. You'll get delightful stuff you never would have thought of. Sign up to the beta and check it out.
  • Willamette Week (Portland)
    A fascinating glimpse into the world of indpendent music labels, of which Portland seems to have many: "The majority of Portland's labels are "mom and pop"-sized businesses, employing up to five people while generating modest cash flow. The exception, of course, is the local swingster-lounge band Pink Martini, whose Heinz Records label has sold 140,000 of Hang on Little Tomato, the band's second self-released album-a staggering number in the world of independents, where cracking five digits for a single release is considered a success."
  • Jeff Jarvis
    Why aren't established companies able to take advantage of Long Tail opportunities quickly? Jeff Jarvis, who until recently was a colleague of mine at Advance/Conde Nast, explains that it's about the fear of hurting cash flow: "It makes them complacent: ‘Look at all the money (still) rolling in.’ It makes them think that if they just tweak this and that — if they can still get away with raising their rates even as their audience and value are shrinking — they will continue to keep milking cash from that old cow. It makes them overly cautious: ‘Nobody hurt Bessie!’"
  • Andrew Kantor
    A good USA Today column on the end of TV channels: "Compare the TV model to music. Music is released. Television is scheduled. That's going to change. Since the mid-1990s, the Internet has shown people a different model: one where you get what you want, when you want it - where the channel model is replaced by the site model. Channels are limited; sites are not."
  • DVDStation
    DVD Station, the kiosk model that's my favorite example of the Long Tail in a traditional retail environment, has released a fascinating powerpoint presentation on their strategy. Lots of data, insight and sharp analysis, including such gems as the fact that the economics of DVDs actually improve the further down the tail you go (because they're cheaper to acquire and customers are happier with them)
    More on the Long Tail of software.'s new strategy is to create a way for Long Tail developers and customers in hypernarrow industry niches to easily connect, with the usual complexity of software shielded by a common, web-based platform. From the article: "At the heart of CEO Marc Benioff's strategy is the idea that companies with deep industry knowledge will have more success creating their own specialized programs than Salesforce could."
  • Bob Frankston
    In an essay titled "DRM chops off the Long Tail", the legendary co-creator of Visicalc launches one of his trademark tirades at Wintel for playing along with Hollywood and building harsh content restrictions into their next operating system: "Microsoft and Intel seem to think it is in their interest to cooperate with this approach and limit the ability of users to find new opportunities. The long tail gets truncated. It's like Cisco helping China control the spread of 'bad ideas'."
  • Bob Lefsetz (via Barry Ritholtz)
    A very grumpy music insider lets loose with a scorching screed in favor of free music: "Get your head out of your ass. This isn't about giving away music, this is about breaking bands. People have to be exposed to the music SOMEHOW! If you don't seed the system, HOW WILL THEY?"
  • Internet Stock Blog
    An analysis of Amazon's Long Tail tactics: "But Amazon has a two-pronged strategy to monetize the emergence of third-party sellers and producers. First, it has acquired two companies (BookSurge and Custom Flicks) to facilitate the direct publishing of books and movies which it can then sell. Second, Amazon is pushing third-party sales via its web site and providing e-commerce tools for large etailers. 975,000 venders now sell on Amazon's site, and 28% of Amazon's sales came from third-party sellers in Q2, up from 24% a year earlier."
  • Technogoggles
    A look at Yahoo as a Long Tail company (which, BTW, they are, from their music and video strategy to basic search): "They want to get people innovating around their products to see what they can themselves produce, to see where the market can go, to get the early developers, the people at the 'edges' doing stuff which could potentially be mainstream - because the people at the edges are are usually those ahead of the crowd. "
  • Nick Gillespie
    Nick, who's written often and insightfully about the "the culture boom" that come with abundant choice, finds upside in the dim current movie climate. "As Hollywood—always a fabulously self-involved place—worries about ticket slumps and slowing DVD sales, those of us who actually enjoy movies—and music, and literature, and art—can relax and enjoy more of what we want when we want it. And we can spend a little time musing on why Russell Crowe is so angry. He may be fabulously well-paid and world famous, but he is a movie star at a time when stars—and content producers in general—have less and less power over their audience."

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September 06, 2007

The Black Wire and the White Wire

IMG_0013[UPDATE: For real-world horror stories of IT vs Web 2.0, see this excellent ComputerWorld article]

On my desk at work I have two ethernet cables. One is black and one is white. The black one is connected to our corporate network. I use that one when I want to print things. I could also use it for Internet access and stuff, but I don't because the corporate network blocks a number of ports, including those used for Skype and Second Life. It's also pretty slow.

The white cable, meanwhile, is a standard consumer-grade DSL connection to the Internet, with nothing blocked at all. Our local IT staff installed it by popular demand, possibly without checking with headquarters (we love our local IT staff!). It's fast. I use it all the time.

These two cables are a handy metaphor for the two worlds of corporate computing: end users and the IT department. The chasm between them has never been greater, in part because the tools available on the wide open web have never been better.

Earlier this year, I described this divide in a controversial post entitled "Who needs a CIO?" Today I returned to the subject, perhaps unwisely, in a speech to, er, CIOs at an Accenture meeting in Boston. I told the story of my two cables not to dis our own central IT department, who are only doing their job of supporting mission-critical applications (Hi guys! please don't block any more ports), but to illustrate that there are really two IT functions in any company these days, and each demands a different approach.

The first is the traditional one of core software functions, from HR to Accounting and file storage and backup. The second is cool web stuff, from blogs to wikis, social networking and, yes, even Second Life, despite my skepticism about its business utility.

I don't think one network approach can suit both. Our PeopleSoft system is crucial to the company's accounting and has transformed our business processes, and I wouldn't want to do anything to put it at risk. Likewise, we need rock-solid data backups, which have saved our skin more than once. So too for other enterprise apps, from our Exchange server to our workflow management. Keeping that stuff running and secure is no joke, and I'd hate to think that it was one of my malformed Twitters that brought it down.

But at the same time we all live online and the distinction between work and life is blurring more every day. Experimenting with the latest Web 2.0 goodies is not only part of being part of the modern age, it's part of our job (we are Wired, after all). I'd hate to think that our PeopleSoft protectionism was stopping us from that.

Hence the need for the second network, which I think of as our sandbox. We can try things out there without fear of endangering our core business functions. 

I spoke to a number of CIOs at the Accenture meeting who were rolling out a similar dual network strategy. Some of them have two physical networks; others create several virtual networks on a single physical one. But all of them understood the need for a sandbox where users could experiment with new software, web services and modes of working without introducing too much risk to the core business.

The technology world inside companies shouldn't be users vs IT, innovation vs. operations. But the main reason that it so often is, that they're so often in direct conflict, is the dependence on shared infrastructure for everything.

Hence my two cables--in a sense, my computing ego and id. Scratch most companies and their employees and you'll find the same. So why not build IT infrastructure that reflects the reality that one size doesn't fit all? To encourage experimentation at the edge while protecting operations in the core, two networks work better than one.


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I work from home my laptop for work is banned from skype, e-bay, messenger, firefox, itunes, google toolbar,, facebook, any web mail or downloads of any kind.

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K12 schools have a three-sided problem. First business security, second student security, the third being freedom to learn which includes Second Life and whatnot.

My own Science and Society oriented course includes plenty of content creation. It is truly unfortunate that we must sneak to participate in online life. Yes, it gives a flavour of excitement but it makes recognition impossible. :-(

Wow, great post. Simple yet powerful point. I think I need to expand on your thoughts and how they apply to my field, banking. Thanks for the insight!

Sorry, I can't agree. Given the rapid move to SaaS models for mission critical enterprise applications, it's only a matter of time before corporate IT departments will no longer be able to justify a two network approach. There are many examples of "cool web stuff" out there in all of what you've defined as the "traditional core software" (just look at and success factors). The resistance in corporate IT departments to SaaS has to do with control and job security concerns, not economics or electronic security concerns.

This approach is completely wrong from a security point of view.

You connect to the internet with the unfiltered cable and get exploited. Then you connect to the internal network and spread the problem inside.

It's like having a laptop user who keeps travelling and use unsafe networks. Letting him connect to the internat network is not a good idea. Check Wikipedia for "DMZ".

Have to agree with Ed about the risk of your laptop being a vector for malware entering the company network.

Completely agree with the frustrations though, and the idea of different network zones for different things - you might want to check out the work being done by the Jericho Forum, an industry grouping looking specifically network de-perimeterisation (ugly word!)

In essence the way to increase flexibility is to stop assuming that any network (including the internal one) can be trusted, and move the trust decisions (and trust-increasing actions) to the end points - for example by hardening the PC.

I'd say this is mostly a response to IT departments that are having trouble explaining their security policies to end-users; or perhaps are being overly restrictive.

A good network security policy doesn't restrict users from the applications they want or need to use, but provides them with ways to use those applications safely.

As has apparently happend in Chris' office; when the security policy becomes too restrictive, or the IT department can't adapt, users or (and even their local IT staff!) will end up working around them. This usually creates an even more insecure situation.

Balancing security and usefulness is hard. In this example, usefulness has been sacrified, and security ends up suffering. I'd be really disappointed if we'd have to concede that the network can't be both useful and secure.

Ed, Julian,

What??! This is a *laptop*, like half the computers in our office. They're all meant to be taken outside the office, to home, hotel rooms, EVDO etc. Of course it's going to be connected to insecure networks. All the firewalls and filters have to be internal, or the risks you describe would kick in the first time it was used on WiFi at Starbucks.

Think of my White Wire as going down to the Starbucks at the corner or connecting on my EVDO connection. From a security perspective there's no difference.

Surely you don't think it's realistic to ban laptops from the workplace, do you?


This week's TechNation interview with Ron Levy, CTO of BEA, provides some of Ron's insights into corporate security. The title is "CTO vs Timezones", but he talked more about security and recognizing that you can't block out new technologies than anything else.


To finish your analysis you need to tell us what percent of the time you use the white plug and what percent the black?

BTW, this dual approach is exactly what the intelligence agencies use. One machine/network for secure internal use, and one for outside browsing. But this dual method drives the analysists crazy, because more of their work is outside and they can't integrate it.


The real message, that IT serves both innovation and operations is a fundamental concept that cannot be stressed too much.

IT Security, as other issues (such as business continuity, disaster recovery, etc.), is certainly an important aspect.
However it is generally part of operation issues (expect if you are an innovative company that deals with security solutions!), so our security guys cannot pretend to address the whole topic just from the side of operation... as without innovation operations are short lived as well...

You know what we also do? Running two operating systems on our laptops... Linux for cool surfing and MS for the operations. But again this is "just" an implementation detail, how you do it. But the key message is what to do and the concept of ICT as backbone for innovation and operation is what matter really.

With "long-tailed" individuals a one sized corporate ICT policy can't obviously fit all....

And I do agree very much with the blurring of the difference between work and private life. If you realized this, you will notice that this adds even more challenges... Chris.. please "stay hungry and stay foolish"... (we all know whose sentence is this, don't we?) :-)



In response to

Yes, I get it's a laptop. The secure way to allow you to use this to connect to public networks is to harden the laptop - i.e. ensure there is up-to-date anti-malware running, install a software firewall with closely-controlled rules and use VPN from the public networks to get back in to your work stuff.

The secure way to use this to access the internet from a public network is to VPN tunnel over the internet back into your corporate systems, then out through your corporate internet connection to the internet. That way you benefit from your full-strength corporate firewalls, email filters etc. etc.

Depending on the value of your corporate information and the importance of what you need to do when you are "out and about", there may be a business case for allowing the laptop firewall to connect directly to the internet in a public location, but that is the start of opening up an attack hole - for example a trojan with a keylogger could sit dormant until it saw you were back on your corporate network and then start capturing internal "secrets"...

The whole thing is a maze, and although you may not believe it I'm one of those CIOs who is committed to opening up the boundaries - doing it securely is not easy...



Hi Chris,
Loved the book, love the blog. What's next in the Long Tail category for you? Is there some other post where you've answered this? When i was a columnist (short stint) for the Wall Street Journal -- i would have been begging to be the one to review your book and get a chance to talk for 15 minutes for quotes. Alas, i don't write for the Journal any more, but i still have a journalist heart and mind.

Kudos on the thoughts and ideas you share. Enjoyed the one on Lomborg and the one on the Iranian man who sent in his photo. I understand the struggle, but like the idea of embracing the individual. A pastor i know once told a great story about Lee Harvey Oswald and if just one person had shown that dejected and ridiculed man compassion and love and kindness, perhaps history could have been different. Over-simplistic, i know, but friendship and kindness go a long way.

Oh, meant to ask -- are you still working on the Fortune 500 Business Blogging Wiki???

What answers do you see for a company that won't even consider a two-network strategy (due to cost, due to desire for IT to retain tight control, etc)? I had to fight for a while to get access to blogs, and only finally gained it after a client asked us to quote pricing for advertising on them.
Same thing with MySpace, etc. Another client chose to go with a MySpace page, which was setup, and then couldn't be managed because I couldn't access it (social networking sites were filtered).
Then, the icing on the cake: the filtering service our company utilizes blocks me from because, according to the filtering service, that is in the 'Adult' category...
Sorry, I guess I had no real point, just wanted to vent some steam (that doesn't make me a troll, does it?)

Yeah just have to have all yourr computer security in place.

Like others stated the two network strategy is a double edged sword. By connecting to an external network and the the corporate network you are essentially bridging the networks and as stated by a few others here are now opening a hole were trojan horses, viruses and other malware can breech the corporate network.

I agree that blocking access to cool web stuff is inconvenient and the IT industry needs to come up with new practices that will safely allow access to these tools for corporate users. Unfortunately social networking sites and other cool web stuff often are the targets of exploits and if ports were left open on a corporate firewall to allow access them they are also opening the organization up to the potential for infection.

The problem really is the methods in which secure computing is conducted. It is intrusive to the end user and not always accurate. There needs to be new methods like another post here stated, such as hardening desktops and laptops and making sure a bullet proof antivirus and malware solution is deployed.

I disagree with Tim above (ironically I have the same first name). It's not about job security and control of turf, for most of us who handle the IT / tech support duties at our companies. A lot of unrestrained, unvetted stuff can cause problems, from major to minor, and can reduce the stability of the environment. Our primary job duty is to ensure that you can get your job done every day, and that things work as you expect, every day; because when they don't you don't get work done, and the company loses money because of it. At the least, they pay you money for non-productive time; at the worst they lose customers and/or big money because of non-working order systems or whatever - when United can't make a reservation, the customer goes to Southwest for example. So, we're not trying to act like The Man and 'hold you down' - we're just trying to make life easy for you (and, admittedly, for us, because we don't love spending all day solving problems for frustrated, sometimes angry, people).

I love the black/white cable metaphor. Unfortunately, in many organizations, the black cable reaches all the way inside the machine. My company has a new free software product, QlipBoard at, that lets you create multimedia email in seconds - great for support, contract reviews, all sorts of useful stuff - and it occasionally gets stuck behind obsolete versions of Flash that can't be upgraded because of IT policy, prohibitions on video attachments, etc.

It's ironic that digital technology, which generates near-infinite tails in the consumer world, is so scary and brittle that larger organizations feel compelled to retreat into a short-tailed shell, protected by black cables.

Good afternoon Chris, respect for your brilliant work. I have a little story for you: I do consultancy work for the Italian Department of economic development. Lack of transparency is just about the main programme killer in development projects, which tend to fail to gather the necessary citizen support. And what do these guys do? They ban wi-fi, they firewall their system to half coma, they centralize absolutely everything so that you need to access the CIO just to create an email address. The result: people work from hotels, and if you need a project blog you just buy hosting from a commercial ISP, install Wordpress and outsource it to a 20-year-old. What's there to protect so jealously, I wonder. Economic stats are the taxpayer's anyway.

In a world where crowdsourcing and collaboration simply outperform closed groups in most fields, I suspect that classified data will simply get left behind, as people do all sort of cool stuff with the data that are pooled for everyone to play with. Have you tried plotting a chart of your time allocation between the two cables? In two years you might just be using the white one! If it's not dowloadable, it does not exist.

Hi, Chris,
I met your father recently at the Zoe Conference. I have a 22-year background in journalism, although not as extensive as your background. Just thought I'd check out your blog and see what kind of journalism you focused on -- business, one I've never done much work on. --Sherry Kughn

The problem with your setup, much like other setups, is the security risk of doing so. Malicious software could come in from the sandbox, which is then risking the business side.

Just a thought.

We have an awful receptionist who stops the general public getting into our internal offices. It's a real nuisance. She has all sorts of outmoded ideas, like people needing to have appointments, asking for ID, just crazy.

I opened the firedoor, and let anybody in through that way. Competitors, customers, whoever. I don't know who they are, to be honest, I never ask. Half the time, I'm not even looking. They get to have a wander around our building if they want, though. It's much more modern and sociable.

Admittedly, Homeless Joe isn't quite the best at personal hygeine, and we might catch the occasional virus off him, but it'd be rude to ask him not to come in. We've got healthcare, so the company takes care of keeping viruses away, which means that we don't have to worry about it.

The CIO still has a problem with homeless Joe wandering around the Accounts department, job applicants swapping files around in HR, or our competitors listening in on boardroom meetings. They really need to get with it, this is the 21st century, we're sharing and collaborating. SecondLife is more important than "security"! If the Legal team don't want strangers wandering around their desks, they could always put up a sign, or something.

Does that sound alright, Chris? Hold on, it's barking mad, isn't it. It's a cracker's dream to find a computer connected to a modem and the internal network; you're kind enough to supply them with DSL! Fantastic. Security barriers are needed to protect the business. And they are best set up by security professionals, based on technical design, not by non-technical staff deciding that the company's security is too inconvenient, and should be discarded for his personal convenience.

If what you claim to have set up is true, I'd suggest that you delete this blog post ASAP before your boss finds out about it. It would be grounds for dismissal at just about any firm. Unfortunately for you, Google have already cached your confession.


Very amusing comment. You think it's madness to allow computers to be connected to two networks, which I assume means that you think that everyone who works for a company should be required to use a VPN anytime they're away from the office, be it at home, a hotel or Starbucks (not just to access the company network, but for all Internet access). I do in fact know people who work for companies that have such a requirement, despite the effect it has on performance and flexibility. They're miserable.

The truth is that IT needs to become more flexible to accomodate the increasingly unpredictable and diverse places and ways that we work--not the reverse. If you're the kind of IT guy who wants all employees to make your job easier by only using computers the way you want them to, you're part of exactly the problem I'm talking about.

My sympathies for those who have to live under your rules.


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