My first acquaintance with the long tail wasn’t from economic sources, at least, not directly. I learned about the Long Tail years ago during a period of shutdown for an MMORPG I played. The notion at the time was that the long tail represented the way the hardest core of players would stick around the longest, and therefore, individually, be as profitable as possible. The long tail, we understood it, were the 10% of players who persisted for 90% of the game’s lifespan. Push it further, they were the 1% who were around for 99%. The long tail was the spine of a game, facilitating and supporting it. In MMOs, this is particularly crucial because gamers, the players are actually a form of value to the game. With a single-player game, other players are unrelated to your experience, but in a massive multiplayer game, especially one with interconnected systems like crafting, trading, and team content, players represent actual content. Players are stuff that other players interact with. It’s a clear example of value obtained through aggregated attention: Enough people paying attention to a game world at one time create a value.
Hell, the strangest things about online spaces is the extreme value of attention as a currency. In previous models of television broadcasting, the viewer is a product, sold to an advertiser; but in the online model, while your attention is still the thing that pays for the content, you have much more freedom over how and where you offer it. Especially with adblocking services, but just with how people browse and consume content, the attention is less being harvested and more being used as payment. I am fond of telling people your attention is a currency – you can monetise it surprisingly easily, if at a very low rate of return.
The thing I find most fascinating about the long tail is that the model works best through niches. If a thing is very popular, that pushes it further up the curve, towards the middle of the curve; there, there’s more likelihood that more conventional groups or people will supply it, and therefore, there’s less chance a low-overhead, patient supplier can capitalise on it for its audience.
What this encourages is contrary to something that’s been on my mind a lot lately. Modern media landscapes are dominated by events. In videogame franchises, there’s always a new iteration of a major franchise every month or two (Call of Duty is one favourite market-shaker, as is Madden). Television audiences heavily interconnect through Game of Thrones, Doctor Who and Walking Dead and their ilk. Movies still use the blockbuster model all over – and in recent years, these media juggernauts have been pushing harder and harder for a lot of space in our online discourse. There’s fanagement, where businesses proactively seek to manipulate and engage fan produsage outlets, greater pushes for online advertising and the elevation of fan work. These pushes can make these fandoms seem almost universal in this media-driven place, and hyperbole machines like Tumblr and Twitter exacerbate that feeling.
Thing is, the long tail doesn’t really want those. If everything is similar, there isn’t really a long tail. What the long tail wants is a large, varied assortment of very different products. The image of the long tail as a single large cohesive thing is a bit of a trick – it’s better to think of the long tail as a cohesive bunching, a cord or cable, of many, many different niches, driven by many smaller markets with less overhead.
Hypothetically, the long tail is hope for hitherto small properties. It’s a chance for developers of small projects, it’s an avenue to live off creative work for those people who can find and establish a niche that people care about.
So it’s something to be pretty happy about, really.