The blind men and the elephant

by Mathew on July 26, 2006

Damn, I hate it when Cynthia Brumfield of IPDemocracy writes the post that I was planning to write — and I hate it even more when Nick “the Prophet of Doom” Carr starts taking his medication again and actually says something reasonable and balanced. Both of those things happened today, when they commented on the “Long Tail” brouhaha started by Lee Gomes at the Wall Street Journal.

Lee, a columnist I have taken issue with before, questioned whether the Long Tail phenomenon described by Wired editor Chris Anderson in his book of the same name was as far-reaching or as significant as the author claimed. He even did what might be called reporting on the issue. Anderson responds with a refreshingly even-handed response, and points out a few places where Lee avoided inconvenient info in making his criticisms (bad columnist! bad!).

As much as I hate to admit it, I kind of agree with Nick, who says that both men are likely right. Is there a Long Tail? It seems obvious that there is, even just anecdotally, in the sense that the Internet makes it easier for people to find those old songs or old books or old pron or whatever. Perhaps Chris — like many authors who immerse themselves in a subject for so long — wound up seeing it wherever he looked, and has overstated its importance a tad.

In the end, quibbling over the size of the tail seems to miss the point to me. By sheer coincidence, I came across a recent Slate magazine piece today that looked at the Long Tail and applied it to Slate stories from the archive, with somewhat mixed results. But it did point out that every old story clicked on by someone is a story that has already paid its way — any clicks, in other words, are therefore gravy. How much gravy remains to be seen.

Update:

The suddenly reasonable Nick Carr has posted a lengthy email he got from Lee Gomes in which the WSJ columnist responds to some of the criticisms made by Mr. Anderson. The plot thickens.

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