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The Long Tail July 9, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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Long Tail   In an analysis of the English language, with every word ranked by its frequency of use, there are twenty-five words making up the first third of all words used. Words such as ‘the’, ‘of’, and ‘and’, in that order, make up about twelve percent of the words English speakers use. If you would plot their frequency on a graph (look at http://www.wordcount.org/main.php for a great interactive example of this) you will see a sharply sloping line, that would be the ‘short’ part of the tail, that then stretches out into an increasingly thinner ‘long tail.’

Companies such as NetFlix incorporate the ‘long tail’ at the heart of their business model. Where some movie rental chains stock the most frequently rented and most popular titles, NetFlix counts on the idea that if you make available rarely requested titles, eventually the rentals of these items in the ‘long tail’ would generate as much cash as companies cashing in on the popular titles.

The reason I have become interested in this, aside from the statistical elements of power law distributions and discussions about the Zipf formula, is that YouTube appears to be one of these ventures attempting to capitalize on visits from people interested in items only a handful of people would find interesting. For example, I just discovered a 1950s video of Glenn Gould playing a concerto by Bach on YouTube. Even though I am one of a handful of people who might visit that site in a month, I came across advertisements everyone else saw. The advertisers had my eyeballs for a moment, which is why they pay the owners of YouTube.

The Internet is producing some new business models and, more importantly to me, some new scholarly models with the rise of online scholarly journals. This concept of the ‘long tail’ leads directly to the concept of ‘social bookmarking’ and the rise of sites and services such as del.icio.us which I will write about tomorrow.

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