Not terribly impressed with The Long Tail

So far I’m not impressed with Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail. It was boring for several chapters as it banged on about things I already know. Then it was interesting for about a chapter as it described the rise of the enabling technologies and early “long tails” like Sears Roebuck (plus the founding of Amazon).

Then it degenerated into terrible metaphors about astronomy (neutrinos do not go through the earth “like bullets through tissue paper”, obviously, because they don’t shred the earth to bits) and tautologies like “what’s notable is that none of them [the amateur astronomers] do it for money”. Well, yes. Because if they did, we’d call them professionals, and put them in the other category of the “Pro-Am” partnership you’re describing. Not to mention describing a supernova seen by a telescope as being “witnessed by the naked eye” and the clunky way he describes the fact that an event that was witnessed just now from Earth but took place 168,000 light years away would have taken place 168,000 years ago.

Next comes overheated rhapsodizing about Wikipedia and Google, wherein he asserts that probabilistic systems are “simply counterintuitive to our mammalian brains” (this is true in some ways, but not in others), that Wikipedia created order out of chaos (not really a great description; it created order out of not very much, not out of a swirling vortex of disorder), and that it is “completely unbounded by space and production constraints” (which is definitely why it’s always asking us for money). Not to mention that he claims that Britannica has a line beyond which “this is not worthy” but Wikipedia doesn’t. Actually, the lines are just in different places: Wikipedia’s Notability guidelines anyone? Things get deleted from Wikipedia all the time. In this chapter he also says that The Wisdom of Crowds (which is a book I actually did enjoy about a concept that can be as easily summed up as the Long Tail) is about Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the market. Certainly that aspect of the wisdom of crowds is mentioned, but it’s far from the only or even the main thing the book is about — most of it covers modern social science research.

It doesn’t really get good again until the detailed analysis of music marketing in Chapter 7. Interesting case studies I didn’t know about! Yes!

Basically, The Long Tail gives the impression of a well-honed presentation that had much less well-honed “book material” added to it — occasionally interesting, but often not — which is disappointing. Although it may be unfair to criticize a book that’s probably the ultimate reason why I already know about its ideas for not having fresh information, the best idea books I’ve read have far more substance than their core ideas suggest (see The Wisdom of Crowds). There’s nothing wrong with the information in the book being out of date (Netflix is no longer primarily a physical goods aggregator, having gotten into the digital aggregation business, where the getting is better) but not having interesting information in there to begin with makes it difficult to trudge through, in spite of Anderson’s usually engaging, conversational style.

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