Tag Archives: The Long Tail

The Master Switch By Tim Wu — So Many Books, So Little Time

Here’s the latest in my occasional lament: so many books, so little time. I simply blog about books that sound important, that I wish I had time to read…  Will this move up in my “must read” list?  Time will tell.

First, here’s what Chris Anderson (The Long Tail, Wired) says about this one:  “An explosive history that makes it clear how the information business became what it is today. Important reading.”

The book is The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires by Tim Wu (Knopf — November 2, 2010).  I read about it in the article The Master Switch by Tim Wu — a Masterful Guide to Our Internet World by Art Brodsky, Communications Director, Public Knowledge on The Huffington Post. Here’s an excerpt:

Wu’s eminently readable book is a history of the telephone network, the movie industry and broadcasting, all of them leading up to the history of today’s combination of all of them — the Internet. Those industries had innovative, entrepreneurial beginnings, promising great things for society. There is a rocky growth and development period as the technology becomes better, may encroach on other businesses and finally reaches critical mass. Into the chaos comes a “great mogul” to impose order — to control the Master Switch to information and technology: “Markets are born free, yet no sooner are they born than some would-be emperor is forging chains.” As Wu notes, the federal government is usually recruited to help out the mogul and his plans to gain control over the technology and product.

Wu’s cycle has a backside also, in which another disruptive technology, or a public-spirited government, breaks up the mogul-driven business model, and the Cycle starts anew.

Wu has done his homework. The stories of the industries Wu tracks are fascinating. In today’s corporate-driven movie business, we forget that there was a generation of outcasts who started movie studios, invented new technologies, took over theaters and made the industry their own, at least until other forces broke it up and new models took over. One industry leader could dictate that the time was not right for full-length movies, until a rebel arose to show longer films, and that rebel became part of the industry firmament. One of the early movie moguls was one Wilhelm Fuchs, a Jewish immigrant who later changed his name to Fox. Yes, that Fox.

The article ends with this closing quote from the book:

Let us, then, not fail to protect ourselves from the will of those who might seek domination of those resources we cannot do without. If we do not take this moment to secure our sovereignty over the choices that our information age has allowed us to enjoy, we cannot reasonably blame its loss on those who are free to enrich themselves by taking it from us in a manner history has foretold.




The Best Magazine Articles Ever (from CoolTools)

For book lovers, here is a list of a different kind:  The Best Magazine Articles Ever.  Andrew Sullivan linked to it on his blog.

Here is the article, up to the list of the top seven.  The article lists many others, by decade.  Admittedly it is, as all lists, subjective.  Kevin Kelly posted it on his CoolTools blog.  I have not read all of these seven, and they are definitely going into my “to read” stack.

The Best Magazine Articles Ever

The following are suggestions for the best magazine articles (in English) ever.  Stars denote how many times a correspondent has suggested it. Submitter comments are in italics.

This is a work in progress. It is an on-going list of suggestions collectively made by readers of this post. At this point the list has not been vetted or selected by me. In fact, other than the original five items I suggested, all of the articles mentioned here have been recommended by someone other than me. (Although I used to edit Wired magazine none of the articles from Wired were suggested by me or anyone who worked at Wired. I also did not suggest my own pieces.)

This list is incomplete though it is getting quite long. You may notice that your favorite author or piece is missing. This is easy to fix. Simply recommend your favorite magazine articles to me via email: . Or if your favorite article is already listed, use the same form to recommend it in order to elevate it to the “top”. At some point in a few weeks I’ll close the nominations.

— KK

The Top Seven Articles Based on the number of times an article is recommended

****** David Foster Wallace, “Federer As Religious Experience.” The New York Times, Play Magazine, August 20, 2006.

***** David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster.” Gourmet Magazine, Aug 2004.

***** Neal Stephenson, “Mother Earth, Mother Board: Wiring the Planet.” Wired, December 1996. On laying trans-oceanic fiber optic cable.

****** Gay Talese, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” Esquire, April 1966.

**** Ron Rosenbaum, “Secrets of the Little Blue Box.” Esquire, October 1971. The first and best account of telephone hackers, more amazing than you might believe.

**** Jon Krakauer, “Death of an Innocent: How Christopher McCandless Lost His Way in the Wilds.” Outside Magazine, January 1993. Article that became Into the Wild.

**** Edward Jay Epstein, “Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?” Atlantic Magazine, February 1982. Diamonds, De Beers, monopoly & marketing.

Andrew Sullivan recommended this article, As We May Think by Vannevar Bush from the July 1945 issue of the Atlantic, and included this quote:

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, “memex” will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

And I would include the original articles (both led to books) The Long Tail by Chris Anderson and Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam.  And, of course, I would remind our readers that we link to the Malcom Gladwell and Atul Gawande archives, which you can find always on the right side of our blog.

And I would also recommend the David Halberstam article from the July, 1969 Harper’s, The Very Expensive Education of McGeorge Bundy.



So Much to Know — TMI to Learn

One of the clearest examples of the long tail in the book The Long Tail is the story of Bollywood movie theaters in the United States.  There are only a handful of places where fans of such movies live in such close proximity to one theater that they can sustain such a theater at a profit.  A few more neighborhoods can justify stocking Bollywood movies in a local Blockbuster.  But the long tail of Netflix (and Amazon) can turn a profit by shipping such moives, requiring no expensive square footage to stock an adequate supply.

I was telling this story at a conference in Indianapolis, and finally one brave soul asked “What’s Bollywood?” It was then that I realized what I should have remembered — we simply have too much to learn, and remember.  We have TMI — too much information.

Think about this list (and this is truly a short/partial list):

Purple Cow, Linchpin, Tribes, Long Tail, Bollywood, Hedgehog Principle, Blink decisions, 10,000 hour rule, Outliers, Checklists, Wikis, Wikinomics, Womenomics, Knowing-Doing Gap, Fierce, Freakonomics (Superfreakonomics!), Blue Ocean, Free, Black Swan, Execution, 10-10-10…

And you can add your own to this list.  Good luck managing the TMI era.

Chris Anderson: Atoms are the New Bits

Atoms are the New Bits — The Next New, New Insight from Chris Anderson

Bob Morris told me about this a few days ago. (I don’t know how I had missed it. Thanks, Bob).

Chris Anderson is at it again, explaining the way the world is changing. Anderson introduced us to The Long Tail, and then argued for the arrival of Free. (I’ve presented both of these books at the First Friday Book Synopsis). Now he says that the industrial revolution is upon us in a whole new form. The article is: In the Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are the New Bits and it basically says that big is going to lose to small, and small is definitely the future.

Here quite a few excerpts, with a couple of my observations at the end. (the full article is definitely worth reading).

Here’s the history of two decades in one sentence: If the past 10 years have been about discovering post-institutional social models on the Web, then the next 10 years will be about applying them to the real world.

This story is about the next 10 years.

Transformative change happens when industries democratize, when they’re ripped from the sole domain of companies, governments, and other institutions and handed over to regular folks. The Internet democratized publishing, broadcasting, and communications, and the consequence was a massive increase in the range of both participation and participants in everything digital — the long tail of bits.

Now the same is happening to manufacturing — the long tail of things.

The tools of factory production, from electronics assembly to 3-D printing, are now available to individuals, in batches as small as a single unit. Anybody with an idea and a little expertise can set assembly lines in China into motion with nothing more than some keystrokes on their laptop.

Today, micro-factories make everything from cars to bike components to bespoke furniture in any design you can imagine. The collective potential of a million garage tinkerers is about to be unleashed on the global markets, as ideas go straight into production, no financing or tooling required. “Three guys with laptops” used to describe a Web startup. Now it describes a hardware company, too.

“Hardware is becoming much more like software,” as MIT professor Eric von Hippel puts it. That’s not just because there’s so much software in hardware these days, with products becoming little more than intellectual property wrapped in commodity materials…

We’ve seen this picture before: It’s what happens just before monolithic industries fragment in the face of countless small entrants, from the music industry to newspapers. Lower the barriers to entry and the crowd pours in.

The result has allowed online innovation to extend to the real world. As Cory Doctorow puts it in his new book, Makers, “The days of companies with names like ‘General Electric’ and ‘General Mills’ and ‘General Motors’ are over. The money on the table is like krill: a billion little entrepreneurial opportunities that can be discovered and exploited by smart, creative people.”

Peer production, open source, crowdsourcing, user-generated content — all these digital trends have begun to play out in the world of atoms, too. The Web was just the proof of concept. Now the revolution hits the real world.

In short, atoms are the new bits. (emphasis added).

This means that one-person enterprises can get things made in a factory the way only big companies could before.

Everybody’s garage is a potential high tech factory. Marx would be pleased.

Bill Joy, one of the cofounders of Sun Microsystems, revealed the flaw in Coase’s model. “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else,” he rightly observed… With the Internet, you didn’t have to settle for the next cubicle. You could tap the best person out there, even if they were in Dakar.

Not all US manufacturing is shrinking, however — just the large part.

It’s the ultimate virtual manufacturing company: Aliph makes bits and its partners make atoms, and together they can take on Sony.

Welcome to the next Industrial Revolution.

In the article, Anderson tells the story of the man who invented the intermittent windshield wiper (an idea that Ford stole – he ultimately was awarded nearly $30 million). Today, he could have turned the idea into product on his “own,” much more quickly.

As I pondered this article, these were some lessons that I saw about the new future that has arrived/is arriving

1) Collaboration has always been about collaborating with the best/smartest/cutting edge people. Now, the tools of the era allow us to collaborate with those people regardless of where they work or live. It will be collaborate with the best, or die.

2) The future will be owned by individuals – “you (whoever you are) will own you.” Your ideas, your innovations, your concepts, will increasingly be owned by the individual who came up with them. And that individual will find the workers to turn the ideas into products on his or her own. The idea person will not have to build a factory.

3) The changes will keep coming. This new chapter in the industrial revolution is only that – the new chapter, the latest chapter. There will be others to follow.

What are they? We don’t know.

The Long Tail at Work — Al Franken’s win, a brief case study

News item: we now know that Al Franken used the wisdom gleaned from Chris Anderson’s idea about the Long Tail to win his election.

The Long Tail, the idea championed by Chris Anderson, and Microtrends, the book by Mark Penn, converge in this story. And you can throw a little Seth Godin and Tribes into the mix.

You probably know the concept of the Long Tail by now. A Border’s or Barnes and Noble store will stock books that have the best chance of selling. Amazon sells the same books, and some 80% of the books sold on Amazon are stocked in a typical physical retail bookstore. But 20% of sales for Amazon are from the “long tail.” (A quick read for this idea, and it is pretty good, is the wickipedia article on the Long Tail).

The traditional way to make money was to market to the masses. But increasingly, the way to reach people is with narrower niche marketing. This is really the end game of the long tail – it enables one to market, very successfully, to an increasingly narrow niche. Mark Penn describes it this way in Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes:

All these people out there living a more single, independent life are slivering America into hundreds of small niches. (The number of households in America has exploded, even though population growth has slowed dramatically).
This book is about the niching of America. How there is no One America anymore, or Two, or Three, or Eight. In fact, there are hundreds of Americas, hundreds of new niches made up of people drawn together by common interests.
You can’t understand the world anymore only in terms of “megatrends,” or universal experiences. In today’s splintered society, if you want to operate successfully, you have to understand the intense identity groups that are growing and moving, fast and furious in crisscrossing directions. That is microtrends.
A microtrend is an intense identity group, that is growing, which has needs and wants unmet by the current crop of companies, marketers, policymakers, and others who would influence society’s behavior.

The number crunchers keep examining the last election. Here is a revealing description about the Franken win (let me recommend, don’t let your politics, one way or the other, get in the way — – pay attention to the marketing implications). I first read this in a Daily Kos post, but the source is Long-Tail Nanotargeting from Politics Magazine.

Thanks to Democrat Al Franken’s Senate campaign, we now have a proven model to move beyond [the old campaign voter targeting] strategies. We do it by tapping into the concept of the “long tail,” an Internet marketing theory popular in the corporate world. It’s based on the idea that the Internet audience is extremely fractured. So, instead of identifying the most universally persuasive messages and broadcasting them to a wide audience, in the long-tail model you take the most persuasive messages and nanotarget each one to the right niche.
People don’t go to one place, looking for one thing. Their whims take them to a million places. The trick is to be everywhere, with tightly targeted messages. It’s about showing them highly relevant factoids/ads tailored to the whim they’re currently indulging, which if clicked, will redirect them to a relevant part of your website or related off-site content. In short, long-tail nanotargeting takes those little gems—be it an endorsement, video, news story, or ask—and shows it to the people who would care. To this end, we ran more than 30 million impressions for the Franken campaign across five horizontal ad networks, two vertical networks and dozens of local news outlets.
We nanotargeted more than 125 niche groups, with more than 1,000 pieces of creative, for less than $100,000. On Google alone, an acquisition budget of less than $20,000 got us more than 20,000 clicks, 5,500 active e-mail sign- ups, and more than 2,500 donors. We were able to reach persuasion niches (this is akin to someone opening up and reading a mail piece) for a fraction of a penny per impression, and less than 50 cents per interaction.
They targeted geographic and demographic niches online. They tested messages to see what worked best. Here’s an example:
In real terms, Minnesotans who were searching for cheap gas or researching fuel-efficient cars saw ads about Franken’s plan to lower gas prices.

The long tail has made Amazon successful, helped elect Al Franken, and, I suspect, will be the way to go for an ever growing number of businesses. It is the internet that makes this possible. But it is understanding the long tail, and implementing strategies that take advantage of the long tail, that will make people more successful.


You can purchase my synopses of The Long Tail and Microtrends, and my colleague Karl Krayer’s synopsis of Tribes, with audio + handout, from our companion site, 15minutebusinessbooks.com.

Chris Anderson’s “Free” — Now that I’ve presented it, a partial verdict, with some key excerpts

Here’s my approach.   First, I think we should let the words of an author speak for themselves.  When I present a book synopsis, it is my job to say, as clearly as possible, “this is that the author is saying.”  And then, and only then, do I have the task of wrestling with, arguing with, running with the ideas, pursuing the many and multiple implications of an author’s words.

Free:  The Future of a Radical Price

Free: The Future of a Radical Price

I just presented my synopsis of Free:  The Story of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson.  Yes, I have read much of the controversy surrounding the book, including Malcolm Gladwell’s smack-down against and Seth Godin’s defense for the book, which includes Godin’s smack-down of Gladwell.  (Juicy fun — but quite serious, also).  I blogged about this here, and it has all of the links — Gladwell, Godin, and Anderson’s response to Gladwell.

But now I have carefully read and presented the book.  I’m still undecided about Gladwell’s ultimate point/criticism, that Free simply fails to provide a viable working business model.  I do see the dangers and difficulties of implementing Free as a business model.

(And, I learned something in the process:  I offered a “free” offer – truly free, no strings attached, at the end of my presentation, and I’m not all that sure that very many will take me up on the free offer.  We’ll see).

But I think I am persuaded by Anderson’s case that everything digital wants to be Free, and that even other more “physical” commodities will inevitably move to, if not free, the lowest, then even lower, possible price.  His section on corn, ethanol, and the rise of switchgrass was especially provocative.

Anyway, here are a couple of excerpts from the book that especially ring true.  He describes how, as digital Free arrived, those who thought that Free could be defeated went through the five stages — from Kübler-Ross:

• Stage 1:            Denial
• Stage 2:            Anger
• Stage 3:            Bargaining
• Stage 4:            Depression
• Stage 5:            Acceptance.

I think this is accurate, and I suspect we are seeing/will see this played out in the battle over the Kindle/e-books.

One other part that was especially interesting was this.  We really are in a period of great volatility, in all areas, including the arena of how companies will be organized and function… This chart, directly from the book, was clear, and useful, I think.

Scarcity Abundance
Rules “Everything is forbidden unless it is permitted” “Everything is permitted unless it is forbidden”
Social Model Paternalism

(“we know what’s best”)


(“you know what’s best”)

Profit Plan Business Model We’ll figure it out
Decision Process Top-down Bottom-up
Management Style Command and control Out of control

I think Free is potentially as instructive as The Long Tail was.  It is certainly worth a more careful look.


My synopsis of The Long Tail is available, but the synopsis of Free, with audio + handout, is not yet up on our companion www.15minutebusinessbooks.com site.  Look for it in about three weeks, or so.