Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail” looks at a set of interrelated trends emerging in Internet marketing: specifically, recommendation engines and, more broadly, the wide, virtually “unlimited” selection of products offered by online retailers who use them. Basically, Anderson writes, recommendation engines give customers an easy way to seperate the wheat from the chaff and find more of what they like. Because online retailers can offer such a wide selection of products, their recommendations guide customers in new directions to explore a vast array of options that might never have been available to them at a traditional “brick-and-mortar” store. Together, Anderson argues, these services form a new way for the producers of niche products to reach an audience, ultimately creating a more level playing field for producers and consumers alike, challenging the dominance of mainstream, “hit-driven culture.” He uses the term “the Long Tail” to describe the array of niche markets that thrive under the auspices of retailers like Amazon and iTunes and actually outnumber the “hits” in terms of their sales volume.
While Anderson’s analysis of the new market is pretty apt, I’m concerned about some of the conclusions he draws. He seems too taken with idealistic notions of “unlimited selection” and consumer empowerment to give a clear view of what the new model really means. “You can find everything out there on the Long Tail,” he claims. But is there really a market for everything? And if there were, would large retailers necessarily cater to it? Even on the Internet, truly free, unlimited consumer choice is an illusion.