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Tuesday 30 October 2007

The Long Tail Wags

What kicked of this blog entry for me were some reflections I had as I chaired a one day conference, with a preceding half day workshop, a couple of weeks ago, which was organized in Galway by Fidelity Investments, on the subject of Web 2.0, and how commercial organizations – such as Fidelity – can benefit from and add value to the global internet community.

A core theme of Web 2.0 is the collective wisdom that results from the network effects of sharing across the community. The wisdom of the crowd is sometimes more than the sum of the individuals therein. Wikipedia is one prime example, since collective knowledge can trigger insights for individuals, which can then augment the collective wisdom: the added knowledge which would not arise if the group did not collaborate together. I recently wrote a blog entry about a similar phenomenon in multi-disciplinary research. Group and individual reasoning can positively feed off each other.

One of the dichotomies of the Web 2.0 phenomenon is on one hand, the power of the group and the collective knowledge of the crowd; and yet on the other the significance of each individual. Yes, collective knowledge such as Wikipedia and (and of course Google!) have emerged, but blogs written and commented by individuals are still a fundamental force. Some may argue that indeed the information in specific blogs written by certain individuals is more valuable, accurate and reliable than that in shared wiki repositories maintained by the amorphous net community. There is room for both individuals and the crowd.

In the race to be successful on the web, the focus is on attracting and retaining users, eyeballs and clicks. For the promoters of a web site - whether a commercial venture, or just a worthy cause for society at large - building and growing a “market” is key. Monitoring usage patterns, listening and reacting to user feedback, all builds momentum: hopefully a tipping point is passed, and the network effect of market momentum reinforces the popularity and acceptance. However: does a mass market strategy play only to the crowd, and not to the individuals therein ?

For Web 2.0 , Chris Anderson introduced the term “long tail” to emphasise deploying:

“customer-self service and algorithmic data management to reach out to the entire web, to the edges and not just the center, to the long tail and not just the head”.

As noted by an Amazon employee quoted by Wikipedia: We sold more books today that didn't sell at all yesterday, than we sold today of all the books that did sell yesterday” -- read that slowly to yourself again if you hadn’t come across it before..

Further, in his discussion on technology market dynamics, Christensen noted:

Simply put, when the best firms succeeded, they did so because they listened responsively to their customers and invested aggressively in the technology, products, and manufacturing capabilities that satisfied their customers' next-generation needs. But, paradoxically, when the best firms subsequently failed, it was for the same reasons--they listened responsively to their customers and invested aggressively in the technology, products, and manufacturing capabilities that satisfied their customers' next-generation needs ….But the problem established firms seem unable to confront successfully is that of downward vision and mobility, in terms of the trajectory map….”

Success – at least in some industries, such as the disk drive and earth moving machinery industries which Christensen documents – can equally lay the foundation for failure. Group and individual behaviour can play off each other, creating emerging forces from below.

Combining the Anderson’s exhortation to reach out to the edge, with the warning by Christensen not to be outflanked by emerging disruptive technologies from below, it would seem wise to ensure that a Web 2.0 market strategy explicitly recognises the potential of the individual, as well as the mass market of the group. Even more important is to react to dynamics in the market and to changing tastes. The observation is: that in a global market of mass consumerism, the ability to cater for the vast number of changing individual personal tastes and desires – to personalise and dynamically tailor your products and services – may be much more commercially – and socially – valuable, than volume plays of standard products and services to an anonymous amorphous group.

The long tail changes: it wags. The universe of micro-markets in the long tail is worth addressing – this is Anderson’s observation. In addition, changes in a micro-market may in due course influence the mass market (and blind side you) – this is in essence Christensen’s observation.

Ajit Jaokar was one of the contributors at the Fidelity event in Galway, and he reminded the audience of Tim O’Reilly’s characterization of the Web 2.0 phenomenon:

  • the web as a platform;
  • harnessing collective intelligence;
  • data as the next Intel inside;
  • the end of the software release cycle;
  • software above the level of a single device; and
  • rich user experiences.

I thought about each of these six facets as I reflected on the dynamics of the micro-markets, and list some (not all!) of my observations below: how does Web 2.0 address the wagging long tail ?

One common way of reaching out to the long tail, and monitoring its movements, is “data as the next Intel inside”. Google exploits what its itself calls the ”uniquely democratic nature of the web” to derive data on the click activity of millions of users to drive its PageRank algorithm. I suspect that social networking sites, such as MySpace, Facebook, Bebo and LinkedIn, could likewise exploit their data about networks of people. I’ve always wondered in passing how data regulators, such as the Irish Data Protection Commissioner, view such click gathering and social networking activities…

As Web 2.0 embraces beyond “the level of a single device” – which was Ajit’s theme of his presentation - I observe that telecommunications operators, such as Vodafone, O2 and T-Mobile, collect and record quantities of data, ironically in a large part due to regulatory requirements of data retention legislation in jurisdictions such as Ireland. These vast data archives capture about social communication patterns of populations – it is not just the social networking sites which have such data! There are opportunities, and privacy risks, to exploit these vast patterns to provide commercial value. One can imagine intelligence being generated by mobile phone operators to enable targeted marketing by third parties and content providers…

Quietly collecting mouse click activity, or analyzing phone call patterns and triangularising the locations of their owners, are data driven ways of using to drive for the long tail. Importantly, the data is dynamic and therefore so also is the derived collective intelligence: as trends emerge, or change, so can the offerings tailored for particular sets of individuals. But it seems to me that these approaches may wear a clandestine cloak: there are more explicit ways of using collective intelligence for the wagging long tail.

A successful web site needs stickiness to retain, and track, its audience, including the wagging long tail. A social networking site such as those above in part generates its stickiness because of the network effect of having ones friends, co-workers and colleagues using the same site: most people think it is too cumbersome to re-register oneself and encourage one’s cohort elsewhere. IMHO, the resulting stickiness is in fact rather superficial, rather than systemic: it consequently threatens any purported fiscal value for the site. The SIOC project at DERI in Galway underlines the benefits, and business consequences, of seamless federation of online communities. Stickiness should not be driven by re-registration inertia, but rather by community value and impact - which is one reason why I believe Ammado will succeed.

Another strategy to capture the long tail wags is “harnessing collective intelligence” – another of O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 facets. One explicit way is to allow individuals to define their own collections of interesting items, and then to share and discuss them with other like-minded souls. A simple way to do this is just by tagging items: for example, photos tagged with “Galway” on Flickr will appeal to certain people. But tagging rather quickly loses its impact when trying to find items with a combination of tags, requiring tedious trials of various search criteria; and tag synonyms are a problem in a global world: try “football” in as an example – or even “Galway Hooker” in Flickr!

Rather than expecting people to work out the correct search and query expression across a set of tag values for what they actually want, another way is to let people explicitly define and share their own collections. Hobbyists – such as stamp collectors – have been doing this for years, and a craft worker likewise learns what the set of right tools are for the job from the experiences of his trade. Enabling individuals – and micro-markets and even the crowd - to share what works well together when, is a positive tactic for managing the wagging long tail, and which I wrote about recently in the context of software configurations and Cloudsmith.

When doing a little research for this blog entry, I came across Dan Bricklin’s interesting blog entry on When the Long Tail Wags The Dog. His theme is that “must have” items have more value than those which are less likely to fit the job at hand; and that general purpose items are likely to have most value since they can entertain the dog as well as its long tail. While I don’t disagree, my thoughts about the dynamics of the long tail, and how to work with within it, are a slightly different emphasis.

Reinforcing Bricklin, being relevant to the individuals and small groups in the long tail requires customization and tailoring of general purpose offerings. In the enterprise software space, software vendors have traditionally worked with systems integrators to tailor more appropriate solutions to different niches of the market. With componentization in the software industry, in principle useful aggregations of different constituent parts can more likely be used to tailor specific solutions. Collective intelligence can be harnessed by explicitly sharing these aggregations, as I indicated above.

However, once delivered, installed and put into use, assemblies of software components in production environments have in the past usually been relatively static. The challenge is that the long tail wags: micro-markets and even mass markets change, and production systems need to more easily do so too. One promise of the dynamic module environment of OSGi is to enable dynamic evolution: if collective intelligence can be dynamic as trends emerge, or change, and then suggest new offerings tailored for particular sets of individuals, then perhaps also can production software assemblies in business and enterprise environments be dynamically adjusted. This is a theme which we are working upon in IONA, particularly in the context of our highly dynamic plug-in architecture for Artix and our open source FUSE offerings – see Eric Newcomer’s blog.

But if the world is dynamic, and contains a universe of micro-markets as well as a mass, can offerings not only be tailored so as to be a good fit, but also be priced attractively for each ? What when micro-markets change ? As I wrote about, one industry which faces these challenges is the mobile/cell phone operators, for whom intelligent and responsive bundling of services (SMS and MMS and call rates and roaming charges etc) is competitively critical. The ability to generalise this approach into the world of software components and packages is of interest and relevance to the wagging long tail. LeCayla is one company building a common approach to the issue of dynamically rolling out new charge and billing rates so that software vendors can competitively foster specific micro-markets.

Let me summarise: the internet as a platform enables a global market to be addressed. Web 2.0 uses collective intelligence to play in both the mass markets, and the long tail of numerous micro-markets. There is room for both individuals and the crowd, and group and individual reasoning can positively feed off each other. – creating the ever lurking possibility of being disrupted from below. Scalably addressing both the mass market and the long tail is however not the complete issue: markets change, the long tail wags, and scalably addressing dynamic markets is even harder – but possible.

Footnote: my 7 month old Alsatian, Charlie, has yet to grow into his long long tail. He wags it a lot.

1 comment:

PM said...

this is a fantastic post, chris, and i'm not sure why there have been no thoughts/comments on this since you've put it up.

would love to see more posts along these lines.