“The Long Tail”: Cultural Diversity in the Digital Age

Tool for the design of cultural projects.
12 September 2021. Published by Benoît Labourdette.
  5 min
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The “long tail” is one of the essential concepts of the Internet economy. Contrary to popular belief, on the Internet it is the great diversity of a myriad of confidential works that produces an essential part of the revenues, and this over the very long term. What are the keys to this concept and what inspirations can we find for cultural projects and policies?

The long tail, a new economic model

In 2004, Chris Anderson, then editor-in-chief of the magazine Wired, proposed in an article the concept of “Long Tail”, applied to the Internet economy. In 2006, he published a book about it, “The Long Tail”, which quickly became a reference for market creation on the Internet.

To illustrate his idea in an easy way, he compares, in a simplified way, the functioning of a physical bookshop and an online bookshop. To simplify things further, let’s compare in 1996, at the very beginning of the Web, the book sales activity of Fnac, which did not yet have an Internet site, and Amazon, a new exclusively online bookstore, which had just opened.

At Fnac, as in all physical bookstores, the operation of the turnover (i.e. the total income) obeys the 80/20 rule:

  • 20% of the books (new releases and bestsellers) produce 80% of the turnover.
  • And the 80% of the books remaining on the shelves produce only 20% of the turnover.

This is quite normal. Let’s take an example: a book of poetry, of which 3 copies were sold in one year at the Fnac Montparnasse in Paris. At the end of the year, when new books have to be received (67,000 new books per year), the shelves are not expandable, so space has to be made for the new poetry books to meet their potential buyers. Thus, the beautiful poetry book that has sold only 3 copies will have to make room for another one. There is no ill will on the part of the bookstore, it is just that shelf space is limited. Then, of course, you can order the book... But you had to know that it existed, and how could you, since it was no longer on the shelves? (I remind you that this example was taken in 1996, before the Fnac had an Internet site)

Let’s go to the same book sold on Amazon, also in 1996: Amazon was then only a sales platform, without warehouses or shelves. You noticed it if you ever ordered a book there: often it is sent to you directly by the publisher, not by Amazon. Amazon had no shelves, so no stock limits. Thus, Amazon will never remove from search results and recommendations and links to other content the book of poetry that sells only 3 copies per year. On Amazon, the same book will have been sold for at least 10 years, i.e. 30 copies in total, whereas at Fnac, only 3 copies will have been sold in all.

On the web, the functioning of the turnover is therefore as follows:

  • New products and bestsellers produce 50% of the turnover.
  • Everything else, the huge myriad of works that sell very few copies each but are extremely numerous, also produce 50% of the Turnover.

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The “Long Tail” is this economic difference, a major one, between store sales and online sales: Online, the vastness of the “little things” represents an essential part (50%) of the sales figure This changes everything, because all these “little” things, which in the past seemed much less important than the “big” things, are given their full value

Diversity and the long run

It is because of the long tail that many web companies cultivate diversity and long tail in their practices. This makes sense, as it is what produces half of their revenue! What is called “big data”, for example, is steeped in the long tail. Big data“allows for hyper-personalization, the hyperspecificity of proposals to”customers", which will gain in value over time. In the audiovisual field, for example, YouTube or Netflix work on their marketing as much to build current successes as to feed modest, but very large, audiences over the long term. These two temporalities and logics produce equivalent amounts of revenue.

Inspirations for cultural projects

This concept of enrichment, in the economic sense of the term, by the culture of diversity, if we tried to perceive its relevance for actions and projects that are not commercial, but cultural? This care for the diversity of expressions, in the long run, seems to me to be a real perspective for cultural democracy. This invites me to share some lines of thought and work, in a very synthetic way (each one would deserve to be deepened in details):

  • Founding a digital heritage: Document cultural actions in photos, videos, texts, and put these contents online, so that they can be re-appropriated and disseminated by the participants. Ideally, these contents are produced by the participants, thanks to a supervision. This documentation and its sharing are an integral part of the action. The online availability is done in non-market and sustainable web spaces. The responsibility of the online availability of this data on the long term is ours.
  • Create media: Create specific and local media, hosted in France. Stop using the services of American multinationals. They are convenient and easy at first glance, but offer no guarantee or control of its content in technical terms. With these platforms, you are no longer the custodian of your own heritage. The little extra work to build a controlled and regularly backed up hosting is extremely valuable, as it guarantees our existence in the long term. It is the technical capacity to embrace so that the long tail can bring its benefits. Work on the editorialization, in a participative way, and the local diffusion of these media. Free tools like SPIP or Wordpress allow to create websites very easily.
  • By focusing on the beneficiary’s issues and not on the institutional issues of our structure (social, educational or cultural), work on the journey of each person, over several years. Defend this approach in the frameworks of financing (which are too often oriented on punctual projects), put in place monitoring data (respectful of rights, within the framework of the RGPD), in order to be able to start structuring the cultural action in a “user-centered” approach, as it is formulated in the field of design.
  • Don’t judge small quantities negatively: Few participants? Not many people at the performance, exhibition or restitution? Consider these moments in their qualitative value. Work on producing traces of these moments, valued online and physically (display of photos for example). Over the years online, these productions edited online, can collect a large number of visits, and especially fully to the psychosocial narrative in a territory, which is the purpose of cultural actions. To put its confidence in the duration, as soon as one works to make exist traces of the actions in the “long tail”.
  • No longer try to be consensual: What invites to the commitment, they are the specific, demanding, “pointed”, deep contents. Examples: Soviet experimental cinema from the 1920s, English baroque music from the end of the 16th century played on ancient instruments, etc. The more specific the content is, the more it will be able to federate strong communities, “adherents” as one might say in marketing jargon. Never again will you want to “reach the greatest number”, it is a myth that does not exist, which levels the quality of the proposals downwards.
  • Trust the contents: Put the greatest requirement in the processes of production of the contents (that they are amateur or professional), but especially not to pose more as “judge” of their “quality”. Indeed, if we are not in the small community passionate about this type of content, we have strictly no relevant criteria of judgment. The only thing we can judge, and for which we are responsible, is the quality of the production process. For the content, trust, do not judge, do not believe that we “know” what is good. And even if these contents seem “not to work”, not to gather much audience, well let’s trust them, let them live, and let’s talk about them in 10 years.
  • Take risks: Idea that follows from the previous one. Without taking risks, there is no chance of building something that is really interesting. How do you know when you are taking a risk? We feel it: we are afraid that some people will not like it, we wonder if we will be incriminated for having supported this project that we do not understand: these are excellent signs! Listen to them. This feeling of risk is a sign of the importance of the subject, its novelty, its potential contribution.
  • Work on natural referencing with the utmost attention: For a content to exist in the long term, it must be accompanied by texts that describe it, in the most detailed way possible, so that it can be referenced and linked, in the long term, by the search and recommendation algorithms. Integrate the editorial dimension in projects, whether they are cultural proposals or cultural actions: make the participants write.
  • Trust the users: We can’t know what people will do with these available contents. It belongs to them and that’s fine. Our responsibility is to make it available over time, not to try to control the use that will be made of it. This is the freedom that everyone uses. Thus, what we offer are tools of emancipation.

PS: The long tail has its detractors, who say that it is a hypocrisy of capitalism, that it “doesn’t work”, etc. The long tail will only “work” and produce its beneficial effects if we cultivate it, if we measure its importance and if we integrate this notion into our work.

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