economics

Wild Ecosystems, Culinary Abstractions and the Long Tails of Modernism

Writing for Wired magazine in 2004, Chris Anderson introduced readers to a statistical concept coined shortly after World War II: the long tail. In the abstract, the term describes a numerical distribution for which the aggregate share of rare occurrences outpaces the most popular or common occurrence—say, responses by one million different people to the question of the estimated number of books owned. More concretely, a long tail market is one in which lots of individual items (such as all of the coffee brands and roasts sold in 2018) comprise more of an industry’s total sales than its bestsellers (such as Folgers Classic). With the rise of digital commerce, analysts adapted the concept to apprehend the economics of highly subdivided online markets. Narrating a success story of the music platform Rhapsody (success that would prove fleeting), Anderson writes: “You can find everything out there on the Long Tail. . . . There are live tracks, B-sides, remixes, even (gasp) covers. There are niches by the thousands, genre within genre within genre. . . . ‘The biggest money is in the smallest sales.’”[1]