One of the signs of a great idea is that people feel like they've known it forever. That, at least, is what I tell myself when people suggest that the concept of The Long Tail predates my article of the same name last year. This first came up in the crafting of the Wikipedia entry on The Long Tail following my original article, and it again rose in my conversations with Tom Standage of The Economist last week. I'll take a moment here to explain the derivation and perhaps we can clear up this issue once and for all.
It is not new that powerlaw (and other) distributions have "heads" and "tails". It is also not new that some tails are longer than others. Indeed, if you search for "long tail" in the context of statistics (as opposed to animals with long tails and long tail boats [shown]) before September 2004, when my original piece came out, you will find quite a few references to various curves that have long tails. But the only one that even comes close to talking about the consequences of the abundance boom created by technology is a passing reference in a 2003 essay by Clay Shirky about powerlaws distributions in the blogosphere ("Meanwhile, the long tail of weblogs with few readers will become conversational...").
Given my intellectual debt to Clay for his groundbreaking powerlaw research, I was delighted to see him comment on this in the discussion behind the Wikipedia entry. He writes:
"For my part, when I used the term in "Powerlaws, Weblogs, and Inequality", I didn't think of it as a coinage at all -- linear distributions have heads and tails and the weblog tail is long and flat....Chris and I and lots of other people use the phrase to describe a particular kind of distribution, but Chris has taken it in the direction of Tipping Point, a phrase that conjures up a whole complex of related issues, particularly issues of the business aspects of media and culture, that I didn't. So from my pov, Chris should get credit for originality, not of the phrase but of its current application and vividness.
To be precise, what I coined was the notion of looking at the tail itself as a new market. The use of the proper noun (including "The") is not incidental, but is intrinsic to the observation that we have historically looked at the market at the head of the curve in isolation, and we can now shift our gaze to the right and see that the tail is another market.
The notion of two markets--The Head and The
Long Tail; one familiar, the other long ignored but now emerging--is at
the core of the thesis and explains the initial-caps TLT construction I've used. To get a sense of its resonance, compare a long tail search before September 15th, 2004 (1,570 results) with one after (619,000 results). Long tails are not new; The Long Tail is.