Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Echo Chamber

Wow, every so often you get a slap upside the head that makes you realize how much you take for granted. I had one of those explaining the "Long-Tail" phenomenon to someone that doesn't live in the VC/technology blog world.

The "Long Tail" refers to a concept of niche marketing, first coined (or at least made popular) by a Wired magazine article last October. Basically, it says that once you get away from the constraints of the real world that force limited selection, you will find that there's plenty of interest in less popular items. Although a few hits may have massive numbers of sales/followers/viewers, the sheer number of non-hits means that, in aggregate, they can be as big or bigger than the few hits at the top of the heap.

There's a lot more to this, and I highly recommend subscribing to Chris Anderson's Long Tail blog. More to the point however, is how much this idea resonated with a certain group of people. VC's and entrepreneurs seemed instantly attracted by the new concept, and soon you heard this phrase in just about every blog entry. VC's spoke of hearing "Long Tail" pitches at every conference and cocktail hour. It soon got out of hand, with people seeing "Long Tail"s everywhere. Even the term's coiner, Chris Anderson, said he had "a genera-presentation given to him recently by a venture guy which had a slide titled "Obligatory Long Tail Slide"".

While such overkill and subsequent backlash is not uncommon, the part that struck me is how narrow this overexposure was. The friend I introduced to the term "Long Tail" works in financial services marketing, and is by no means cut off from the online world. She was intrigued by the concept of the long-tail, but seemed shocked when I told her it was already a completely overused phrase, especially when I directed her to the original Wired article that launched it - just 8 months ago.

There's no doubt that blogging and other new media tools have allowed ideas to spread faster than ever before. But I wonder if in doing so, it's increased the gulf between the attitudes of those in the "echo chamber" and those outside. If so, I worry that it will make it harder for entrepreneurs and VC's to truly understand their markets. One of the fallacies that I fell into was thinking that blogs, because of their "broadcast" type nature, represented wider audiences than the personal conversations I have with other technophiles. While this is undoubtedly true, it's important to keep in mind that despite their reach, blogs are probably still closer to 1-on-1 conversations than to mass media communication.

Update: Here's the actual "generic long tail slide". And it seems that bloggers aren't the only ones that tire of new ideas quickly. Paul Kedrosky mentions that investors do the same thing too.