Under “the Long Tail”: A Reflection on E-writing.

Posted by jlubans on December 30, 2014

Caption: The “long tail” illustrated.

The long tail theory seeks to upend Pareto’s simple 80/20 rule: Twenty percent of the literature – on any topic – satisfies 80% of the need. So, four out of five library books sit like wallflowers waiting to be asked to dance. I have experienced the 80/20 in libraries. Indeed 20% of the collection is used frequently and 80% is used less frequently or never. Internecine strife may still erupt when advocates for Use come into conflict with advocates for Conservation; the just-in-time gang vs. the just-in-case mob.
Very likely, in our age of e-resources, the use of the legacy print collections (books) has slipped from 20% to possibly below 10%. One study conducted by a reputable agency discovered use of print collections at 6% of holdings.

The long tail advocates hold otherwise: To paraphrase the theory, in the digital world, when large number of users are given access to large numbers of items (books, DVDs, shoes, garden hoses, underwear, etc) to choose among, a wide variety of items will be chosen. In other words, the user's choices will encompass the obscure and esoteric, like a merciful rain that falleth gently on all below. The serendipity of finding what you did not know you were looking will rule!

Google is great except when it’s not.
Well, ubiquitous choice may apply to refrigerators and rubber boots, or any commerce in which one can pay to “improve” search results - but it surely does not apply to the blogosphere. We are told there are now over 152 million blogs. And that, “Goosh!” 172,800 blogs are added daily!
Their age, frequency of use and other demographics are largely undetermined. How many of these millions are under the very long tail of our dinosaur friend? I would modestly suggest that well over 99.9% of all blogs are indeed under the long tail – a very long tail. And this blog is clearly one of those.
As someone said, “never have so many written so much to be read by so few.” Unless you are in the top .01% of the blog universe, your message is just one of millions in millions of corked bottles, bobbing in a boundless sea. Yes, Google will pick you up from time to time but it is not a given and highly unlikely you will achieve the blogger’s apotheosis, going “viral”.

Well then, why blog?
I do so for two reasons: discipline and for potential print publication. Twice a week blogging requires discipline. I rarely miss my self-imposed deadline. And, blogging – putting stuff out there for even a few to see - is a way of distilling my thoughts about the underlying concepts of this blog: freedom at work, the democratic workplace, teamwork, collaboration and cooperation, and, the unboss, among a few others.
And, I do see producing a book or two based on these now several hundred entries. So, for me, these writings are so many drafts eventually to be gathered and edited into a paper format.

Books are better.
Yes, that sounds contrarian given some of the above – did you expect anything else? - but if one is to reach a larger audience than those few regular blog readers, books are still vastly superior. For one thing when vetted prior to publication and then reviewed by discerning readers (for better or worse) a book gathers an audience of interested people. Word gets out.
One’s ideas in ink on paper just look better than pixels on a screen. Hardly viral, an audience of 500 individuals and libraries willing to pay for the book is certainly superior to remaining under the long tail.

@Copyright John Lubans 2014
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