Monday, December 10, 2007

The Long Tail: The Research Skills I Learned from Christmas Shopping

During the month of December insanity takes over, as people attempt to purchase gifts for both family and friends. I am no exception. In fact, I think that the madness of Christmas shopping has been inflicting me more since I started shopping online. My obsession with online shopping comes from something called “the long tail, which involves websites’ system of giving suggestions on books, DVDs, and various other products, that are based on the current purchase that is being made. Chris Anderson, who invented the term in his 2004 article "The Long Tail" in Wired magazine, explains that this system was created by companies like who use suggestions to lead customers to lesser known books. Anderson explains how this is changing all aspects of consumerist economy, stating:

This is not just a virtue of online booksellers; it is an example of an entirely new economic model for the media and entertainment industries, one that is just beginning to show its power. Unlimited selection is revealing truths about what consumers want and how they want to get it in service after service...People are going deep into the catalogue, down the long, long list of available titles, far past what's available at Blockbuster Video, Tower Records, and Barnes & Noble. And the more they find, the more they like.[i]

The long tail has affected my brother more than anyone else I know, allowing him to discover bands that would otherwise be virtually unknown. This consequently leads me on a frustrating, but extremely rewarding, online Christmas shopping journey to try to acquire merchandise for my brother. It seems that each year the bands that he sends me off to find are becoming more and more obscure.

However, the lessons I have learned from Christmas shopping, and in particular from my brother’s ability to unearth incredibly underrated bands, can also be applied to the way I do research. I have learned that when I find a good secondary source, I can simply search for it on, and see what other works that they can suggest. I have found that the suggestions not only recommend the important historical works on those topics that I must consult in order to present a thorough paper, but I also sometimes find little known published works. Therefore, the long tail is not only transforming the entertainment industry, it also has the potential to affect academia by bringing lesser known academic works into the hands of both amateur and professional historians alike.

[i] Anderson, Chris. “The Long Tail,” Wired 12, no. 10 (Oct 2004).

1 comment:

pstewart said...

Amazon's recommendations routinely astonish me. They're one of the few obviously-commercial emails I make a point of keeping a hold of. I cast some pretty obscure nets there, but even so out of every ten or so recs they send me there's usually only one, maybe two, that doesn't immediately pique my interest.

I subscribed to the H-Net mailing list "H-Reviews," which is more or less what it sounds like - every week they post a pile of reviews of new books in or vaguely related to history. A lot of those tend to be those short-run specialist books too, obviously. Keeping both sets of perspectives on things like that can be neat, especially since a lot of academic writing these days *is* the long tail...