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Long Tail

September 4, 2006

Sometimes, one word matters. Shortly after I began working at the Mountain Mail in 1987 (before my library career), someone typed “guilty” instead of “not guilty” in the court report. The “not guilty” party was angry; amends were made.

The editor at the time preferred to use “innocent” instead of “not guilty” to avoid exactly that liability. I don’t know if it ever became policy to do so. Declaring someone to be innocent is, of course, much different than declaring him not guilty.

Sometimes, one letter matters. For this column last week, I wrote “Such challenges are irresistable. I mean, irresistible.” It was intended to be witty (the common misspelling of irresistible) since the topic dealt with the testing of 8th grade students.

However, in the proofreading or editing, perhaps with the help of a computer’s spellchecker, the first instance of the word was corrected. The joke — however feeble — was lost.

But a completely different meaning was created, as well. Now it sounded as if I was intensifying the word “irresistible” by repeating it. I don’t know who’s guilty — probably me for the presumption of wit.
I should have made a parenthetical insertion of “sic” — the Latin word for “yes” that is often used in text to indicate “Yes, I really mean this.” However, if one has to point to a joke and say, “this is a joke,” something’s amiss.

“Sic” was made famous by Peter Abelard in his book “Sic et Non.” Many of us like to see the world in black and white, but we mix gray all the time even in the binary world of yes and no. One of the worst: “She says no when she means yes.” Or vice versa.

Consider left and right. Your left or my left? Stage left? A friend’s new washer/dryer unit came with instructions for removing shipping material before using. We were to lay the unit on its right side — did this mean its right side facing us or our right side facing it?

We have married and unmarried, although often “unmarried” clearly doesn’t include “divorced,” even though divorce is a state of not being married. However, divorced may share “single” with other unmarried states. Instead of “yes or no,” we lean more toward “more or less.”

The subtitle of the book “The Long Tail” reads: “Why the future of business is selling less of more.” It’s a witty claim, more or less, and somewhat hyperbolic. The phrase “the long tail” here refers to the shape of a curve that graphs many different kinds of phenomena.

If you drew a line down the left side of a page and then near the bottom curved quickly to the right along the bottom edge and continued off the page and across the table … this would be the shape in question.

The high side to the left might represent sales from the inventory of America’s largest music retailer, Wal-Mart, which includes the 4,500 bestselling albums. The long tail to the right might represent Amazon.com’s listing of over 800,000 music CD titles.

The long tail is very shallow, but it is large because it is very, very long. One quarter of Amazon.com’s book sales come from outside the top 100,000 titles — i.e. from books that are essentially never stocked in bookstores because they might sell only a few copies per year worldwide.

The “long tail” is hardly new, but it is fascinating as an explanation of the economics of Internet commerce.

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