When Chris Anderson became the editor-in-chief of Wired in 2001, he took over an eight-year-old San Francisco-based magazine that had not only redefined print journalism in the 1990s but proved an invaluable guide to the exotic new worlds of mass personalized computing, cyberspace, digital culture, and much more that we now take for granted. If Wired's cutting edge seemed somewhat dulled after the ouster of founders Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe, the title's sale to New York publishing giant Condé Nast, and the bursting of the tech bubble, Anderson has made the magazine matter once again. In 2003, the first year that the Chicago Tribune ran its annual list of "The 50 Best Magazines," Wired didn't even make the cut. A year later, it topped the same list, with the Trib enthusing, "even the 'Letters' page crackles with energy." In 2005 Wired took home an award for General Excellence at the National Magazine Awards, the industry's top honor, and Anderson was named "editor of the year" by Advertising Age.
More important than industry accolades, people were once again reading Wired to learn about the next big technoculture thing. "Technology is the ability to empower individuals to change the world," says Anderson, who joined Wired after stints at The Economist, Nature, and Science. Computer and related technologies, he argues, foster the "rise of individuals, often at the cost of institutions." Anderson's visionary streak was on full display in his October 2004 Wired story "The Long Tail," which quickly became the most cited article in the magazine's history. An expanded book-length version—The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More (Hyperion)—is now climbing the upper reaches of the New York Times bestseller list and has already provided a ubiquitous cultural catch phrase to rival "the tipping point." (The October Reason includes a story about the rise of microbrew beer called "The Longneck Tail.")
Anderson's title comes from the conventional demand curve for most goods: At the "head" of the curve in a given market, a small number of "hit" products (books, movies, whatever) typically accounts for most sales. As you move rightward along the curve, the number of products sold slopes down, eventually forming a "tail." The result is a "hit-driven economy" and a "hit-driven culture" in which producers seek to make money by pushing a few blockbuster items on consumers. Producers focus on the head and try to keep the tail short because it's too costly to make things that will appeal only to the few.
Yet in "an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution," writes Anderson, "narrowly targeted goods and services can become as economically attractive as mainstream fare." The typical Wal-Mart store stocks about 55,000 music tracks—mostly big sellers—while the online download service Rhapsody carries 1.5 million tracks. Fully 40 percent of Rhapsody's sales come from tracks that are not available in offline retail stores, suggesting there's gold in aggregating those relatively unpopular songs.
In Long Tail markets, which are most clearly observed in online retailing but also apply to more traditional bricks-and-mortar businesses, the head of the demand curve is getting shorter, and the tail—made up of an ever-growing array of smaller-selling items—is getting fatter and longer. When the costs of carrying inventory are relatively low, says Anderson, "the incentive is to carry everything." We are turning "from a mass market," he argues, "into a niche nation" in which we can find exactly what we want in clothes, art, music, and food. And, quite possibly, politics, personal identity, lifestyle, and more.
Anderson's biography is as eclectic as the markets he describes in his book. Born in England in 1961 to two journalist parents (his father covered the Soviet trial of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers), he went to high school in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. He flunked out of the University of Maryland before eventually getting a degree from George Washington University and doing graduate work in physics at Berkeley and research at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. His longstanding interest in technology—"I spent my childhood at Radio Shack," he confesses—may have something to do with the fact that his grandfather invented the automatic sprinkler. Or his interest in punk and new wave music and the "do it yourself" ethic of those subcultures: As a teenager and young adult, he played in several rock bands, including one called R.E.M. (Not that R.E.M., alas, as will become clear below.)
Self-described as a "small-l libertarian," Anderson generally eschews politics ("I hate politics," he says) but is proud to note that his great-grandfather, Joseph Labadie, was one of the founders of the American anarchist movement. Yet he maintains a personal affection for former Vice President Al Gore, whom he first encountered while covering technology issues for The Economist and other publications in Washington in the late 1980s and early '90s. Anderson laments that national politics has yet to become part of the Long Tail. "I wish the system would put forward politicians that I could vote for," he says.
Anderson lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife and their four children. In August, he talked with Reason Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie about the economic, cultural, and political implications of the Long Tail. Responses can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A longer version of this interview is available online at reason.com/chris-anderson.shtml.
Reason: What's the quick version of The Long Tail?
Chris Anderson: It's about life after the blockbuster. It's what happens to our culture and economy as we shift from mass markets to millions of niche markets.
The best example of the phenomenon is the transformation of music from a Top 40, major-label phenomenon to one with an infinite number of micro-genres that are scattering the audience to the wind.
Reason: The Top 40 lives on as a statistical artifact, but it really is a kind of social nullity, right?
Anderson: Exactly. Even in Long Tail markets, you always have hits, but the dominance of the hit is now greatly reduced. Those hits now share the stage with literally millions of nonhits.
Reason: You talk about how Rhapsody, the online music service, which gets about 40 percent of its sales from—