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The Seductive Long Tail of the White Whale

In The Long Tail, Chris Anderson uses the “long tail” as a statistical property to suggest that businesses can make a lot of money by selling items that only a few people want. Given the ease of selling items online, eventually a near-complete inventory of all a human being desires should be available online. Such a strategy is behind the success of firms such as Amazon and Netflix.

However, recently I was thinking of another type of long tail. In the classic tale of Moby Dick, Captain Ahab obsesses over the elusive white whale. No other whale will do. He perfunctorily catches a few whales to pass the time, but his real ambition is catching the white whale. The white whale is not searching for Ahab: no, his crew member tells him “Moby-Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!” But still, Captain Ahab pushes onward, relentlessly, ignoring the advice of Starbuck to make a safe profit from other, less glamorous whales.

In an information-rich society, the temptation is indeed to chase the long tail to make the perfect haul. For example, I am considering whether to buy a tablet. However, given the already large variety of tablets, pricing, and options out there, I find myself being inspired to search ever further for the perfect tablet. Why compromise when the perfect tablet is out there? (I can sadly report that clicking on those FREE IPAD ads hasn’t worked. I was sure I was the 1000000 visitor!). As a result, I suspect my first tablet purchase will be the iPad 30.

Or, take an area which supposedly has been revolutionized by the web: dating. You’ve no doubt heard much about how personality testing and demographically-oriented sites have revolutionized dating. In older times, one might have compromised on certain features of their list. The Buddhist scientist from Liechtenstein who lives in a small town in Indiana would have eventually realized that she was unlikely to find a man with exactly similar characteristics, and might have “settled” for a farmer. I put settled in quotes, however, because search time itself exerts a cost. Is she really better off scouring personal sites with quirky names such as LiechMeansLove (groan) in search of the man who matches her unique demographic?

In general, is the search for the far end of the long tail truly a benefit, or is it a curse as we mutter to ourselves (with apologies to Sculder and Mully) “The deal is out there” while refreshing Google madly? I don’t claim that this observation is particularly novel, but I am reminded yet again of the need to satisfice (or sacrifice, if you will). For those trained in math or the sciences, we have an even greater emphasis on optimization. However, it’s those hidden, hard-to-evaluate costs that throw off even the best formulas. What costs do you think we are missing as we as customers become ever more precise in what we demand?

Also, I’d like to wish all education folk a happy return to the classroom!

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5 Responses to “The Seductive Long Tail of the White Whale”

  1. Jay on September 2nd, 2011 1:09 pm

    This blog is amazingly well done. Thanks for writing this John.

  2. Paul A. Rubin on September 2nd, 2011 4:53 pm

    One “cost” is occasional suboptimality. If we manage to find the “ideal” product, we get what fits our preconceptions, which might be inaccurate. Sometimes settling for a less than ideal product/service/date means discovering new features, new ways to do things, or a heretofore unknown predilection for redheads that winds up better than the original target solution.

  3. Nicholas DiFonzo on September 16th, 2011 9:10 am

    Great observation John. It dovetails with a finding in psychology: The tyranny of freedom. Having more choices has at least 3 downsides: the choice process is tiring, greater likelihood of regret, and paradoxically, less satisfaction with the alternative one finally settles on. Choice is not all it’s cracked up to be.

  4. Nicholas DiFonzo on September 16th, 2011 9:22 am

    The “long tail” idea reminds me of a tentative conclusion I have come to about “church shopping”: People who are searching for a church might do best to simply go the one that is closest to them geographically.

  5. sell home fast on February 20th, 2012 5:15 am

    sell home fast…

    [...]The Seductive Long Tail of the White Whale[...]…

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