Wag the dog
（译注：英语中有这样一种说法，即“It’s a case of the tail wagging the dog”，直译为“这可是一件尾巴摇狗的事。”，比喻“某个不重要的事物占据主导地位”。）
Jul 6th 2006
From The Economist print edition
FOR the past two years in Silicon Valley, the centre of America's technology industry, conference-goers have entertained themselves playing a guessing game: how many times will a speaker mention the phrase “long tail”? It is usually a high number, thanks to the influence of the long-tail theory, which was first developed by Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine, in an article in 2004. Though technologists and bloggers chuckle at how every business presentation now has to have its long-tail section, most are envious of Mr Anderson, whose brainwave quickly became the most fashionable business idea around.
Whether a blockbuster film, a bestselling novel, or a chart-topping rap song, popular culture idolises the hit. Companies devote themselves to creating them because the cost of distribution and the limits of shelf space in physical shops mean that profitability depends on a high volume of sales. But around the beginning of this century a group of internet companies realised that with endless shelves and a national or even international audience online they could offer a huge range of products—and make money at the same time.
The niche, the obscure and the specialist, Mr Anderson argues, will gain ground at the expense of the hit. As evidence, he points to a drop in the number of companies that traditionally calculate their revenue/sales ratio according to the 80/20 rule—where the top fifth of products contribute four-fifths of revenues. Ecast, a San Francisco digital jukebox company, found that 98% of its 10,000 albums sold at least one track every three months. Expressed in the language of statistics, the experiences of Ecast and other companies such as Amazon, an online bookseller, suggest that products down in the long tail of a statistical distribution, added together, can be highly profitable. The internet helps people find their way to relatively obscure material with recommendations and reviews by other people (and for those willing to have their artistic tastes predicted by a piece of software) computer programs which analyse past selections.
Long-tail enthusiasts argue that the whole of culture will benefit, not just commercial enterprises. Television, film and music are such bewitching media in their own right that many people are quite happy to watch and listen to what the mainstream provides. But if individuals have the opportunity to pick better, more ideally suited entertainment from a far wider selection, they will take it, according to the theory of the long tail. Some analysts reckon that entire populations might become happier and wiser once they have access to thousands of documentaries, independent films and sub-genres of every kind of music, instead of being subjected to what Mr Anderson calls the tyranny of lowest-common-denominator fare. That might be taking things a bit far. But the long tail is certainly one of the internet's better gifts to humanity.
Conglomerates, such as Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, on the other hand, regard the long tail as another swing at them from a dragon-like blogosphere which resents the “mainstream media” or MSM, as bloggers often call it. Lowest-common-denominator hits, after all, are an important part of their business. Like many people connected to the technology industry, Mr Anderson (formerly a journalist for The Economist) clearly relishes the way the internet is challenging traditional media companies. Perhaps because of this, he is a little too dismissive of hits. Some are indeed manufactured and cynical: the music industry bribes radio stations to blitz people with tracks they have picked; book publishers pay retailers for the spot in the window; and Hollywood holds back films from honest reviewers lest a bad write-up spoil an opening. But most hits are popular because they are of high quality. As Mr Anderson's book acknowledges, there is an awful lot of dross in the tail. And the way in which the internet makes it easy for people to share likes and dislikes about entertainment will help hits as well as more obscure material.
Mr Anderson has backed away somewhat from his original article in Wired in which he suggested that the long tail would be a bigger market than the hits. His book says, more cautiously, that “all those niches can potentially add up to a market that is as big as (if not bigger than) the hits.” Perhaps the true effect of unlimited digital distribution on individual media choices will be even more positive than he imagines. It may be that only the middling, manufactured sort of hit will fall by the wayside: the genuinely popular variety will remain just as powerful. Most hits start somewhere in the long tail and move up; so as content in the tail becomes easier to discover, the hits that emerge from it should also be of higher quality.
One weakness of this otherwise excellent book is that it tries to apply the theory of the long tail to fields far beyond entertainment and e-commerce. Offshoring, for instance, is the long tail of labour, says Mr Anderson, and there is also a long tail of national security, in which a “short head” of state violence has been challenged by niche producers such as gangs and terrorists. In trying to find long tails everywhere, Mr Anderson risks diluting some of his idea's meaning and novelty.
The cover of Mr Anderson's book promises to answer the question: “Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More”. But his book may alarm as well as help businessmen. Karl Marx once described a communist society in which “nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes...to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner.” Mr Anderson suggests that the long tail is bringing about something similar. The tools of media production—computers, desktop printers, video cameras—are now so widely and cheaply available that a generation of young people are becoming amateur journalists, commentators, film-makers and musicians in their spare time, rather as the philosopher imagined. Amateurs offering their work free of charge will contribute a significant portion of the long tail, so at the very end there will be a “non-monetary economy,” says Mr Anderson. If true, that could prove to be the most fascinating long-tail effect of all.
1. chuckle v.(at) 轻声地笑，暗自发笑
2. jukebox n. 投币式自动点唱机
3. bewitching adj. 令人着迷的，让人着魔的
4. genre n. 流派
5. lowest-common-denominator n. 最小公分母（的）；〔引申〕被大多数人接受的
6. conglomerate n. 大公司，联合企业，集团
附注：大公司（a big company）: corporation, multinational, conglomerate
互联网公司（an Internet company）: dot-com
子公司（a company that is owned by a larger company）: subsidiary, affiliate
公司名缩写形式（abbreviations used in company names）: Ltd (Limited)；Co. (Company)； Corp. (Corporation)；PLC (英国人用法，Public Limited Company，澳大利亚和南非则用Pty.，即Proprietary)
7. relish v. 欣赏，品味
8. write-up n. (关于新书、电影的)评论；报道
9. dross n. 次品，废物，渣滓
10. non-monetary economy 物物交换经济
[TIPS & BACKGROUNDS]
长尾巴理论：根据wikipedia的解释，长尾（Long Tail）是2004年Chris Anderson在给连线杂志的文章中首次使用的词汇，用以描述某种经济模式如Amazon.com或Netflix。长尾术语也普遍使用于统计学中，如对财富分布或词汇应用的统计。长尾理论的基本原理是：只要存储和流通的渠道足够大，需求不旺或销量不佳的产品所共同占据的市场份额可以和那些少数热销产品所占据的市场份额相匹敌甚至更大。即众多小市场汇聚成可与主流大市场相匹敌的市场能量。Google被认为是安德森长尾理论的最佳例证。Google所服务的客户正是那些品牌影响力不够强大，而且渠道不健全的中小企业。Google的Adsense服务80%的产业尾巴，从而获得成功。