The concept of The Long Tail entered our professional lingo when Wired editor Chris Anderson revealed in a 2004 article that Amazon.com makes more money selling the books you would have a hard time locating in any conventional high street bookstore. They still sell all the bestsellers of course, but freed from the physical limitations of shelf-space they have been able to tap into the market for more niche publications, and this has evolved into the more substantial part of their business.
The economics of the long tail are different when it comes to media. Here the bestsellers are still collectively more wealthy than all the little guys with their blogs and MySpace pages, but in terms of influence (on both propensity to purchase and on brand reputation) there has lately been a remarkable shift down the curve which has intersected with a longer-term transformation in the patterns of trust and authority in our society.
Look more closely at the micro-channels strung along the long tail of media and you can begin to see why their impact has run on ahead of the money. They are generally more connected and conversational than the established mainstream alternatives and as a result a number of important network effects come into play, which are particularly amenable to the transmission and amplification of information by word-of-mouth.
The barriers to entry for the creation of quite sophisticated content have also come down, which means that, as a group, they are just as likely to respond well to the communicators that facilitate their ability to create and control their own content, as they are to the those that continue to pump their messages down to them.
This situation presents two main problems for PR professionals. Firstly, the majority of us are still stuck in the bestseller mindset. "Who are the most influential bloggers in such and such sector?" is a question my colleagues throw at me quite regularly. Amidst all these insignificant navel-examiners, there surely must be a few stars, they surmise. Well yes there are, but the notion that a post written by a blogger with just one subscriber can still end up being extremely influential is apparently quite hard for many to grasp. (i.e. It doesn't really matter if you are Johnny One-Mate as long as that chum is separated from someone like Kevin Bacon by only a couple of degrees.)
Equally stuck in the old ways are the major search engines which use a ranking system for organising and displaying their results. Consequently, it remains comparatively difficult to track communications in the long tail of media, where hierarchy is less important than the dynamics of the network.
On a separate note, one of the reasons that I remain Facebook-sceptical is that it looks suspiciously like an attempt to surgically remove the tail from the rest of the new media beast...