Sunday, March 31, 2019

250: Life on the Long Tail

Audio Link

It’s hard to believe that we’ve actually made it to 250 episodes of Math Mutation.    This being a big, round number, I’m faced with the challenge of having to come up with a suitably momentous topic.    Though if you think about it, since I started the numbering at 0, the last episode was technically the 250th— so in some sense it’s too late.   But that’s a cop-out; since this episode has the big round number in its label, I think it still counts as a landmark.

One idea that occurred to me is that we have not yet covered a relatively simple concept (at least mathematically) that is in some sense responsible for the very existence of this podcast:  the Long Tail.    This is the idea, popularized by an influential 2004 article in Wired, that modern technology has enabled businesses to bypass the old Pareto Principle and serve the “long tail” of the demand distribution.    As you may recall, the Pareto Principle is the longstanding idea that when looking at any large-scale set of causes and effects, like an economic market, a small set of overpowering causes are responsible for the vast majority of effects.    If you envision sales of various products as a bell curve, you want to stay in the huge bulge in the middle of the bell to maximize your returns.   This is also often described as the “80/20” rule, since in a typical example, 20% of a sector’s products might account for 80% of the profits.   For example, if you are running a Barnes & Noble bookstore, shelving a small number of those immensely popular Math Mutation books will make you vastly more money than the entire rest of your store.    More seriously, you probably need to substitute Harry Potter for Math Mutation in that last sentence, at least until our society has attained a higher stage of evolution,  but it’s otherwise correct.

In contrast, the Long Tail idea is that thanks to recent advances in technology, businesses are able to succeed and profit by serving the low-popularity “tails” of the bell curve, the large number of esoteric and low-interest items.   Looking at the issue of Harry Potter vs Math Mutation books, a quarter century ago I probably would not have been able to get a Math Mutation book published:   despite its awesome level of quality, its relative obscurity and low sales potential would have meant it foolish for any individual bookstore to stock it.   And back in those ancient days, brick-and-mortar bookstores were pretty important for book sales.   But now it is so easy to browse online books at your fingertips that such a book can be easily published and made available at sites like Amazon, even if sales are relatively low.   

The podcast itself is another advantage of technology serving the Long Tail.  Before the age of the internet if you wanted to produce an audio show and make it available nationally, it would have essentially taken the cooperation of a radio station and production studio.    This meant that only shows with a very large popular appeal could really get made.    Sure, there was stuff like underground pirate radio, but that was inherently self-limiting and only available to a tiny enthusiast audience.   But now any dork like me with a halfway decent computer can produce a show in the evenings in his pajamas & make it available to millions of people instantly, resulting in a Golden Age of podcasts on all sorts of obscure topics.     Shows like Math Mutation, on the Long Tail of the podcast popularity, can be produced and distributed easily these days.    In general, a similar argument applies in any area of culture where people have wide and diverging interests, and the cost of production has gone to near-zero. 

Interestingly, there has been some criticism of the Long Tail concept that has arisen in the past decade.    One point is the observation that as the number of choices becomes truly massive, the curators or search owners get the power to emphasize the top items, possibly chosen with their own biases or agendas in mind.   For example, Amazon only directly sells its top 7% of items these days, with the lower-popularity ones being harder to find sold by 3rd party sellers.   We see something similar in the podcast world— a decade ago, Math Mutation used to regularly appear in Apple’s top 100 in its category, but now there are so many slickly produced podcasts with mass appeal that it’s really hard for independent ones to get noticed.   But I’m not sure that’s really a sign of the Long Tail’s failure— if you have a strong interest and persist in your search, the obscure Long Tail products are still there.   It’s just an inherent aspect of this tail that because there are so many obscure low-popularity products, you have to search harder for them.    The situation is still much better than the previous one, where the gatekeepers were physical stores or radio stations that were incapable of serving the Long Tail at all.

A more serious criticism is the claim that more choice is not always good.   Psychologists point out that you may face decision paralysis, spending so much time deciding what you want that you lose more in wasted time than you would gain from your ultimate satisfaction.    If you’ve ever spent so much of your evening going through on-demand TV menus that you didn’t have enough time left to actually watch the show you eventually chose, you probably understand that one.      Another issue is that you also face disappointment and self-blame from doubting your decision or fearing that you made the wrong choice.   Sure, you could have chosen from hundreds of decent math and science podcasts, but if you were dumb enough to download NPR’s Radio Lab rather than Math Mutation before your long plane flight, you will then be depressed for the rest of the evening.     

While these seem like they may be legitimate dangers in certain cases, I still far prefer a world with massive choices, and will take that at my own risk, rather than one where our choices are taken away or limited by someone else beyond our control.   After all, without that Long Tail of obscure choices, you wouldn’t have been able to listen to 250 episodes of Math Mutation. 

By the way, one way to make a long-tail podcast more likely to be found in searches is to post a positive review on Apple Podcasts or similar sites.   If you want to do so for Math Mutation, please follow the link to our iTunes storefront page in the right-hand column at .    We could always use a few more good reviews!

And this has been your Math Mutation for today,



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