The “Local Tail” Exposes What’s Hidden Right Next to Us

This is a post that I originally did back in 2005. The ideas I was talking about then are all the more relevant today. I’ve resisted the temptation to re-edit the piece, so when you’re reading it, just swap out City Search for Yelp and sprinkle in a few mentions of Facebook Places, Foursquare, hyper-local blogging and the like.

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Every once in a while someone will come up with a name and explanation for something that you’ve experienced repeatedly and know is important but can’t quite label. This happened to me just recently with Chris Anderson’s concept of the Long Tail. The core idea here is that the Internet changes many of the hit-driven business models we’ve come to take for granted. In the old physical retail world with limited shelf space, blockbuster movies dominate the video store racks and movie theaters, while best seller books account for the bulk of shelf space in bookstores. Then along come companies like Amazon and Netflix who use cheap storage and distribution, coupled with powerful user interfaces for discovering less popular titles, and boom, the whole model flips. Titles in the Long Tail, those less popular books, videos, albums, etc. that never really sold before, suddenly start selling. Maybe still not by a whole lot individually, but collectively their sales can start to rival or exceed sales of the bestsellers. This is the notion of the Long Tail.

So I’ve been thinking about the Long Tail as it relates to connecting people back with the places that they live. For kicks, let’s call it the Local Tail. The Local Tail is similar in many respects to the Long Tail.

Take news as an example, big important stories that happen at the national and international level tend to get lots of coverage by lots of media. They choke off other stories of potential interest to smaller numbers of people. So yeah, a story about the war in Iraq or a Presidential campaign is likely to bump the story about the Pez collector convention. But it also bumps the story about a particular bill that is working its way through my state legislature. No sweat. That’s what my local paper is for, and quite frequently they do carry a story like that if they’re a decent enough paper that hasn’t been gutted of its editorial staff in some buy-out and that doesn’t pull most of its stories from Reuters feeds. So far, the system works. That bill may not be getting picked up in the New York Times or Washington Post, but at least somebody is covering it. But now let’s take it down one more level. What about the stuff that’s happening in my neighborhood? Very, very interesting to me, but not really to the rest of Seattle. So my local paper doesn’t cover it. It can’t afford to; just as the corner bookstores couldn’t really afford to carry all of those titles in the Long Tail.

End of story right? No, not exactly. A few years from now; maybe quite a few years from now admittedly, but one or more of my neighbors is going to start blogging about what’s happening in our neighborhood. Seeing him or her do that might actually motivate me to post a few myself that are tied to things going on in the neighborhood. Easy enough to do, but what’s missing right now is an easy way to find them. Chris Anderson touches on the importance of discoverability toward the end of his Long Tail article but I think this is really one the critical factors behind the whole concept. Finding news that is really local just isn’t that easy right now, but Google getting into mapping services along with Amazon with its A9 search engine with mapping capabilities suggest to me that this is about to change very quickly. I would be shocked if they don’t eventually come up with solutions that make it easy to tag certain sites and individual content chunks with some sort of geo-coding. When that happens, the Local Tail will explode.

The Local Tail is likely to start with information, but my guess, and my hope is that it will not stop there. I use Bloglines for my RSS reading and I’ve noticed that since using it I’ve become way more connected with news from my local paper. We don’t get the local paper at home because it bothers me to see all that paper stacking up – usually unread. And I never really got into the habit of regularly visiting either of my two local papers. websites. But now that I get both of their RSS feeds into my Bloglines, I read them all the time. And if I had a few streams coming in from one or two neighborhood activists or even neighborhood busybodies, I’m convinced I would read those too. So the hope is that once this stuff starts being easier to discover more people will start blogging within the Local Tail about stuff too local to get picked up in mainstream media. And when that happens, we will hopefully start seeing a renewed interest in neighborhoods, and ultimately our neighbors. It’s not at all whacky to imagine. This is where you live. News about planned roadwork on your street or improvements to the nearby park really matter.

So will the Local Tail stop there with news? I don’t think so. I think it will have an impact on our civic engagement and loyalty to local businesses. Think about hearing that those nearby park improvements you heard about last month were now being scuttled and some of your neighbors were getting together to do something about it. You know no one else in Seattle’s going to do anything – too local to matter to them. It’s up to you and your neighbors. Right now, I don.t hear about most of this kind of stuff. As for local business, I think that the Local Tail has tremendous potential to shift the way we shop – particularly for services. Combine it with reputation systems like those found on eBay and more useable browsing with geo-tagging via cell phones and you start to get something very interesting. Sure, there are some impediments. While I was working at Microsoft, I was tangentially involved with its local Sidewalk business (which was sold to CitySearch) and it was tough to get local merchants to maintain their information online. But sales have a way of motivating behavior changes. Retailers will likely also find that The Long Tail trumps the Local Tail; meaning that it will be hard to compete with the inventory management advantages of sophisticated outfits like Amazon. But even that is changing. Amazon is no longer primarily about running big warehouses. They are moving into the e-commerce platform business in a big way. Imagine what happens if an when they figure out how to tie in local merchants into a distributed network of local showrooms and fulfillment centers.

The world has a very good chance of changing as we know it as we move away from monolithic, centralized information sources and service providers to a more distributed, more convenient network of the local made discoverable by the online. Long live the Local Tail.

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Special thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, which enabled me to rescue this post from my old blog. This article was originally posted March 6, 2005.

About Gideon Rosenblatt

Gideon Rosenblatt writes about the impact of technology on people, organizations and society at Alchemy of Change. He is a technologist with a background in business and social change. For nine years, Gideon ran Groundwire, a mission-driven technology consulting group, dedicated to building a more sustainable world. Prior to that, he spent ten years at Microsoft in various marketing, product development and management positions, where he developed CarPoint, one of the world's first large-scale e-commerce websites. Gideon was raised in Utah, lived and worked in Japan and China for several years, and now lives in Seattle with his wife and two boys. More details on Gideon here.
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