The Long Tail is Strangling Me!

About a month ago, I wanted some chocolate ice cream-- not chunky chocolate nor dark chocolate chunk nor mocha frozen dessert. When we were kids, someone's Mom would say "do you want ice cream!" Then, they'd say "chocolate or vanilla?"-- milky goodness; or a liquid chocolate bar. It was great. I really do not need chocolate ice cream, so I let the wish linger for a month. Tonight I walked down to the supermarket-- one with LOTS of variety. There was every weird flavour of ice cream-- chunks of stuff and weird fruity flavours and lots of chocolate etc.. The closest I got to my childhood fave: dark chocolate frozen dessert (I am fearful when they are afraid to call it 'ice cream') and chocolate ice milk... Dejected, I opted for the chocolate ice milk and walked home.
This is where we're at today: petulence and the need to assert ourselves through branding has left us with a fragmented set of choices. Chris Anderson coined this phenomeon as "the long tail"-- the marketing trend of product variety that verges on personalization. There are so many varieties that our shelves are crowded; they're crowding out what used to be the common choices. Spoiled kids don't have to make a choice, they can just spin this big roulette wheel of options. And nowadays our society is full of children, some as old as 50 or 60. There used to be great greasy spoons with cheap, fresh black coffee. They're been muscled out by people ordering double-half-caf no-whip extra sweet lattes from Starbucks. We don't need to choose, we can get our candy when we want it and how we want it.
In my line of work, this long tail can have a danergous effect on design. I use Blogger-- by some accounts, this is the 7th most popular site. I have some set-up options for my blog, I have some variety with my blog, but the inputting screen is a WYSIWYG editor with a title field, a hyperlink field and a tagging field. It sits on the stubby thick side of long tail with a few options meant to accomodate the widest number of people. I get LOTS of calls to put in modifcations and move stuff to the left or add in something weird that is viewed as a need.
Too many choices feels as a bad having too few choices. We love that the long tail of choices gives us a fine tuned product that we can love like its our very own. All of this variety means that nobody is on the same page. Your customized web browser or personalized jeans will have quirks unique to your situation, so you're left to thrash all by yourself, choking on your long tail.


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