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The digital scholar
The digital scholar

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1.1 The tale of the tail

In March 2010 two of my network contacts (George Siemens and Dave Cormier) announced that they were running a short, free, online course about the future of the course and asked for contributions. One evening, I created a Slidecast with accompanying music for them to use. The production of this short presentation required approximately two hours’ worth of input, using images from Flickr with a Creative Commons licence. It didn't ‘cost’ anything apart from the time investment, and the technical expertise required was minimal. Perhaps more significant was a familiarity with creating these types of presentations and feeling comfortable with sharing content.

An image of a lizard with a long tail
Figure 1 The long tail

The overall reach of any one such artefact may not compare with that of traditional broadcast outputs, but collectively we may see similar levels of impact. This is a good example of Anderson's long tail (2006). Traditional broadcasting can be seen as embodying the classic Pareto principle, which suggests that 20 per cent of your products account for 80 per cent of sales or views. These are the blockbusters. But as Brynjolfsson, Hu and Simester (2007)demonstrate when products move online the concentration of sales becomes more distributed. They compared a shopping catalogue with the online version of the same products and found that ‘the internet channel exhibits a significantly less concentrated sales distribution when compared with the catalog channel, even though these two channels offer the same products at the same set of prices’. Being online encourages a more ‘long tail’ oriented set of behaviours. They further argue that as ‘search costs’ reduce, sales concentration becomes more skewed towards niche products. Search costs in this sense refer to the effort required by the individual, so the more experienced they become at searching, the more these costs decrease. This suggests that long-tail-type behaviour will continue to increase as people become more experienced at searching, evaluating and locating content that appeals to them.