Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Long Tail

For months I've had The Long Tail on my reading list.

After reading several glowing reviews on Game Tycoon (a great blog about, roughly speaking, the business of video games run by my friend David Edery) I finally bumped it up to the top of my list. I'm glad I did.

If you have even a passing interest in: participatory culture, user-created content, 'new' economics and want to keep your finger on the pulse of what is driving the leading business thinkers these days, I highly reccomend it.

After reading, I attended my first meeting of the Montreal Business Book Club as this week The Long Tail was on the menu.

One of the points that came up in the meeting was whether we (the book club participants) had any examples of Long Tails in retail. We tossed around a few ideas and then moved on.

An idea I had while reading the book, further percolated in my head during the meeting and is partially hinted at in the following comic (borrowed from Chris Anderson's afore-linked page).

So, what if a service like the Internet UPC Database really took off and started to approach a comprehensive listing of products whose names were properly formatted.

It would be a simple matter then to use the digital camera embedded in most modern cellphones to snap a picture of the UPC of any product in a brick-and-mortar store. Use the UPC database to look up the details of the object, then from there, use the name and product information about the object to search amazon (etc) for said product.

The benefits I see to the consumer? Sometimes you just need to (or want to) go to a regular retail outlet -- try on the item of clothing, get a feeling for the weight of the tool, etc. Once done, though, if time is not of the essence, real savings can be had by purchasing said item from an online retailer. Armed with your cellphone, you could snap a photo of the UPC and quickly see what said item was priced at across a variety of online stores. If the savings was significant enough, you could complete the purchase on the spot and head home, reducing the potential of buyer remorse (given that you were able to try the item IRL) and helping to ensure you were getting the best deal.

Some stores already do something similar, but limited to their own inventory, of course. A system like this would give the power to the consumer and, theoretically, be general purpose enough to work regardless of the store in question.

How does this connect to the comic? Well, a 2.0 release could focus not only on the transactions, but also on the reports of other consumers regarding said product. Not sure which peanut butter to buy? Scan the barcodes of all the options and the tool could automatically spit out user reviews for you.


So my first real stab at starting a user-content driven service came back in 1999, when I had just started university (Computer Science at Concordia here in Montreal).

I hated it.

I hated a lot of the teachers, many of whom I felt were sub-par at best. Some were too old and didn't seem to care. Others were too young and inexperienced. Others just had what seemed like purely malicious teaching practices. I remember one prof used to write his notes on the chalkboard with his right and while he erased what he had just written with the left. If you, the student, failed to take notes in real time (at the speed he was writing) -- you missed it. He refused to go back or make any course material available before or after class.

The idea, then, was to create a website whereby students could rate their teachers, leaving comments on strengths and weaknesses. With strong enough student participation we felt we could get over the obvious opprotunity for bias. We had to pre-filter the comments and ratings to make sure students weren't abusing the system, so the site required moderators.

Profscan ( ran for a couple of years at Concordia before we had to shut it down due to a lack of time. We tried expanding it to McGill and at one point pitched it to the Canadian Federation of Students, the body that oversees all (I believe) university student unions. Our hope was that with their support we could take the service nationwide. It never panned out.

As far as we were aware, profscan was the first of its kind but certainly not the last. seems to be the big gun right now, though what happened to, I'm not sure.

Amalgamations of user-created product (or people, or places) reviews has matured and taken root on the net. comes to mind, but perhaps even more valuable is the rise (in number and in quality) of reviews on amazon -- direct on the vendors' site, rather then through an intermediary.

I haven't done an exhaustive search, but I wonder how many elements of our daily life could be improved with a 'rateyour*.*' site. Wondering what the quality of life at a potential employer is really like? check out what past and current employees have said. New school for your kids? See what past parents have said about the teachers, lunch service and school bullies. Rating restaurants and books is easy. I like to see services in this vein applied to areas that can have a greater impact on the quality of our lives and where it is sometimes hard to get the 'inside scoop'.

myspace and facebook have effectively taken this to the micro level with the online popularity contest that is the social networking site. By creative a myspace page you are effectively inviting people to rate you -- of course, few people would leave a negative myspace comment up, given that the person 'being rated' is also the moderator of the site. Myspace without moderators? For many people the page would likely be blank, or filled with extremes that lacked value. With enough traffic and participation, though, the extremes would trend to 0 while the 'truth' would (hopefully) emerge from the chaos. I wonder what Bill Gate's page would look like on my hypothetical ''?

What's in a name?

So -- first thing's first -- why the title? Too Much Imagination?

Well, I like it for two reasons. First and foremost it is free publicity for my company, Ubisoft Montreal where I currently work as a Game Producer. Check out for more information on our current nation-wide game design challenge.

For obvious reasons I won't be talking too much here about my work, for fear the communications department will close me down, but I might touch upon it from time to time if I feel I can do so in a way that doesn't disclose anything I'm not supposed to be talking about.

The second reason I like the title is because I feel it applies well to my current entrepreneurial spirit. Most of my friends now just roll their eyes when I tell them of my latest million-dollar-idea.

So, if I am doomed to think too big, or dream of ideas that I won't follow through on, I figure I can at least blog about them. Worst case scenario, I archive them for prosperity, so one day I can look back at this and have a laugh at the dreamer I was. Best case, though, I toss enough ideas out there, someone reads it, has the moxy to do something with it, and makes it stick. At least I get the satisfaction of knowing I helped start something.

Before I start, a disclaimer: not all the ideas, obviously, are good. Many have no easy business model behind them (that I can see) and almmany of them revolve, in one way or another, around the idea of participatory culture and user generated content -- a passion of mine since long before it became a buzz-word.