The 80/20 Rule Vs. The Long Tail

ML Jun 5, 2006

I find it funny that I’m making a website based on the long tail principle, when I’ve spent so much of my life almost religiously abiding by the 80/20 rule–often debating it with perfectionist friends. For the uninitiated, the 80/20 rule is applied far and wide in life, generally stating that the first 20% of most efforts results in 80% of the benefit. In the demand curve, so often discussed with the long tail, 20% of available products accounts for 80% of total sales, so when warehouse and shelf space is limited, you only want to carry the top 20%.

Well, the long tail is touted as the new shape of business, stating that there is actually seemingly infinite demand for product after that cut-off, and it can amount to a tidy sum of business indeed for those who can reach it. So while the long tail concept is making a fool out of one of my core beliefs, I am also being vindicated by the awesome popularity of agile programming frameworks, which are the living embodiment of the 80/20 rule in software. The “convention over config files” mantra is merely a euphemism “get it right for 80% of your needs/users with the first 20% of the work”… and I like it!

Bottom line: my making a few concessions, a Ruby on Rails programmer can implement circles around a C++ or Java developer, being on the third working spiral iteration, actually meeting customer needs in the real world by the time a product spec is just being completed on the other track. So, while the long tail may rule business, the 80/20 rule still has a home in rapid software development.

On an aside, I like the 80/20 rule so much that I wrote a poem for it…

The 80/20 friggn’ rule —
Gotta’ use it. It’s a tool
Reducing clutter that we pack
Into our lives to hold us back.

When goals elude and time flies past
And with each step, you’re still in last
Consider how you lost your aim
You’ll find recursive tasks to blame.

With each thing you set to do,
A hundred more come fly at you.
Until at last, you quite forget
The goal for which you had first set.

The 80/20 Rule just asks
That you should start to plan your tasks
So when you’re only one-fifth done
You could have stopped and still have won.

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